Maurice Ashley Biography
Stayed Focused through Chess, Coached a New Generation, Helped Promote Chess as a Sport
Maurice Ashley helped shatter stereotypes by becoming the top-ranked black chess player in the world, as well as by coaching championship school teams made up mostly of minority children. "For kids, it's what they see," he said in the New Yorker. "And they don't see black chess players—no blacks in intellectual fields at all. It's when the kids start seeing these paths that they become possibilities in their minds, and then it's not a shock to them that Harlem kids can be national chess champions." Ashley has also startled traditional chess aficionados and attracted new fans to the game with his rousing commentating of chess matches that make chess seem like a contact sport.
Ashley was born on March 6, 1966, in Jamaica, where he spent the first 12 years of his life before his family moved to Brooklyn, New York. He feels that his early experience saved him from the poor self-image of many blacks born in American inner cities. "I didn't have the word 'disadvantaged' pummeled into my brain," Ashley told Hugh Pearson of the Wall Street Journal. As Pearson added in the same article, Ashley "had a firm enough grounding to keep himself focused on his studies, even though drug dealers plied their trade nearby."
Stayed Focused through Chess
Also helping Ashley stay on a straight path was his discovery of chess. He became keenly interested in the game after watching his brother play with his friends, and was soon reading chess books so he could play better. As a teenager he played often with other African Americans in Brooklyn's Prospect Park while continuing to study game strategy on his own. "I grew up like a lot of these kids, playing ball in the streets, listening to hip-hop," said Ashley in the New Yorker of the children he has taught to love chess. "Not really having anything to do—that was a big theme in my life. And then I discovered chess. It was like a light, and I just kept moving in that direction."
A key mentor for the young Ashley was Willie Johnson, a friend of a friend who was an Expert level player, one step below the Masters level in the chess world. "He helped keep me from being frustrated when I lost to some of the better players," said Ashley when interviewed by Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "He was instrumental in helping me stay focused and in supporting me in ways not just emotionally but financially. He helped me out whenever he could so I could to buy chess books or enter tournaments."
Since no African Americans were top tournament chess players during his formative years, Ashley found his roles models elsewhere. "I tended to look outside the chess world for my heroes, at people who were blazing the trail in professions that were not, so to speak, black-oriented," he claimed during an interview with CBB. A number of these "heroes" were women—such as Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil in tennis and Debi Thomas in ice skating—who were among the first blacks to make a mark in their respective sports.
Coached a New Generation
After graduating from City College, Ashley soon got the opportunity to bring his love of the game to young people in New York City. The American Chess Foundation, which later became the Chess-in-the Schools Program, asked Ashley to go out to different schools to help promote chess in minority neighborhoods. By 1989, he was coaching the Raging Rooks, the chess team of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Junior High School. Before long, he had created one of the most successful chess programs for kids in the United States. He led the Rooks to the National Championships in Salt Lake City in 1990, where one of his players, Kasaun Henry, won the top unrated title in the varsity section.
Ashley followed up that success by leading his team to a tie for first-place in the Nationals held in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1991. His team's showing that year resulted in a barrage of media attention, making the Raging Rooks front-page news in the New York Times. Ashley was fully aware that much of the hoopla was due to the racial factor. "I look upon a lot of the attention we got in much the same way as I view articles that characterize me as the best black chess player in the world," he told the New Yorker. "It's degrading in a way, but it has its uses, and I'm happy to use it to bring attention to the game and prestige to our program."
Proving his success as a coach was no fluke, Ashley revealed his winning ways once again after becoming the coach of the Dark Knights team at Harlem's Mott Hall Middle School in 1992. Two years later, he led a team made up of seven Hispanic players and three Asians to the National Junior High School Chess Team Championship. Key to Ashley's coaching success with the Raging Rooks and Dark Knights was his understanding of the mindset of inner-city children and his use of sports metaphors to reach kids at their level to generate enthusiasm for the game. "Maurice's coaching sessions are sometimes like meetings of the Joint Chiefs [U.S. political leaders] in wartime, sometimes like pickup basketball games, and sometimes like abusive comedy routines," noted the New Yorker.
Helped Promote Chess as a Sport
A self-proclaimed sports fanatic, Ashley treats the chessboard like a playing field and the players like real-life athletes. "Chess is a sport," he told CBB. "It's competitive, it's work, it's pressure, it's tension, it's pain, it's guts and glory, and disappointment and defeat. All the classic sports metaphors are in chess, so it was very easy for me to transfer many of the ideas that I found in the sports world to the chessboard."
