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Keys to Life Inside Lawrence Carpenter’s West End Barber Shop/Chess Gym

Lawrence Carpenter, a barber and owner of U R Nex Barbershop in Birmingham’s West End community, teaches how the game of chess can be equated to life lessons. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)
By Keisa Sharpe-Jefferson
The Birmingham Times

Chess isn’t something that Lawrence Carpenter just plays—he lives the game and delights in teaching it to others, especially young adults.

Not only is he a barber and owner of U R Nex Barbershop in Birmingham’s West End community, but he also understands how the game of chess can be equated to life lessons.

“To set a goal, there’s always a first step—stopping and understanding what’s going on,” he said. “Anytime we’re making a first step in life, it’s like making a first step in chess with the pawn. … The pawn always makes the first steps. It’s the first line of defense.”

“Everyone in life plays chess with everyday moves, we just didn’t know we were playing. That’s my purpose in life—to share that and let people find out the benefits of playing chess in life,” added Carpenter, who has taught chess for Birmingham City Schools over the past two summers and had a contract to teach chess at a Bessemer nonprofit this past school year.

The 41-year-old learned how to play chess later in life, at age 25, and its lessons have been ingrained ever since. A female friend introduced him to the game, and, although they don’t regularly communicate now, he’s forever grateful for what she left him with.

The Six Life Lessons

“At all different times of life, one of those six pieces [in the game of chess] will help get you through a situation,” said Carpenter. “That’s what I’m trying to share with people.”

The pawn, he said, represents embracing your small steps, or hidden talents while “the king represents the goal, and the queen is your power, or actual talent,” he explained.

The bishop represents how you get to the goal and requires agility, or the ability to keep moving even when adversity comes. The rook represents solidarity in life, he said: “You must know what you’re standing on. It is not a time to be afraid or tuck your tail.”

The knight, Carpenter said, is when you have emotional balance. Its significance is that “it moves unlike any other pieces. It moves in coordinates, … and I believe it represents our emotions. People never see emotions coming, … and these can take us to another level, keep us stagnant, or take us backward if we don’t control them.”

Carpenter explained that it’s not just about the game, but the life lessons he extracts from the pieces.

“I want people to understand that just because society made a move, it doesn’t mean you can’t make your move,” he said.

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A Natural

After being introduced to chess by his female friend, Carpenter said he was a natural.

“I became good by playing over 2,000 games online and also finding people to play against me,” he said. “[Chess is really] just the process of loving to think and knowing that everything starts with a reason.”

Carpenter said he would describe his level of expertise as “mediocre,” considering he hasn’t had a teacher.

“If I put effort into trying to be good, I really could be,” he said. “But I’m not real big on having to beat you in the game. I am more interested in what I’m learning from it.”

One lesson he applies directly to his family.

“I started playing the heaviest before and right after my son, [now 7], was born,” said Carpenter. “I wanted to make moves to have a great relationship with my son’s mom, whether we have the traditional marriage or not. I related to my family in this life lesson from chess: one bad move and you can lose the game. The best way I can be a great father is to make each day, or each step [in the game of chess], count.”

His barbershop, U R Nex, located at 3100 Beulah Ave. SW, has been a West End fixture for nearly 20 years. Inside, Carpenter said, it’s set up for people to play chess at different levels.

“There is a life-size chess gym on the floor to teach people to play individually,” he said. “For casual players, there are chessboards set up on each side of the shop.”

And for those who are extremely serious about the game, there are individual tables set up to win prizes.

“I can personally teach somebody to play, others can play just to have fun, and someone who thinks they’re the best can play for a prize. People in all three of those groups can play chess in my shop,” he said.

Future Aspirations

On National Chess Day, October 14, Carpenter hosted his first two tournaments at his shop. They took place over two days: October 14 and October 29.

As far as next steps, Carpenter now offers individual lessons. “Thirty minutes for $25. I will give you a T-shirt to either play me or learn from me for 30 minutes. As fast as we learn the game, we go from there.”

Carpenter also plans to put his six lessons in a book and offer an online class. At some point, he said, “I want to be able to cut hair for free while playing chess at the same time. I want to work on sharing chess with all homes in at least this neighborhood in the southwest side of Birmingham.”

Another vision he has is to work on an app for people who want to play chess to meet up in person. He’s also an affiliate with one of the largest chess apps in world—www.chess.com, which is linked directly to his site, chesswarsofskill.com.

Though his 7-year-old plays the game, Carpenter doesn’t want to “force it on him,” he said.

“Last year, on National Chess Day, [my son and I] went to our first tournament in Hoover, [Alabama], at the Riverchase Galleria [shopping mall],” he added. “I’m just trying to get him to see the life lessons in it and make small processes count.”

Chess has changed his mindset, and that’s the gift he wants to share with others, Carpenter said.

“I want people to be aware of the powerful thoughts they can create. … [I want them to] remember, ‘You can either conquer your goal or live someone else’s dream,’” he said.

Humble Beginnings

Carpenter grew up in a home in West End with eight people, including his mother and father, three cousins, his sister, and a nephew.

His knack for business showed up early. He would ask his mother for a weekly haircut, instead of every two weeks. So, when he was 11, she bought hair clippers and threatened to cut his hair herself. The young Carpenter, instead, took matters into his own hands. Literally.

“I started practicing for about a year, and then I started cutting hair,” he remembered. “I got my first $2 from my first client and the second person’s hair I cut, and I still cut his hair to this day.”

Carpenter has great memories of growing up in West End. “All of us kids were always doing things together, we even got in trouble together,” he said. “And my mom would always invite kids to the house and show them hospitality. Indirectly, she was playing chess because she was trying to find out who their parents were. She was using psychology. That’s the level of chess in life she was playing.”

When he was 15 years old, Carpenter told his parents he would open his own barbershop—and he made good on that promise.

After graduating from West End High School in 2000, he went to work at Etheridge Brothers Barber and Style, where he cut hair until 2003. Then, from 2003 to 2004, he worked at Perfect Finish salon. In 2005, he opened U R Nex Barbershop, which has been at the same location on the west side of Birmingham for nearly 20 years.

“I got a barbershop at 25, but at the age of 15, that’s when I was setting up [my first] steps, mapping out my strategy, like a pawn in the game of chess,” said Carpenter.

To sign up for a chess class or play chess with Lawrence Carpenter, visit chesswarsofskill.com.