Big Think Interview with Maurice Ashley
In 1999 Maurice Ashley became the first African-American to achieve the exalted chess rank of international grandmaster. He has been a chess commentator on ESPN and is the author of the book "Chess for Success: Using an Old Game to Build New Strengths in Children and Teens."
Question: When did you leave Jamaica?
Maurice Ashley: I came when I was 12 years-old and came with my brother and sister. My mother actually left us in the care of our grandmother and she came to America and worked 10 years and was finally able to afford to bring us to join her, so we lived away from her for all that time, but finally we reunited. This was 1978 and yeah, I’ve been back a few times. You know it’s Jamaica. There is not much excuse needed to go back to Jamaica.
Question: When did you take up chess?
Maurice Ashley: I did it in high school. A friend of mine was playing chess and I had already actually known the rules. My brother played the game with his friends, so I thought I was a pretty smart kid and I played this friend of mine and he just crushed me and this was Brooklyn Tech High School in Brooklyn where I still live, in Brooklyn, New York and this guy beat me so bad it wasn’t even funny. I couldn’t understand why he beat me. Well I just so happened to bump into a chess book in the library at school and I didn’t know that there were books on chess and so I take this book out and I’m like this is going to be cool, I’m going to whoop on this guy now, so I studied the book and I go back and the guy crushes me again and it turns out he had read that book and about nine other books, so that is the first time I really understood that there were books in chess and that studying mattered and it would be effective and I just played. His name is Clotaire Colas. I played Clotaire just about every day after school after that and I was just obsessed like most people get obsessed when they play chess.
Question: What drew you to the game?
Maurice Ashley: I think just everything about chess. I mean well first of all, I wanted to beat him, so the competition was a big side. I love to win. I’m very competitive in most games, but I think also the beauty of the game. There was something about it, the pieces, the shapes, something about them coordinating together and trying to get the other guy. I think most people are fascinated by chess for that reason. It’s just these mystical shapes. It’s almost like Harry Potteresque, like wizard’s chess in a way. The pieces come alive and you’re the sorcerer. You’re the magician and you get to do what you want with them and hopefully you don’t screw it up.
Question: You come from a competitive family?
Maurice Ashley: Oh yeah, I have some pretty hardcore brothers and sisters. My brother, oldest brother Devon, he is a kickboxing champion. He has been three time world champion in his weight class and my sister Alicia, she is a three time world champion boxer as well, so we stay away from our own sports when we get together. We play like cards and dominoes, traditional Jamaican games. I’m from Jamaica originally, things that are not our specialty, but even when we play those games we’re super competitive. It’s like it’s trash talking and trying to win and that is like family time in the Ashley household.
Question: But you found a way to channel your aggression into chess?
Maurice Ashley: Yeah, I don’t like getting hit for one, although you know I did take Aikido for many years, but Aikido is a different kind of martial art, maybe even a more cerebral art because it’s all about redirecting the energies of your opponent instead of trying to bash your opponent’s head in effectively, so it’s a much more loving art, so I guess I tend that way normally anyway.
Question: What does it take to play top-level chess?
Maurice Ashley: I think that chess grandmasters come in all shapes and sizes, stripes, different personalities. You have your types that are hyper aggressive killers, I mean gangsters really, guy who just don’t care. They want to rip your heart out, cook it, and eat it later. You know you have those types in the chess world where they just go straight for the throat and that is their natural personality and you have other types that are more like boa constrictors, the quiet types. They got you. You’re going to die. It’s okay, relax. This won’t be… It will be slow and maybe it will be painful, but you know it’s over, so just enjoy the death. So you don’t see the same types in the chess world, but I think that competitiveness is one quality though, definitely people who want to win, people who are about victory and if you’re not truly determined, if you’re not the kind of person who sees a goal and goes right after it and will work any amount of time, any amount of hours just to make sure that happens you can’t be a chess grandmaster. I think that is first, determination and competitiveness.
Question: Are you a boa constrictor or an aggressive killer?
