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Maurice Ashley, first black chess grandmaster, continues to give back to the game

Ashley’s focus on teaching youths in underserved communities is inspiring a new wave of chess players

An enthusiastic Maurice Ashley doesn’t miss a beat while rambling off a list of chess players he enjoys watching. Most of them were set to duke it out on chessboards in the U.S. Chess and U.S. Women’s Chess championships at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis from March 29 to April 10. Ashley, the world’s first black international chess grandmaster (GM), would serve as a commentator.

Although Ashley, 51, spoke admirably of the players he observed during the two-week competition, he is humbled that some of these very same players credit him with inspiring them to ascend to the highest ranks in chess.

“If I impacted other people who look up to me and would like to one day become a grandmaster themselves, it’s certainly humbling, and I’m appreciative of it,” Ashley said. “I didn’t have those kind of role models when I was growing up, so to be a role model now, to represent a sport and represent my family, that, to me, is absolutely a big responsibility, and I embrace it.”

One player in particular who catches Ashley’s attention is the winner of the competition. GM Wesley So of the Philippines, who represents the United States, went into last week’s championship with all eyes on him. So, the No. 1 player in the U.S. and No. 2 in the world, entered the competition with an impressive 56-game win streak.

“That’s an amazing winning streak, one of the greatest winning streaks in history,” Ashley said of So. “It’s so easy to fall off the tightrope, but this guy has been doing an amazing balancing act and showing that maybe he’s going to be world champion one day. But he’s going to try to win this title here first, the country’s national championship.”

So would go on to extend his streak and rightfully claim his title of U.S. champion for the first time after defeating 2006 U.S. chess champion GM Alex Onischuk on Monday.

Achieving grandmaster status at age 33 was a moment Ashley describes as monumental — especially since his interest in chess wasn’t exactly a lifelong passion. He has inspired a new wave of black chess players to continue climbing the ranks in hopes of becoming grandmasters themselves. Although the road isn’t always easy, especially in a game where the percentage of black chess players with titles could be higher, Ashley encourages them to keep going.

International grandmaster Maurice Ashley makes a move while playing 30 school-age children in a chess match at the U.S. Chess Center on Oct. 11, 2011, in Washington, D.C.

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images

While most masters of the game begin as early as 4 years old, Ashley spent his days in Jamaica dabbling in various games such as checkers, card games and dominoes, one of the most popular games in the island country.

“We didn’t have a lot of technology,” Ashley said. “There was no television. Television came on, but it was like 6 o’clock in the evening when the first show came on, so we learned to play a lot of games. Chess was one of those games that just was on the side, and my brother played with his friends. It was a minor game of not much interest. I kind of liked it, but I wasn’t into it because it was just a game like the rest of them.”

Ashley moved from Jamaica to New York when he was 12 years old. As a high schooler in the United States, Ashley noticed one of his friends playing the game he had temporarily tossed to the side. Although he hadn’t played in a very long time, he still remembered enough of the basics to play against his friend.

“He crushed me,” Ashley said.

Competitive by nature, Ashley was out for revenge. “He beat me, and I wanted to beat him,” Ashley said. He found himself reading books about the storied history of chess and its stars and began practicing techniques, sparking an interest in chess that hadn’t been there during his youth in Jamaica.

Ashley’s love for chess grew beyond the walls of his high school. As their passion for the game grew, Ashley and his friend began exploring the chess options available to them in New York. The two would spend their weekends at the local YMCA, competing against the experienced and inexperienced passers-by in different parks. Ashley eventually discovered a few of New York’s chess clubs and joined them too. It was the beginning of his road to achieving the highest rank in chess — and becoming the first black person to do so.

“I think that there is a challenge being different in any activity,” Ashley said. “It’s very personal as to how each individual handles it. For me, I embrace variety, diversity. … My experience has been far more one of being enriched by being able to meet all these great people in chess, and being accepted as a colleague and a fellow traveler in this game. I think that it’s important that as African-Americans, we recognize that people do accept you if you are skilled. You checkmate somebody, they know. Like, ‘I’m dropping it on you.’ They understand that. They respect that, so good moves talk.

“Obviously, there are going to be some people who have ridiculous ideas, who have outdated ideas, who might not think that a black guy’s supposed to beat them at chess. That’s not really my problem. That’s their problem.”

It’s been 18 years since Ashley earned grandmaster status, but his passion for the game never dwindled. Outside of competing, commentating and developing apps to help beginners learn chess electronically, Ashley focuses on teaching at-risk youths and those in underserved communities who are interested in learning the game. Ashley also volunteers with the Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa’s Chess Masters for Africa program that consists of structured chess training sessions in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania for 18 weeks. The program, which will run from February to June this year, will feature more than 60 local trainers providing services to more than 1,500 children across the continent.

“I’ll be going back there in June to Botswana and Zambia,” Ashley said. “The program is just amazing. To be able to give back in that way really warms my heart and just continue this legacy for me of this game that I love and it making an impact now, not only where I grew up in Brooklyn or here in St. Louis but also in someplace like the countries in Africa. It’s been a wonderful journey.”

In the game of chess, Ashley admires GM Hikaru Nakamura from White Plains, New York, whose “aggressive and sharp” style is one of the reasons he’s ranked No. 3 in the United States and No. 6 out of the active chess players in the world. There’s also Norway’s GM Magnus Carlsen, the No. 1-ranked player in the world who executes moves with precision and possesses the ability to win from any position on the board.

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.