The Brooklyn tenement where Maurice Ashley moved after leaving Jamaica with his family, didn’t appear to be fertile ground for greatness. Neighborhood violence was commonplace and he was becoming increasingly bored with school.
But the discovery of a chess book in his school library proved to be the key to his life’s passion and saving grace. In 1999, he became the first and only African American International Grand Master of Chess, indicating mastery on par with the greatest athletes in history. He’s been a frequent guest on television shows including The Charlie Rose Show, CBS News, and more, while his fans include Wynton Marsalis and Will Smith.
Ashley, who lives in New York, has visited Richmond several times this year. He’ll return in July to run a chess camp for school children to be held at Maymont Park.
Opinionated yet warm, Maurice Ashley tells you in his own words why he might be the most likely to get a thumbs down from American Idol, and why he’s the least likely to care.
Destiny from Defeat
I played this friend and he completely crushed me. It wasn’t even close. I couldn’t understand why that was. I happened to be in the library at school and I saw a chess book. I opened the book and I just immediately fell in love. I took it home, learned everything in the book, and I came back and played him and he crushed me again. It turns out that he had read like ten chess books already. That’s when I realized that the person who has more knowledge is often the one who is more successful and that books have power. From then I kept buying more books, bugging my parents for books and I really just played all the time.
Shoulders of Giants
I can’t compare any of the issues in my life with those that another hero of mine Jackie Robinson had to face. I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. The thing I was taught by my mother was that race is never an impediment. It didn’t matter what other people thought about you. It mattered what you thought about yourself. I always had this focus that I was going to be an International Grandmaster. I was going to be a great chess player and nothing could stand in my way, certainly nothing as trivial as race. As much as people try to make it a big deal, we’re all fundamentally human at the core. I think I had it easy, frankly, considering how many things happened in the past. To be born after the Civil Rights generation as a beneficiary of all those struggles is a great blessing. There were incidents, but I would call them minor, basically having to do with being a black man in a country with a legacy of racism. There was nothing that serious that it could possibly have held me back.
One interesting thing about how I think is that I always have a very big vision. I look at life in a very grand way. I’m always shooting for the moon. I believe in the possibility and the potentiality of people. It’s very important to me to inspire others to be their best, to be great, especially young people. It’s easy to say they’re the future, but they are. I remember myself as a young man in Jamaica when we struggled just to make ends meet. I remember going to school barefoot, or when I had “talking shoes,” as we called them. The soles were falling off the bottom. They looked like they had mouths, like they talked. Growing up under those conditions, I couldn’t really have imagined I’d end up where I am today. I feel totally blessed. I extend that kind of gratitude to every moment. So I always look to inspire others in the same way. There’s this universe out there. We’re not even limited by this earth. The stars are our inheritance. We should always look to be as bold in our vision as possible.
The mission of the Maurice Ashley Foundation is to support intellectual excellence in our communities. I believe that’s something that has gotten short shrift. We put a lot of emphasis on entertainment and sports, and we’re struggling to find our niche as far as intellectual excellence as a standard in our community, for all our kids so they can start getting A’s and B’s and do less thinking about bouncing basketballs and getting on American Idol. I’m really proud of that.
Chess for Living
There are so many benefits of the game in terms of concentration and focus, goal setting, problem solving, self esteem. It teaches things like deferred gratification, to not go for the first thing, but to stop and be patient. The game is a discipline for life. I’ve taught students who went on to Yale, Harvard, NYU, Princeton, and Vassar, University of Michigan. And I’m talking about kids from challenging circumstances who’ve been able to catapult from a game like chess into the stratosphere. It’s just wonderful to see that for younger folk.
“To the Stars Through Aspiration”
It’s never over until it’s over. And even then, it ain’t over. Adversity is an opportunity to build yourself, to dig down deep, to learn more about yourself as a person. There’s no challenge too difficult to overcome. Every challenge, even mountainous ones, you can find a seed of opportunity to build on. Losing is nothing. I call myself a great loser because I learn from my losses. Not that I like to lose. But I know when I lose I need to stop and really work that out. Chess has taught me that I am personally responsible for everything that I do. If I make a mistake, I have to own up to it and then I have to fix it. Usually there’s some amazing life lesson to come out of that, if you’re willing to face it.
Who’s the Man?
Tiger to me is the ultimate chess player. Tiger beats everybody with what’s between his ears. It’s his vision, his ability to see the shot, for executing the shot, that mental toughness from move to move, the ability to block out all distractions and just focus on the concrete goal. I love the great athletes who emanate that kind of intellectual depth. It’s clear that you have a mind at work out there. I was watching yesterday with a couple of my former students. We were watching, and we said if Tiger took up chess today, we’d be afraid of him in five years. Tiger is the man.
6 Ways to Ignite Your Game
1. The number one tip: Get a book or books. You have to get a great book on chess. A great beginner book to start with is Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess. That’s just a great beginner’s book.
2. Find better players to play. Hunt them down, hunt them down. Better players will allow you to get better. You’ll get tips from them. They’ll help you get better. They’ll elevate your game.
3. Play chess online. There’s a whole world of online chess and you definitely want to get into the world of online play. My favorite is the Internet Chess Club. www.ChessClub.com
4. Seek out chess tournaments. There’s a whole big listing on the U.S. Chess Confederation’s Website, www.USChess.org. It’s everything you want to know about U.S. Chess including tournaments in your state or in your city. The better players are in the tournaments. That’s where you’ll find the real players.
5. Get chess software for your computer. What software will do for you is you’ll always have an opponent to play no matter what time of day or night. The classic one is Chess Master. You can’t go wrong with Chess Master.
6. Find a steady partner to practice with. It’s sort of like when people go to the gym, if they go by themselves, they’re more likely to quit, but if they go with someone else, it’s like a learning buddy. Find someone who’s at least as enthusiastic about learning chess as you are. You’ll share in the whole world of chess. I had one when I was growing up and he was invaluable.
Are you or your child a future International Grandmaster?
MATCH Chess Camp coming to Richmond. It stands for “Maurice Ashley Trains Champions,” and it’s not a vacant boast.
Maurice Ashley will conduct a five day summer Chess Camp in Richmond July 21 – 25 at Maymont Park. Designed for children ages K – 8th grade. All skill levels are invited. Maurice and a team of personally selected coaches will use the Grandmaster’s innovative method. A Parents’ Class and Q&A takes place July 22, and an Evening Master Class July 24.