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.
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.
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.
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