Ashley later became an online chess mentor for public schools around the country, which allowed him to present problems and answer questions via e-mail with young players. By the mid 1990s, he was also gaining exposure as a new breed of commentator for chess tournaments. "Ashley is loud," commented Richard Sandomir in the New York Times about Ashley's announcing at the Professional Chess Association's Intel World Chess Grand Prix tournament in New York City in 1994. "Not obnoxious. Just louder than a voice is expected to be for noise-free chess." Ashley has often proclaimed his eagerness to overcome the quiet and reserved reputation of chess, in order to make people realize how rewarding the game is. At the Grand Prix Tournament he stunned other commentators by his use of phrases usually reserved for sports announcers, and by discussing players' emotional states in addition to their playing skill.
Ashley's style and his success as a coach caught the attention of ESPN, which hired him to be their play-by-play announcer for televised chess events. He was an enthusiastic commentator for the well-publicized 1997 tournament of world-champion Garry Kasparov versus Deep Blue, the IBM computer. Ashley feels that Deep Blue's victory was mostly due to a lapse of will and concentration by Kasparov. "I still think we need another match to really confirm for us what level of play the computer has truly attained," he said.
The previous year, Ashley released an acclaimed interactive CD-ROM chess instruction program for beginning to intermediate players called Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess that became the only software endorsed by the Professional Chess Association. According to a press release from CD-ROM co-publisher Davidson & Associates, the program "combines Ashley's inspiring teaching style with extensive video coaching, thousands of fast-paced interactive challenges, chess strategies, and video annotated Master Games." Ashley's CDROM featured many analogies from football and other sports to explain the rules and strategies of chess, even using a video chalkboard like those used by sports commentators.
Newsweek called the CD-ROM "excellent," while Home Education Review said "It's great for people just learning to play, or those who need some help improving their game." Ashley's goal with the CDROM was to make the game accessible to virtually anyone. "My CD-ROM is for people who don't know anything about the game," he told VIBE. "It's for those who think it's too complicated, too crazy."
Achieved Grandmaster Status
Ashley placed 21st in the 1997 U.S. Open Chess Tournament in New York City, and also participated in the Chess-in-the-Schools International Chess Festival at New York City's Downtown Athletic Club. In April of 1997, he was ranked #41 in the United States by the U.S. Chess Federation and was still the highest-ranked black chess player in the world. But Ashley was not satisfied with his performance. He told Ebony that "I felt the frustration of seeing my future behind me, and I decided I had to focus on one thing–playing."
In the summer of 1997, he stopped coaching to concentrate fully on achieving the rank of grandmaster. The rank of grandmaster is difficult to achieve. A player must score "norms," or excellent performance ratings, in three tournaments against other top-rated chess players. In 1999 Ashley became the first black grand-master. At the time there were only 470 grandmasters in the world.
As he recaptured his skill as a player, Ashley did not lose sight of those he had mentored. He is proud to see the accomplishments of some of his former students who are now graduating from some of the country's most prestigious colleges. Ashley firmly believes that chess sharpens the mind in ways that help in all parts of life. He returned to mentoring and coaching in 1999 when he became the director of the chess program at the Harlem Educational Activities Fund. The Fund opened a chess center in Harlem in 1999 to promote chess in the community. In order to make chess a more exciting game to play and watch, Ashley organized a company called Generation Chess in 2003 to create competitive chess tournaments that penalized players for agreeing to a draw before 50 moves. Ashley also serves as chess commentator for ESPN2 and travels throughout the country to inspire others to take up chess. In 2003 the U.S. Chess Federation named Ashley Grandmaster of the Year.
Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess (CD-ROM), Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Ebony, July 1999, p. 30.
Home Education Review, September/October 1996. Jet, March 22, 2004, p. 25.
New York Times, June 30, 1994, p. B16; July 11, 1996, sec. 13, p. 9; April 19, 1996, p. B1; May 6, 1996, p. A10; February 11, 1996, sec. 13, p. 9.
New Yorker, February 24, 1992, p. 29.
Newsweek, July 8, 1996, p. 8.
VIBE, November 1996, p. 132.
Wall Street Journal, February 17, 1995, p. A10.
Maurice Ashley, www.mauriceashley.com (August 19, 2004).
America Beyond the Color Line with Henry Louis Gates Jr., PBS, 2004.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Davidson & Associates press release and through an interview with Maurice Ashley.
—Ed Decker and
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