Maurice Ashley: Well I’m from Jamaica and I’m from Brooklyn and so that… You know in my earlier days I was much more a shoot them, kill them type definitely. I had a lot of creativity. I calculated really well and so I just thought go for the throat. That is the only way to do it you know. You got to kill them. Don’t let them blink. First chance you get attack. When I started going out into the chess world and playing against better players, particularly those Russians who somehow knew how to defend really, really well and they just sat there and it was like Napoleon trying to come into Moscow or into… like right into the heart of it and then Siberia… the Siberian winter shuts you down. That’s what happened on a chess board and I realized this style just didn’t work at least at that level, so I had to pair it back a little bit and start to understand a more nuanced style, so now my style is a lot more family man if you will, a lot more delicate, a lot more nuanced as to how I execute, but don’t make a mistake because Brooklyn comes right back.
Question: At what age did you become a grandmaster?
Maurice Ashley: I was pretty old actually. I was 33 years-old when I became a grandmaster, which in chess now I might as well be geriatric. I mean chess grandmasters are springing up now at 15, 16, 17. The youngest is like 12, which is insane. In this new computer age though it’s more normal, but it took me quite awhile. I started chess very late. I started at 14, so you can imagine that is over the hill in chess now, but it took me awhile before I became a grandmaster.
I think that the older generation gets a knock or the older you get the less your brain works and your neurons don’t develop as well or don’t connect as well and all that. Of course there is a lot of things happening in neuroscience now, a lot of exciting developments that show that you can make connections at a later age and learn anything you want, so yeah, I remember actually I had a trainer, Gregory Kaidanov who helped me to become a grandmaster, who helped me in the final stage of becoming a grandmaster and when I finally did it… We worked together for about a year and I finally became a grandmaster and he said to me, “You didn’t really start chess at 14, right?” And I said, "Yeah, yeah, I didn’t play my first tournament until I was like 15 or 16 years-old" And he said, “Are you sure?” And I was like "Yeah," and he said, “You know it’s incredible because I tell people when they come to me with their kids and say they want to start and if they tell me they’re 14 or 15, I tell them forget it. It’s not going to happen.” And here was this guy who was training me all this time and didn’t tell me what he actually believed. I was like Gregory that sucks. He should have at least revealed it to me earlier, but I’m glad he didn’t because I wanted to become a grandmaster so passionately that I was going to pursue it no matter what, but it’s funny that here he was training me and with like disbelief that I could become a grandmaster at such a late age.
Question: What did it mean to you to become the first African-American grandmaster?
Maurice Ashley: That was pretty special. Probably less to me than to people who were following my story. I wanted to become a grandmaster. I happened to be African-American, so you know no way to escape that from birth, but to me it’s just like a thing that you’re born with blue eyes and dark hair and we all look different. It’s just the human family, but I know the history of what African-Americans have gone through in this country in particular in the United States and around the world what people of color have gone through, so I knew that this had some really profound symbolic significance and that I would inspire a lot of young people in particular who may have hoped to do something like what I’m doing whether it’s chess or anything, intellectual science, anything that required some serious brain power, but that who have been told that that’s not what we’re really good at, that we’re really more like basketball players and football, more athletic types or entertainers, so I knew that there was a significant achievement that I would be accomplishing here from that perspective and I mean don’t get me wrong. I’m aware of all of that, so I was really proud to do that and happy for a lot of other folk. For me I just really wanted to become a grandmaster though. That was first and foremost.
Question: Describe the chess game that earned you the grandmaster title
Maurice Ashley: Well thankfully there have been a few games. There have been a few games. I remember the game when I became a grandmaster. That was pretty special and that was the day was pretty cool because in order to become a grandmaster you have to get what are called norms. Norms are basically like a final exam and you have to take three final exams except this final exam involves opponents who are actually changing the questions as you play the game, right, so it’s not like you get like the test and you have to solve these combinations and now you’re a grandmaster. It’s you have to go in battle and defeat opponents who do not want you to win obviously, so I had to play all these top players and travel all around the world to the kind of tournaments that would give these norms, these sort of final exams and play some of the top Russians in the world. I remember playing former world champion Alexander Khalifman, a big game and these great candidates, great chess players, but I passed two of these final exams, these norms and I had a third one in front of me and I had beaten a lot of players and I now was facing a Romanian international master, Adrian Negulescu, and I knew that I was going to play him that day and I knew if I won that game I’d be a grandmaster and I was a basket case before the game.
