Maurice Ashley Essay
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.
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’sChess 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.
ST. LOUIS — Maurice Ashley remembers the sounds of the gunshots and the blaring sirens that followed. He was playing chess in a Harlem park, like he did most days, and when he looked up from the board, he saw the shooters trading fire three blocks away.
Ashley moved to Brooklyn before high school in the early ’80s. His grandmother raised him and his two siblings in St. Andrew, Jamaica for ten years while his mother worked in New York, saving money until she could afford to bring the family to the States.
Ashley is telling the story more than three decades later as he sits in the plush lobby of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. While some of the details have faded, he’s sure about one thing: He didn’t leave his game when the shootout began. Neither did any of the hustlers he was playing (yes, money was on the line). They just continued moving pieces, talking the kind of trash most commonly heard on a basketball court, not over a game whose national championship is played in silent, indoor rooms.
“Oh, please, the guys at the park would talk about your mama, about how stupid your moves were,” Ashley says. “They’d ask if you had a sister they could date. They’d say anything, some of the stuff I can’t even repeat — it was hyper-aggressive stuff you get from being in the streets of Brooklyn.”
Ashley wears an immaculately pressed, light gray three-piece suit with a blue, plaid tie that’s a shade lighter than his shirt. He speaks with his hands when he talks, twisting his wrist and holding his palm up as he makes a point, often gesturing at imaginary figures on imaginary walls.
The gesturing makes sense, given that, after a career on the world circuit as a chess grandmaster, Ashley now serves as the commentator who deciphers moves on a virtual board for the U.S. Chess Championships. He’s in St. Louis in April to call the two-week-long tournament — featuring 7-hour games — just as he has for the past seven years.
But this year, he’s also there for another reason. He’s being inducted into the Chess Hall of Fame. He’ll be the first African American to bear the honor, just as he was the first to become a grandmaster in 1999.
Ashley first got into chess by accident — he sat down to play a friend one day in Brooklyn and was surprised at how easily the friend won. Ashley then went to the library and took out a book on chess. But even after reading it, he lost again. From there, Ashley became both determined to beat his friend and obsessed with the game. After graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School, he went on to the City College of New York, where he joined the chess team and majored in creative writing.
Since his days playing in the park, Ashley never considered a career path other than becoming a Grandmaster someday. He described it as a calling rather than a choice.
As for the milestone of becoming the first African American to have his picture on the wall in the Chess Hall of Fame, Ashley says it’s only a big deal because of what it means for the future.
“It’s important that you have a first only because it implies that they’ll be a second, and a third, and fifth, and a tenth,” he says. “To attach anything else to it is really more like a societal assessment and characterization of something. It’s my blessing to be able to forge a new path and to open up opportunities and to break down barriers of the mind.”
Ashley has made it his mission to break down barriers of circumstance. He’s been doing so since the 1980s by bringing what he described as the historically very white, very male game of chess to underprivileged kids in inner-city schools. Three of his New York City teams have won national championships. He also has programs in New Jersey, Baltimore, and Richmond. After Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson in 2014, Ashley teamed up with the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis and the non-profit Ascension to start a program called Your Move Chess in schools there.
Ashley firmly believes that even if kids don’t rise to the same prominence within elite chess that he did, the analytical thinking and problem-solving skills developed by the game will allow kids to excel beyond the board.
Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Warm and charismatic, Ashely is as compelling in person as he is on his broadcasts. In addition to his duties as commentator and coach, he also organizes his own chess tournament in Atlantic City, has built a successful chess app, written several books, and tours as a motivational speaker. He commentated the 1996 and 1997 matches between IBM’s Deep Blue and Grandmaster Garry Kasparov. Actress Jada Pinkett Smith gave her husband, Will Smith, a three-hour lesson with Ashley for Valentine’s Day in 2000.
“I’ve got to get downstairs,” Ashley suddenly says, looking at his watch and raising his eyebrows. “We could talk forever, but I have games to call.”
Standing up, Ashley smoothes the front of his jacket, then jogs down the steps to the basement. The actual tournament, as well as the U.S. Women’s Championship (women are eligible to play in the highest division, but none qualified) is taking place upstairs, in a room set with six chess boards. The TV crew that broadcasts the tournament is working out of a windowless room filled with desks, microphones, and monitors in the bottom of the building.
A small room next door features an elaborate set from which Ashley and two other chess grandmasters, Yasser Seirawan and Jennifer Shahade, are announcing the games. It looks like the set of an ESPN show, but the graphics on the screens are of queens and kings. Shahade and Seirawan provide the desk commentary, while Ashley stands in front of a screen and deciphers specific moves.
A producer counts down, and the broadcast is live. Shahade and Seirawan give an intro before play begins, and then it’s over to Ashley, whose face lights up as he begins to describe the moves.
