Maurice Ashley is a name that is synonymous with chess in this country. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., started playing at age 14 and by 20, he had become a national master, eventually moving up the ranks to expert, master, senior master and, in 1999, to the title of International Grandmaster, the first African-American to do so.
Ashley has also always had a passion for teaching chess and started coaching teams in the Harlem and New York’s South Bronx during his ascension to superstar. “Chess is an exciting game in and of itself, but on top of that, I really wanted to teach them and get them excited,” Ashley told EBONY in a 1999 interview.
These days, the grandmaster is continuing his mission as a chess educator in addition to working as one of the game’s most-sought after commentators and will call plays at the 2017 U.S. Chess Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. At last year’s tournament, he was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.
EBONY caught up with Ashley once again to get the latest on what he’s been up to—and to find out his thoughts on chess as a trash-talking game.
EBONY: You’re an ambassador of chess. At this point, you’ve elevated the game and probably introduced it to thousands of African-Americans. What move–no pun intended–are you plotting now?
Ashley: I’m currently teaching chess three times a week at Automotive High School in Brooklyn, and also the Police Athletic League [PAL] after school with third and fourth graders and a middle school, so I’m pretty much spread out across the educational spectrum of bringing the game to [mostly] African-American children. I’m also working with the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis to [come up with] a curriculum that will develop thousands of kids in their program. They’re in over 100 schools now, so that scholastic program is extremely strong. We’re really trying to standardize chess in a way that could make it a subject in school on a daily basis. That’s an important project for us, and I’m happy to be a part of that team.
I’m always doing the commentary for the big chess events, [and] the U.S. Championship begins [this] week. It’s one of the most anticipated championships in recent memory because you have three of the top six players in the world [participating]. So I’ll be doing that, and the next week I’ll be a part of the Grand Chess Tour that goes around the world to bring the top players on the planet, including world champion Magnus Carlsen and these three players as well to battle for the Grand Chess Tour title.
In addition to that, I’m part of another initiative called Chessmasters for Africa, and it was an idea I worked on with the Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa. I really wanted to make a difference, so I spoke to Graham Jurgensen, the head of the Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa, and we came up with an idea to bring strong chess trainers to help train the trainers in Africa and bring materials as well.
I hear you’ve been going to Ferguson, Mo. and other places to introduce the game. What are kids really learning other than openings and endgames these days?
Ashley: I was in my classroom at the PAL center [with] my third graders and fourth graders. I asked them, “How many of you here have lost at something?” I had my hand up, of course, and there was a group leader who had his hand up; there was a center director who had her hand up; and all the kids had their hands up. I said, “All of us here have lost at something.” Then I said, “You think this is a room with a bunch of losers?” “No!” the class shouted in unison. I said, “That’s right. Just because you lose doesn’t mean you’re a loser, and champions don’t quit. You knock us down, we get back up.” And that’s just a small lesson. Some might say it’s a large lesson, but it’s a sliver of the number of lessons you can learn when you play chess.
I guess you can learn in other sports as well, but chess has the advantage of being a mental game. So you learn to be tougher, you learn to think your way out of problems, you learn to plan and concentrate. You playing chess well is just a reflection of your inner thought process and your ability to maintain discipline throughout; that’s something we want them to translate for their lives. If we can teach every child that, then we’ve taught them to be better people, better friends and better citizens.
Do you find that a lot of the kids are sticking with the game when they get a grasp of it?
Ashley: Chess is one game of many options that kids have, so I’m not really concerned about whether they become international masters and international grandmasters. [Those titles] would be for the very serious ones who want to devote themselves to chess, and 99 percent of the kids are never going to become title players. That’s perfectly fine because we’re not teaching them chess for that reason.
So if the kids get a good grasp of what the main lessons are for chess after two or three years of staying with the game, then you’ve given them brain food and you’ve given them a skill that can last them a lifetime. Most people are not taught a systematic approach to making good decisions. Very rarely do you find a subject that basically says, “OK, here’s the deal: You’re going to learn how to think. You might learn a subject. But for someone to [essentially] say, “I’m going to teach you how to think better and how to even examine your own thinking process as though you’re an outsider,” that’s what we do with chess.
