Genius at Any Age

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.

The top African-American chess player defied the conventional wisdom that you need to learn the game in preschool to become a grandmaster.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.