How a Chess Grandmaster Is Breaking Barriers to Expand the Audience for His Game

"My vision is to expand the audience for chess," he says, modestly, his words backed up by years of action in creating this audience.
07/14/2014 04:16 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2014
Chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley, center, consults with Ailinne Espinoza, 13, left, and Alexis Hernandez, 13, at New York's M
Chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley, center, consults with Ailinne Espinoza, 13, left, and Alexis Hernandez, 13, at New York's Mott Hall Middle School, Thursday, March 18, 1999. Ashley recently fulfilled the final requirements for becoming a chess grandmaster, the game's highest rank. He is the first black person ever to do so. (AP Photo/Louis Lanzano)

Maurice Ashley has a lot riding on his shoulders.

His chess game has always reflected his clarity and his passion, but his belief in the transformative power of chess has been the motif that has been transforming the world around him.

"My vision is to expand the audience for chess," he says, modestly, his words backed up by years of action in creating this audience.

Having broken barriers by becoming the first black Grandmaster in chess in 1999, Ashley's focus on fostering change has been revolutionary over the last decade, bringing motivation and a sense of purpose to kids in Harlem, Brooklyn, and in fact all over the world, kids who once dismissed chess as a white man's game.

He describes how a kid reacted, saying: "But he's black. He's not a grandmaster!"

"Then they would realize that I'm one of them; I speak like them, and after that I was then able to talk to them about chess, about life, about really fixing goals and making good choices because chess is a decision-making game," he says.

Maurice Ashley was 12 when his parents moved to Brooklyn, from Jamaica. Growing up on the tough streets, Ashley moved from being a chess player, to teacher, inspiring and leading the Raging Rooks, a chess team in Harlem that went on to win the national championships to much acclaim. Those kids caught the national fancy in 1991, followed by the Dark Knights (another team that he taught). Ashley describes how that was such a "tremendous boost to their self-esteem", that they would be great at whatever they put their minds to, that to be great at chess was an 'impact' statement.

Now, Ashley is inspiring a different set of teenagers in a large room at the end of the main corridor of the Automotive High School in Brooklyn; the chess room is an extraordinary example of the power of dreams.

The kids at this school may be drop-outs from other schools, but here they arrive at the chess room between classes; he instructs and discusses the game on a projection screen; they play each other; they solve puzzles; and they get to play against the Grandmaster himself.

It's powerful stuff to watch how he talks about key moves, and discreetly oversees their game, throwing in a word, encouraging quietly, playing them slowly on.

And the teenagers in his room? It's as if they're absorbing everything about him: his confidence, his straight talk, his success and his ability to climb the ladder of success.

"I want to be like him," one of the students says quietly. "And I don't just mean chess -- but in control of my life."

There is friendship, admiration, hero worship, all going on in this room. And a lot of laughter.

"We trash-talk each other," Ashley says. "And they know I'm one of them. But in the end there's respect too and a desire to learn."

What he's doing speaks for itself.

The chess team from the Automative High School won third place in the Unlisted section at the National High School Championship in San Diego this April, even though it was their first tournament ever.

The Principal of Automotive High School, Caterina Lafergola -Stanczuk, had he foresight to draw Ashley into her school in early 2013, when he started out out with a small chess room as an experiment. Very quickly, Ashley had to move to a much larger room, and this was soon filled to capacity at break time.

"I think chess is, quite frankly, a barrier-breaking sport," Lafergola says, talking about the decision to bring Ashley in, a little over a year ago. "It was a strategic decision, and a great investment in the future to have him do chess here. I have seen how kids have made decisions that they may not have made before because of their participation in chess." She goes on to describe how one of the kids, who was forced to drop out because of poor grades, returned because of the chess program and went on to change his life.

She gives Ashley credit for giving kids the power of dreams, which in turn help them face reality.

But Ashley has always been ahead of his time.

In the 1990s, when he coached the Raging Rooks and the Dark Knights in Harlem, he was told it was an impossible goal. Both teams went on to win the national championships under his guidance. Celebrities came in to support his mission; he started a chess center in Harlem; and the US Chess Federation voted him Grandmaster of the Year in 2003. A Grandmaster among Grandmasters!

Ashley went on to become a sought-after chess commentator. He's written books (on chess), and when, continuing on his mission to popularize chess, Ashley announced a new and path-breaking competition for chess last December called 'Millionaire Chess', the US Chess Federation threw its mantle behind him.

Jean Hoffman, Executive Director of the US Chess Federation, described Millionaire Chess as "historic" -- and actor Will Smith's endorsement brought in the cool factor.

"It is a model to popularize chess," Ashley says, "I believe it's going to change the way chess is seen in this country." And when he says that it is the biggest things he's ever done, there's nothing boastful about it, but rather the simple belief that chess can be played for money, that it can be inclusive and mainstream, and that he himself is making the gamble of his life at the tournament in Las Vegas this October.

There's no saying whether chess can, in fact, win poker-style popularity, but Ashley's point is clear when he says, "Yes, chess is cerebral, but it can also make you rich." Some of the finest financial bankers and mathematicians, he points out, are also chess players.

"I know first-hand the transformative power of chess. It had a profound effect on me, growing up in inner-city Brooklyn," he says, describing how chess set fire to his imagination when he was younger, and infused him with a profound sense of purpose.

It helped build his belief, one that he continues to share with the kids around him, that there is "no such word as failure; it's just another learning." And those words resound long after he has left the room.