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.
The first African-American grandmaster traces his obsession with chess to a high school friend who kept crushing him at the game.
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