November 30, 2011

The Jamaica-born Grandmaster of Chess: Maurice Ashley


By Opal Palmer Adisa
“Chess is an intellectual discipline masking as a game,” says Maurice Ashley, who is touted as the first African-American International Chess Grandmaster in the history of the game. But Ashley is actually Jamaican, born in Kingston, where he attended Seaward Elementary School. His formative years were spent in Tower Hill, where his grandmother raised him and where he came to know himself. At the impressionable age of nine, his older brother taught him how to play chess, but Ashley remarks, “Back then, it was just a game. I liked it, but I didn’t know at that time that the game was going to be my destiny.” He later attended Wolmer’s High School for Boys before immigrating to the USA, at the age of twelve, to join his mother. 
Excitement about living with his mother for the first time with his two siblings was partially tempered by his new environment that belied the American dream. “Coming out of poverty in Jamaica, the mere fact that you are standing on American soil, is an advantage, but the reality was a lot of day-to-day violence --the level was worse in Brownsville, Brooklyn. There were drug-dealers and prostitutes,” Ashley recalls. However, he learned to navigate and steer clear of the numerous traps that were everywhere in his new community.
School gave Ashley direction, and because of the friendships he formed, his keen interest in chess grew. “I started to take it seriously in high school in Brooklyn. I thought I was smart, until I lost to a friend. Then I saw a book in the library and I started reading. I didn’t know there was a strategy to chess. My friend had also read all of these books. He had been reading and playing, and that’s when I knew knowledge is power.” So Ashley became an avid student of chess and was determined to be at the top of his game. He studied and taught himself.
Still, Maurice Ashley did not recognize his talent until he was a student at City College, New York. His passion and love for the game spews from his mouth as he recounts his journey. “I was so in love with chess, I was doing it all the time. It was like a force. I would beat people and I loved the feeling of beating people, and I just wanted to keep doing it. I never thought of chess as a profession.”
Chess became not only a profession for Ashley, but also the very foundation of his life. In 1993 when he was only 20 years-old, Maurice Ashley, as a result of coaching the National Champions from Harlem to victory, became the first ever African American Master in US History. In 1999 Ashley was honored as the first Black person in history to become an International Grandmaster.
Maurice Ashley’s love for chess and his international recognition, has led him to his mission: to share chess with young people around the world. The release of his book, Chess for Success: Using an Old Game to Build New Strengths in Children and Teens, serves as a cornerstone of his advocacy.

Ashley’s success begs the questions: How does a Jamaican boy from an impoverished neighborhood, without a father present, become a chess master? Is it simply destiny or are there other forces at work? Ashley contributes his success to his mother, who left him as an infant, and labored hard in the USA for ten long years so that he and his two siblings could eventually join her and be united as a family. 

And despite the vices in their immediate surroundings that could have mitigated their success, Ashley states categorically: “My mother made sure that I understood coming from Jamaica that you hold on to your opportunities. She kept us focused. You had to go to college; all of us were going to college.” And indeed Maurice Ashley and his two siblings all went to college and are at the top of their respective fields.
Perhaps an additional secret to his success is connected to dogged determination. In chess, Ashley found his passion, and a drive to beat his opponents, which led him to study and practice continuously. His assiduousness paid off when in 2002, he became the first African-American in history to qualify for the US Chess Championship. The crowning event came in 2003, when United States Chess Federation awarded him the title of Grandmaster of the Year. 
But Ashley still identifies as a Jamaican, and his bond to this island and its culture is deeply embedded in the food, especially ackee and salt-fish with roast breadfruit, and of course jerk chicken that he loves. However, his Jamaican-ness goes deeper, and he stays committed to his culture and the development of the island.
In an interview on October 13, 2011, I asked the following questions:
OPA: What do you love about Jamaica or being Jamaican? 
MA: The fact that we are some of the hardest working people on the planet. Give us an opportunity and we will run with it. Just try to catch us and you won’t.
OPA: What are you hopes for Jamaica? 
MA: That our people become well-educated and using initiatives like chess to bolster that effort, we can show the world the advanced skills of which we are capable. I think a polished and comprehensive educational system has to be developed in Jamaica, where we can use our talents as a means of helping bigger countries to carry out some service that they may needed. That means we have to create an extremely comprehensive educational base, so those countries do not automatically link Jamaica with tourism --that Jamaica becomes known for technology as well. I hope that Jamaica goes the way of some of those countries in Asia --finding our niche in technology. 
I don’t think more advanced techniques are available to the general population, like what I do with chess: deep thinking. When you start with a platform with young people, it will magnify in a few years.

