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New Chess Hall Of Famer On Kids, Chess And Ferguson

Chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley shakes the hand of his opponent, a student at the Walnut Grove Elementary School in Ferguson, MO after defeating him in a friendly match on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. (Tom Gannam/AP)
Chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley shakes the hand of his opponent, a student at the Walnut Grove Elementary School in Ferguson, MO after defeating him in a friendly match on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. (Tom Gannam/AP)

While the NBA season ends tonight and baseball season is just beginning, there’s another event that might not be on your radar. The U.S. Chess Championships begin today and chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley is being inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in Saint Louis.

Ashley is the first African-American to be inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame. Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks to Ashley about his career and how he works with kids in different communities to get them interested in the game – helping them build skills for life.

Interview Highlights: Maurice Ashley

What does it mean to you to have the title “first African-American” attached to your achievements?

“Well, growing up I just wanted to be a grandmaster. That was my fantasy growing up in Brooklyn, New York playing chess in high school and playing with my friends in the park against the hustlers, and I would read chess books and see this great title, grandmaster, and I knew that I wanted to have it one day. Of course, the challenge was that there were no faces like mine in chess magazines. It only became natural that people would notice that I was black, I guess you could say. Like alright, here it is, a chess player from the inner city who was trying to play this game. So now I accept it for what it is and when I hear someone say ‘first African-American grandmaster,’ for me what it means is that there will be a second and there will be a third, there’ll be a tenth. It’s really a joy to be a role model in this way for other kids who might be dreaming about success, but may not know that they could do it in a number of fields.”

You have said in the past, when you teach chess you want to teach kids an “intellectual karate.”

“That’s right, and chess is really a discipline of the mind. Problem solving, you become more efficient at looking at problems, looking and focusing and concentrating and making decisions. Chess is about making a decision on every single move. They say it takes over 40 good moves to win a chess game, often, but only one bad move to lose it. So you have to be constantly vigilant when you’re playing a game, and to teach that to a young person is simply amazing. It’s a trait we want all of our children to have.”

On the impact of the Internet

“Now you can find out in seconds. You go to follow the U.S. chess championships, you go to uschesschamps.com and you’ll see the games happening live and you’ll get the breakdown from grandmasters, you get to learn what’s going on in the minds of the players, and it’s just instantaneous information. Because of that, you have grandmasters who are now 12-years-old, 13-years-old. Imagine that. Playing in the championships right now is a young lady from Andover, Massachusetts. Her name is Carissa Yip, she’s 12 years old and playing in the U.S. Women’s Championships. That’s just insane. That would have never happened many years ago.”

How do you compete with distractions from technology, like smartphones?

“What’s amazing about chess is that it’s been around for 1,500 years and its growing in popularity. The thing about it, it’s a complex game. We haven’t figured it all out, even the computers haven’t figured it all out even though they kick our butts, but still there’s no solution in sight, and kids of every generation, they come to the board, they see kings and queens and knights and bishops and rooks and pawns and they just wanna learn how to play. It’s nothing like beating your friend at chess, you get to trash talk afterwards, and you’ve won a good game. It’s just a fun activity, family friendly activity as well.”

How have your efforts to introduce chess in Ferguson been received?

“Here’s what I know is cool. Kids love to learn, anywhere, I don’t care where you are, kids love to learn and kids love to play, and chess is this great educational discipline, but it’s a game. It’s just something that kids – you put the chessboard down and you put the pieces down, whether it’s Ferguson, whether it’s in Brooklyn, New York, whether it’s in Detroit, this game is exploding in the inner city, and it’s because kids love to play and chess has that quality and that’s why it’s such a great game.”


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