I remember getting ready to play the game. I was ironing a shirt and thoughts were just racing through my head and I was trying to relax and I reflected on my grandmother who was passed away and something she used to say to me a lot, which was jack of all trades, master of none and I never understood why this lady was talking to me about it. You know she just kept saying jack of all trades, master of none. I thought it was like a curse. You know I was never going to be good at anything and believe it or not I didn’t understand what she meant or didn’t feel what she meant until that moment with that iron in my hand. I almost dropped the iron when I realized that she wasn’t saying it out of malice or trying to curse me in any way and really that is how I thought about it, but that she was saying it out of love and she was saying just pursue your dream. You’ll be great at that one thing. I know you’re good at a lot of things, because I was good at a lot of things, but just pursue your dream and work hard. You’ll be good at that one thing. I realized in that moment. I almost started crying. I just choked up. The iron fell out of my hand and I was broken up for a moment and that just changed me in a second and I went to the game and I had this incredible calmness in the game, just like it’s cool, particularly it was like around move 14 I just realized everything is going to be fine and I just played like let’s go, let’s go and when the critical moment came it was still easy and then the winning move was this really simple move that a beginner would find and I relished that moment. I looked at it and I said wait a second. I’ve been traveling this long road, 19 years in chess and the winning move is a beginner’s move. This is what is going to make me a grandmaster, so it was like full circle back to what the game was about and I just made the move and my opponent resigned and I just… It was just this joyous moment in my life.
Question: What about the stereotype that the chess world is filled with nerds and crazies?
Maurice Ashley: Yeah, I think there is truth to that stereotype actually. I mean I’m a proud nerd. I love studying languages. I love reading books. Anything scientific is cool. I’m a Star Trek nut job, maybe not so much a Trekkie. I’m not going to wear the ears and stuff like that, but you know I love science fiction and I love chess and I love anything intellectual. I don’t think I’m crazy. That I wouldn’t say and I don’t think most chess players are crazy frankly, but I think that there is an element, after all it’s an intellectual game, so there is an element of folks who go that way, who are really intellectual and also who may be shy, who might get their pleasure from a world, sort of the fantasy world of the chessboard, so you’re going to attract certain types to chess and the media loves those types. If you’re going to pick like the normal average Joe playing chess or the guy over there who is kind of looking off into space or looking down at his shoes when you talk to him that is usually where the camera will go and he’ll be the one people notice more and you get a few of those types in the chess world and unfortunately they skew it for the rest of us, so yeah, you do have to be intellectual I think to be a grandmaster for sure, but you don’t have to be crazy, no.
Question: What does chess do for your mind?
Maurice Ashley: Chess is intellectual karate. It’s a discipline that you practice and you can’t help but develop your mental powers. If you’re practicing martial arts or basketball or soccer your body is going to develop. Chess is the same way. You’re mind…but in having your mind develop that way, so the focus, the concentration, problem solving, goal setting, all these things are things you have to do at the chess board. You have to practice and it just hones those qualities. Also there is that self esteem. There is nothing like saying checkmate. I mean that is a magical sound wherever you are. Boom, mate fool, you know that is just a good feeling and when kids do that they feel empowered. It’s like let’s play again. I love that. I want to do that again and once you get hooked and you start to see yourself getting better. I remember coaching kids and a kid would take a checkmate that I showed him or a tactical idea, a double attack, especially those because it’s so frequent where you attack two pieces at the same time and you go and you play a game and suddenly you do it and bam, you’re hitting two pieces and only one can move and so you’re going to get the other one and they come back and their eyes are lit up, like wow, I just used what you showed me and won the game, show me something else and that is irreplaceable. I mean that is what you want for kids for them to be excited about learning and chess does that constantly. It’s I love the main point of chess that it’s applied knowledge. It’s not just you’re learning something and maybe sometime 10 years from now it’s going to be good for your character and you better learn these declensions in Latin. You know it’s chess. It’s like I get it and then I use it and that is very powerful about the game.
