Fisrt Black Chess Grandmaster

By Ewey, Melissa | Ebony, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Fisrt Black Chess Grandmaster


Ewey, Melissa, Ebony


From Jamaica to Brooklyn, Maurice Ashley climbs to the top of his game

THE best of the best gathered from Russia, Europe, the Far East--and Brooklyn, U.S.A.--to take part in international combat. The competition was fierce, but the Black man from Brooklyn didn't break a sweat. One by one, he conquered his opponents with fierce determination and incredible skill. When it was over, 33-year-old Maurice Ashley became the first Black chess grandmaster in history.

Not bad for a guy who wasn't good enough to play on his high school chess team.

"I played chess for three hours every day at school," he recalls, "then I went home and studied chess books for a few more hours. I still didn't qualify." That disappointment was merely a bump in Ashley's road to the top. Today, he is one of the world's highest-ranked players, and his influence as a coach has encouraged many underprivileged youths to embrace the game.

Ashley is one of 470 grandmasters in the world, the highest title in chess short of world champion. To become a grandmaster, a player has to score high performance ratings, known as "norms," in three tournaments against top-rated chess players. This is no easy task, and most chess players spend a lifetime attempting to reach that level. Considering that Ashley picked up the game of chess at a relatively late age, his achievement is all the more remarkable.

As a child growing up in Jamaica, chess was just one of the dozens of games Ashley played with his siblings. It wasn't until his family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., that he began taking the game seriously.

"I was in the 10th grade and playing chess with a friend of mine," Ashley recalls. "I'm a very confident and competitive person, and I tend to win most of the games that I play, so I was sure I could beat him. He crushed me. I was so stunned. I didn't have a chance from the beginning."

While recovering from that embarrassing defeat, Ashley stumbled across a book on chess at the library. "Maybe at the time I was thinking revenge, like I could learn some things and go beat that guy," he says, "but instead, I was amazed. The whole majesty of the game, the strategies, plans and ideas ... I just jumped in headfirst and fell in love. "Chess is life or death," Ashley continues. "The pieces are alive ... [but] what actually happens on the chessboard is about 1 percent of the game. It goes on in the heads of the opponents, at almost a psychic level, and that's what makes it so absolutely intense. To me, it's like the golf shot that wins the Masters, or like Michael Jordan taking the last shot to win the NBA finals. Chess has that kind of intensity from the first move."

Although he couldn't play for his high school team, Ashley began to play on his own in local tournaments. "I was nothing in the game," he recalls. "I was this guy who didn't make his high school team, dreaming of becoming a grandmaster." Ashley lost his first game, but quickly recovered. His chess success continued in college, where his ranking jumped from expert to master to senior master. He also played frequent games with members of the Black Bear School of Chess, an informal group of Black men who gathered in Brooklyn's Prospect Park for heated chess matches.

Ashley's prowess caught the attention of the American Chess Foundation, who asked him to coach chess teams in Harlem and the south Bronx neighborhoods of New York City. His passion for the game quickly inspired his young students. "They just started eating up my intensity and my love for the game," says Ashley. "Chess is an exciting game in and of itself, but on top of that, I really wanted to teach them and get them excited."

His first team, the Raging Rooks of Harlem's JHS 43, stunned the chess establishment when it won the national championship in 1991. "These were not kids who had chess tutors when they were 5 or 6 years old," Ashley explains. "They had only been playing chess for a couple of years, and they defeated the top private schools in the nation. …

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