“This is a crazy first round, there is fire on the board,” he exclaims. “We’ve never seen anything like this before!”
He moves pawns around on a touchscreen behind him, part weatherman, part John Madden. According to the Chess Club, millions of chess fans around the world tune into the webcast, and it’s not hard to see why: Ashley is so dynamic that you get swept up in the action, which, this day in St. Louis, seems to be mostly that the sixth-best player in the world, Hikaru Nakamura, has just done something exceedingly stupid (Nakamura would end up slipping in the final rounds to place third, behind Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana. This year, Caruana would win his first national title at the age of 23).
But when you step back from Ashley’s thrilling commentary, you remember that the action is two men, brows furrowed, wearing ill-fitting suits as they play chess in a completely silent room.
It’s a far cry from a raucous Brooklyn park.
To get into the room where the play actually happens, a security guard with an electronic wand pats you down to make sure you’re not smuggling in a phone, lest you somehow try to help players cheat. No one is allowed to speak during the games. All you can hear is the dull clunking of pieces being placed on squares and the following click of the timer that players must hit after each move.
You could easily mistake the players for a performance art exhibit in a museum. They sit impossibly still, cordoned off by those retractable borders that keep you from touching the paintings. Many of the 12 men, some of them boys, really, at 15-year-old, hold their heads in their hands, thumbs on their temples like vises.
The most movement comes when a player silently gets up from the board while his partner contemplates his next move. During these sojourns, they examine other games or take food from a table that looks like it’s set for high tea. Small sandwiches, cheese plates, fruit cups, homemade protein bars, mixed nuts, and many different types of soda are laid out in geometric patterns. If you were, hypothetically, to snatch a handful of nuts, you would be approached by the arbiter—referee, essentially—who would break the no-talking rule to whisper to you that the food is only for the players. You would be ashamed.
Three of the top ten chess players in the world are in this room, the first time that many Americans have been in the international elite all at once. Ashley described it as “an epic event.”
None of the players in the room are women. And none of them are black.
“Chess was historically very white,” Ashley says. “The fact that I was the first African-American to become a Grandmaster in 1999 illustrates that whole history.”
At 3 o’clock the day before the tournament, 14 or so seventh grade girls trickle into a classroom at the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls in North St. Louis.
A teacher passes around checkered plastic mats, plastic baggies filled with chess pieces, and sheets of paper with the strategy the girls are supposed to focus on that day. Various sequences of moves in chess have specific names, such as the King’s Gambit, the Double Attack, or the Sicilian Defense. The girls waste no time setting up the boards and beginning to move the pieces around.
The girls are participants in the program that Ashley launched in St. Louis in conjunction with the Chess Club and Ascension.
“For me, it’s a great honor to be able to do that,” Ashley says. “This program has been such a godsend to the community here. Ferguson has a certain stigma because of what happened to Mike Brown, but those little kids growing up there don’t care about that stuff. They just want to try to be successful.”
Ashley says that more and more African American communities are embracing chess, so he thinks it’s only a matter of time until that’s reflected in the elite levels of the game. But even though most of the kids in Ashley’s programs statistically won’t become grandmasters, chess can help some of them grow.
“The kids don’t just learn chess,” says Jennifer Andrade, the principal at Walnut Grove Elementary, another one of the schools to take up the program. She’s speaking by phone, and you can hear the bustle of the hallways in the background.
This program has been such a godsend to the community here. Ferguson has a certain stigma because of what happened to Mike Brown, but those little kids growing up there don’t care about that stuff. They just want to try to be successful.
“They learn cooperation, they learn teamwork, they learn strategy,” Andrade continues. “They also learn how to do a little trash-talking, but in a positive, good sportsmanship way. What it’s done is just lifted them.”
Andrade says that parents have gotten into the game, too. Some joke with her that it’s become a problem, because they play chess with their kids instead of, oh, say, making dinner and doing the dishes.
“We’ve made a change. A positive change. I attribute it directly to chess, and all of that happened because of Grandmaster Ashley.”
The Walnut Grove Chess Club watched the U.S. Chess Championships this year, and Andrade says she’s never had kids turn in their field trip forms so quickly. Ashley has also matched the club up with a program in Switzerland, and the kids are now pen pals. They’ll soon be playing online matches with their peers across the ocean.
Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Back in the Hawthorn classroom, the teacher passes out graham crackers. Most of the students don’t open the packages immediately, too engrossed in their games.
“That was so dumb!” says Jayla. She laughs and shakes her head at her own mistake as she lost her white queen to her opponent Candace’s black knight.
It’s notable that the 13 and 14 year olds playing chess in this classroom are girls. According to the U.S. Chess Federation, 20 percent of chess players below the age of 10 are female. By age 12, that percent drops to 15. By age 18, less than nine percent are women.