Question: How do you keep your cool at the chessboard when you’ve blundered away an advantage?
Maurice Ashley: I don’t know. No, I’m kidding. Yeah, you do beat yourself up pretty bad. There are a lot of mood swings in chess. It’s very difficult. It’s that anguish. You’ve as you said massaged. You’ve probed. You’ve calculated. You’ve sweated all this time trying to figure out what to do to beat this guy and then boom, one move you blow it and now you’re realizing that you are no longer hunting, but you are the hunted. That is a strange place for a chess player, but thankfully it happens so often. It happens often enough in a game that you learn how to deal with it. You realize it’s part of the game. It’s just momentum swings happen. It’s not science. It’s two human sitting across in battle and whenever you have that you’re going to have imperfection, so there is a lot post game analysis in chess. One of the great things about chess is you can look at your game afterward, but you can also look at yourself afterward and you can say, “Well how did I react?” “What did I do?” “How do I do it different next time?” It’s not about playing perfect moves because it’s never going to happen. It’s about training yourself and that is part of the discipline that I talked about with chess. You get that. You just get that discipline. You just learn that from experience, the school of hard knocks. There is no other way. It’s just you do it. You fail. Get up. Do it again, but make sure you learn from that failure so that you can be ready the next time.
Question: How have computers changed the way top chess players prepare for tournaments?
Maurice Ashley: Well when I was growing up you wanted to get… and you wanted to get the latest games you had to wait three months for a magazine, Chess Life Magazine or any. If you could somehow smuggle Shakhmatny Bulletin out of Russia or something you had to wait to see the great games getting played and that is important because it’s knowledge. It’s ideas you can use, so that is something that you just had… there was no choice. Now if one of the top players, if it’s Anand, if it’s Magnus Carlson plays a great game I’ll know in five minutes. I mean I come home. I just download it. Bam, there is the game. I can look at it, so the proliferation of knowledge based on the internet probably even more important than computers themselves. I mean computers, but the ability to go and get those games, get that knowledge, feed your mind that has transformed the sport of chess dramatically and on top of that the databases that you can study where all these games are collected, put in one database and you can sort and search based on opening lines, based on piece configuration. You can do any… with a player you’re playing against, what they like to do with black, what they like to do with white. You know you get an immediate psychological profile of some of the best players in the world just at a click of a mouse, so computers have dramatically transformed the landscape. Just that… You can see it in kids now becoming grandmasters at 12 and 13. Kids just sit home and they just push buttons, feed me, feed me and the knowledge just goes right in. Well we had to read books and do that slow turning on the pages and painfully digest the knowledge. They just get it in streaming color right into their eyeballs at a computer screen and that has totally changed the sport and if you don’t study using a computer you might as well be a dinosaur.
Question: Are there lessons from chess that can be applied to the business world?
Maurice Ashley: There are tons of lesson in chess. I mean chess is almost tailor made for business in terms of the mental aspect, the intuitive changes in direction that you might have to have if you’re in the stock market or figuring out the numbers, which way to go, reading an opponent, negotiating skills. I mean chess is nothing if not knowing where the other… what the other guy is thinking and getting deep into that thought process. I think that is a huge one as a matter of fact, knowing your opponent. In chess we do that all the time. We study all the games, the databases that have thousands of games of your opponents or actually the databases are filled with millions of games. A single opponent might have played 2 to 3,000 games that you can parse and probe and analyze and knowing the opponent really well before you go into a contest, knowing the situation, knowing what their preferences are, knowing which direction they like to go in before you go into that negotiating table, which is the chessboard, so that you can know and feel which way to go when the contest starts. So yeah, I think… and there are books on that too, about chess and business. I know Garry Kasparov wrote a pretty decent one and a friend of mine, Bob Rice wrote one, maybe the best one called Three Moves Ahead and it’s just anything mental in something like business really works. Anything that requires that kind of concentration, knowledge intensive thinking and knowing the opponent that is going to be chess.
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