PLEASURE IN THE JOB PUTS PERFECTION IN THE WORK. ~ Aristotle
Maurice Ashley – America’s first African-American chess champion
Maurice Ashley helped shatter stereotypes by becoming the first 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 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.
Source: The Internet
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