Perhaps the girls at Hawthorne represent hope for keeping more women involved in the game. Hannah says she likes chess because she wants to be challenged. Jasmine says she likes it because she’s competitive. And while Jayla and Candace say that the only people they play outside of school are boys, they always win.
“I don’t think they think a lot,” Jayla says. “Those dumb moves I just did? They do moves like that the whole game.”
Using chess to change lives has worked.
Francis O. Idehen, Jr. attended Deerfield, an elite boarding school in Massachusetts. He got his undergraduate degree at Yale. He then secured a coveted job on the Goldman Sachs trading desk, where he worked for a few years before earning his MBA at Harvard Business School. After a series of high-level jobs in the world of banking and corporate America, he was recently named the treasurer of the Exelon Corporation, the largest utility company in the nation. He lives with his wife and two kids in Chicago.
But before all of those degrees and impressive titles, he was a poor kid growing up in New York City. Idehen’s parents moved the family from Nigeria in the 1980s at the height of the crack epidemic in Harlem. Everywhere you went, you could find trouble, whether of your own volition or because you ended up on the wrong block at the wrong time.
We’ve made a change. A positive change. I attribute it directly to chess, and all of that happened because of Grandmaster Ashley.
“Being forced to brave these elements on the 8-block walk from home on 121st Street to school on 129th was like going to the jungle every day,” he says.
Idehen witnessed countless fights and robberies, and stabbings, shootings, and murders lurked around every corner. But what kept him going was knowing that, at lunchtime, he’d get to play chess under Ashley’s tutelage.
“He opened us up to an entire realm of life with a respect to analytical thinking that gave us an opportunity to escape, even if only for an hour a day, the dire circumstances we lived in,” Idehen says.
Idehen was on the first team of kids, called the Raging Rooks, that Ashley coached to the junior high national chess championship in 1991. Idehen said he was the worst one on the team, and almost didn’t make the cut. Ashley picked him over another kid who was at about the same skill-level, perhaps due to Idehen’s maturity. Or maybe because of his studious nature. Idehen isn’t sure what it was that made Ashley, then a young man, put him on the team. He’s just forever grateful that he did.
Courtesy of Maurice Ashley
Idehen credits chess with his success almost entirely. He says the kind of thinking that the game fostered allowed him to deal with being an inner city kid on scholarship (which chess helped him secure) at a preppy boarding school. He used the lessons chess taught him to “devise a strategy for survival.” And when it comes to his career in business, Idehen says that his ability as a trader and high-level corporate executive is firmly rooted in his time as a chess player.
He isn’t the only one chess has helped. Many of Ashley’s students have gone on to attend top colleges and have successful careers like Idehen, and Ashley keeps in touch with most of them.
“He knew me when I was a boy,” Idehen says. “We’re talking 25 years ago. This is a man who knows me, in certain respects, better than my own family. He saw me, as a literal boy, grow into a man. I have a very fond place in my heart for him.”
Idehen makes sure his two boys play chess. He says they love the game.
The night before the championships, Ashley stands at a podium in a huge, lush greenhouse in the middle of a park in St. Louis. He’s just been inducted into the Chess Hall of Fame, and his picture now hangs on the same wall as Bobby Fischer’s. The honor is surreal.
“Who dreams that big?” he’d wondered aloud before the ceremony.
The crowd before him, a who’s-who of the chess world, listens raptly as he speaks after the bang of a gavel makes his induction official.
Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Camera flashes go off and shutters click. Ashley pauses and looks out at those seated in front of him. He finds his family in one of the middle rows and smiles. He thanks his mother for the sacrifices she made, saying that now, as a parent himself, he understands how painful it must’ve been to leave her children behind, even though it was to make them a better life. He thanks his siblings for being champions in their own right — his sister Alicia has won five World Champion Boxer titles, and his brother Devon is a three-time World Champion Kickboxer. He thanks his kids — his daughter Nia graduated from Barnard this spring, and his son Jayden is 14 — for their love and support.
“Thank you to the committee for considering a young kid from Jamaica and Brooklyn, who is a rose that grew from the cracks in the concrete,” he says.
He pauses. There’s one last group of people he has to acknowledge, but they aren’t in the building. They’re hundreds, even thousands, of miles away, flung across cities and decades.
“And I’m here to thank all those kids that I’ve coached,” Ashley says. “All those roses growing from concrete as well, who just want a chance to live their passion and be great.”
Watch the world's best chess player destroy Bill Gates in just nine moves
Trash-talking in chess exists and it’s amazing to watch
This exhilarating game of speed chess might make you dizzy
Chess, Grandmaster, Longform, maurice ashley, Chess