Chess Life

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.