What was the journey like from learning the game as a kid to being the grandmaster you are now?
Ashley: Well, when I grew up, chess in the ’hood was a different kind of thing. You had to go into parks to find a game; I had to go to the chess clubs in Manhattan to find players I could really sharpen my sword against.
Nowadays, it’s very different because you can go online and find a game anytime day or night. There’s easy access to everything and everybody, and if you have the resources, you can pretty much get any grandmaster to train you. That’s not something I had; I had to really do it the hard way. Today, you talk to kids about books and they almost want to run away because they’ve got computers, iPads and all that, while we had to actually sit down and crack the books open and go line by line to try to learn all that stuff.
It was a challenge for me when I was trying to become a grandmaster because I also had a life. I was already a professional. I was already finished with college and even had started a family, so it was its own journey. Times have definitely changed with Internet access and databases, and computers have definitely changed the game.
You’re going to be at the U.S. Chess and U.S. Women’s Championship from now until April 10 is that correct?
Ashley: Yes, it’s quite a long tournament. [There is] one game a day, and there are 12 participants from all over the country. We have the reigning champions who are going to be playing, Fabiano Caruana, who is the No. 3 player in the world. He might lose his title to Wesley So, who has just taken the chess world by storm in the past six months. He’s winning everything in sight! I think he’s got an unbeaten streak of 56 games, which is starting to rival some of the all-time greats. This guy is proving to be almost unbeatable and could be a likely challenger to world champion Magnus Carlsen. That alone is going to be an epic matchup for us to watch as they try to demolish the field before they play each other.
With all these world-class players emerging, do you find there is a presence of emerging African-American coming to the world stage like this?
Ashley: Actually, no. That is a sore point for me because we have some [exciting] young players who are coming up. We have Justice Williams from the Bronx, who is actually now going to Webster University in St. Louis. He just became an international master. I don’t think he got as much noise around that as he should have. He’s got great potential to become an international grandmaster, but it’s not clear that he will. He’s a college student, so he’s got to get his degree and be thinking about a job soon.
Frankly, if I get a bunch of intelligent African-American youngsters who are good chess players, I’m advising them to make sure they get a college degree, make sure they have a job lined up, make sure they have ideas about what business they want to own. I want them to think in practical, pragmatic financial terms. I had a student who was a day trader on Wall Street and now is part of a financial firm in Chicago, and he credits chess as something that trained him to do his business. He learned that as a teenager, and he wasn’t even one of the top guys on my team. So the real goal we have for chess is to show its benefits intellectually. To show and train kids to think better, to analyze better, to make better decisions. Once we have that, we’re successful.
You have a chess trash-talking video out there. Most of us know trash talking on the basketball court or even while playing spades or dominoes. What kind of trash do you talk around a chess board?
Ashley: Hey, if you’re in the park playing chess, then you know people are going to talk trash; brothers are definitely going to talk trash. I grew up playing in the park and, man, you better not bring your feelings to the chess table because you’re going to be licking some wounds; it’s going to be ugly. But that’s what I grew up with. So playing in Washington Square Park against that hustler (in the video), I was trying to be nice, but he started right away. I asked him his name; he didn’t even want to know my name. Unlucky for him he didn’t want to know my name in the beginning of the video because then maybe he would have realized what he was up against. As soon as we started playing, he just came right at me and started trying to throw my game off. He did not know that I was schooled by the best trash talkers back in the day.
For those of us who want to improve our game so we can trash talk in the park, what kind of moves can we make for a winning game? The dudes in the park have my game read in, like, four moves.
Ashley: I would advise you not to play against the park hustlers because they’re good. But as far as learning chess these days, it’s very, very easy to get the basics down. There are a lot of [basic] books for those who don’t mind reading chess books. I have one out there myself called The Most Valuable Skills in Chess. There’s so much software out there. As a matter of fact, I have an app called “Learn Chess with Maurice Ashley” players can check out that shows the basics from the moves, basic strategy and also lots of puzzles to expand your thinking and definitely that four-move checkmate you won’t fall for after you hear my video on the four-move checkmate. There are lots of resources out there now that people can go to and learn from.