New York Times -- March 17, 1999
From Kings County, New York
The First African-American
Chess Grand Master
Twenty years ago, when Maurice Ashley was 14 and living in Brownsville, Brooklyn, he was soundly defeated in an
off-hand game of chess. Embarrassed and angry, he dug up a paperback on the game, intending to brush up, to learn a trick
or two. Instead, he fell deeply in love.
Maurice Ashley, World's First Black Grandmaster
The book was about Paul Morphy, a 19th-century Louisianian who was America's first great player.
"I was stunned," he said yesterday. "There were such dazzling plays."
Ever since that first glimpse of the vastness and intriguing possibilities of chess, Ashley, an immigrant from
Jamaica, has focused his life on the game.
On Monday, he reached the pinnacle of his passion: he became the latest of the World's 470 Grand Masters, and the
first African-American to reach the game's highest and prestigious rank.
Since that first epiphany, Ashley's life has been centered on chess: playing it, studying it, coaching it and training
for it. As a student at Brooklyn Technical High School, he joined the Black Bear School of Chess, a loosely defined group
of young African-American chess fanatics in Brooklyn.
The young men, who were mostly in their late teens or early 20's, would gather on Friday nights for "chess rumbles.""We were fighters, gladiators," Ashley said. "You couldn't enter
this group without being ready to go to war. Nobody would leave until Sunday. They'd shower, sleep a little, and get up and
play. Many a girlfriend was lost over weekend chess rumbles."
Despite an inability to play chess, Ashley's girlfriend, Michele, hung on and became his wife. They have a 4-year-old
daughter, Nia, who does play.
In the clubby, eccentric world of chess, Ashley is known for his straightforwardness, clarity and determined playing
style, said Allen Kaufman, executive director of Chess-in-the-Schools, a nonprofit organization that provides expert players
to teach chess in schools in low-income neighborhoods in the New York metropolitan area.
Ashley attained the rank of Grand Master on Monday as a result of his play in a tournament sponsored by the Manhattan
The rank is conferred by the International Chess Federation to players who amass a set number of points in 24 official
games played within a seven-year period, said Eric C. Johnson, assistant director of the United States Chess Federation.
Of the 85,000 members of the United States Chess Federation, 45 are Grand Masters, including 10 in the New York
City area, Johnson said.
Before winning his last points Monday, Ashley's rank was International Master, one step below Grand Master.
From 1991 to 1997, Ashley was the chess director of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, at which he led teams,
including one known as the Dark Knights of Mott Hall, to three national championships. Three players on the teams won individual
championships in their age groups.
"I fell in love with coaching," Ashley said. "I fell in love with the kids."
But two years ago, he stepped out of coaching to devote all his time and attention to his dream. "I was very frustrated,"
he said. "My life's dream was to become a Grand Master, and my dream was on hold."
He adopted a training routine as rigorous as a prizefighter's. He worked with a coach and spent hours every day
playing and studying, and attacking his weaknesses, including what he said was a tendency to drift a bit.
There was the added weight of trying to become the first black grandmaster. "It was enormous pressure," he said.
"I could not go to a chess tournament without hearing the question, 'Where are you going to do it?' So many people wanted
this to happen to me."
During the game he won that propelled him to Grand Master status, his opponent moved a rook to attack Ashley's
rook, a misstep that allowed Ashley to move his bishop to attack his opponent's queen. When he saw his opponent's mistake,
Ashley said, he froze. Before him was grandmastership, his life's goal. What if, in his terror, he dropped his bishop?
Since his triumph, he has had a chance to reflect on his achievement as the first African-American Grand Master.
"It makes it much sweeter," he said. "It's not significant to me to be the best black chess player in the world.
But it is sweet to be the first."
What now? "I have no idea," he said. "I'm still a beginner, as far as I'm concerned. There's so much to learn.
The game is still fresh for me."