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

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.