OPA: Why should children learn to play chess? 
MA: All the skills we want our children to have, problem solving, analytical reasoning, focus and concentration, are embedded in the game itself, in the playing of the game itself, so kids have fun and learn at the same time and they don’t even know it.
Chess strategy doesn’t begin until you realize that there is another mind playing against you. Most people are about themselves, but the competition is about someone trying to beat you, so you have to take that into consideration. 
The great thing about chess is that you are punished for bad thinking; you are punished for impatience. You have to stop and plan ahead before you move, or else you are going to lose the game. Kids don’t want to lose, so if they have a good coach they begin to play and play well, and those are skills they can use in life to be successful.
OPA: What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome to succeed?

MA: I believe that life is a series of challenges that we are consistently overcoming. I am challenged even now in my life. I embrace challenges--that is the way you become successful by embracing the challenges of life.

With every challenge one gains experience that has to be harnessed in order to move to the next level. Ashley uses these stepping-stones, and that has helped him to navigate his life. These are the lessons that he has honed as a man, and that he wants to impart to young people. The proud father of two children, a seventeen-year-old daughter who is an "A" student and a nine-year-old son, Ashley models his practice on his children. “I started teaching my children chess when they were three years-old. I made sure they both had a foundation for chess. My daughter didn’t pursue it, but she is good. Now my son and I do chess puzzles every day.”
Until very recently, Ashley had stopped playing chess to be a full time, stay-at-home father, so that his wife, who had put her career on hold to allow him to travel, had the opportunity to pursue some of her dreams, including being principal of a school. But Ashley is excited to be playing chess again. Back on the chess trail, Ashley is embarking on a six-island tour to promote chess in the Caribbean for young people, and visited Jamaica from November 10-12, 2011.
Ashley says, “I am bringing chess technology, much of which is donated, to assist the chess efforts in these countries, to lend the voice to the idea that chess is great for kids and it should be supported.”
In addition to being a Grandmaster, an author, and an inventor, Maurice Ashley is also the designer of a smart phone application: “Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess,” which was launched in 2010 and has sold in more than 25 countries. Still he remains close to his cause, which is to promote chess as a viable mode of education for young people. To this end, he has traveled widely to speak to, and encourage youth in indigent neighborhoods throughout the USA, South Africa, and Central America.

Ironically, Maurice Ashley says he isn’t sure in what concrete ways he contributes to Jamaican society, but acknowledges that when people know that he is Jamaican it engenders a sense of pride. Reflecting more he adds, “I support chess initiatives in Jamaica, and what they are trying to do to build up chess on the island. I do what I can to support the Jamaica Chess Federation.”
Whenever someone does something, great or small, it reflects on his family, as well as his country. Maurice Ashley’s achievements are but more evidence of the global contributions of Jamaicans. Perhaps it is the yams as sports fanatics have been attributing to Usain Bolt’s phenomenal achievements; maybe it’s in our water, in the very air, or maybe it is in the foundation and dreams that have been instilled in us by parents and others who made endless sacrificed to keep us focused, and made us dream beyond what could even be imagined.
Regardless of the source of our greatness, Jamaicans such as Maurice Ashley are helping to create a more diversified and accomplished profile of who Jamaicans are and the new frontiers we are traversing. 
As Maurice Ashley says, “Knowing that chess is a blessing for kids helps me to keep spreading that message.” So I invite you to introduce a child in your life to chess as well as other endeavors that could guide them towards success.
Learn more about Maurice Ashley and all that he is doing to promote chess and keep the Jamaican flag waving high by visiting his website:
Please contact Opal Palmer Adisa at if you have a story to share. She plans to do a profile of 50 Jamaican women and men, living in the greater Jamaica Diaspora who have had exceptional accomplishments. Also, Adisa’s novel, Painting Away Regrets, is set to release this November 2011.

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