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Outlook Money
Frontline

The chess stories

The Black King

By V. Venkatesan

ON a chessboard, there is perfect symmetry of colour: 32 pieces -- 16 white, 16 black -- wage war across a bichromatic battlefield of 64 squares -- 32 white, 32 black. However, the world of chess Grand Masters, or players who have attained the highest level in the game, does not quite reflect that symmetry. Although there are persons belonging to various nationalities and ethnic groups among the 470 Grand Masters worldwide, not a single black person had qualified for the honour until last month.

On March 14, Maurice Ashley, 33, a Jamaican immigrant to the United States who spent much of his adolescent years pushing pawns in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, became the first black person to do so. The African-American player who has an Elo rating of 2473 (comparitively, world No. 1 player Gary Kasparov has a rating of 2812) earned his third and final Grandmaster norm while playing in a tournament in New York and scaled the pinnacle of his passion.

In his response to the achievement, an elated Ashley said: "This shows what we African-Americans can do." Pointing to prevailing notions in the U.S. that stereotype African-Americans as people who are not good at mindsports, he said: "We’re understood as physically gifted and great entertainers, but when it comes to something intellectual, that lags behind." But his victory, he said, showed that "we are not just bodies... we offer irrefutable evidence that we can be intelligent as well as physical. I am especially happy for African-American children because they can see what they can do if they put their minds to it."

Ashley has been actively involved in a programme to teach chess to children from low-income neighbourhoods in the black-majority Harlem district in New York City; putting his dream of becoming a Grand Master on hold, he coached teams, including one known as the Dark Knights of Mott Hall, to national championships. "I fell in love with coaching," Ashley said, "I fell in love with the kids." But he opted out of coaching in 1997 to devote more time to pursuing his dream. To qualify for the title of Grand Master, he had to amass a set number of points in 24 high-level chess tournaments within a set period of time.

The prospect of becoming the first black Grand Master brought on additional pressures. Ashley recalled: "I could not go to a chess tournament without hearing the question: 'Where are you going to do it?' So many people wanted this to happen to me."

Since his Tiger Woodsian triumph, Ashley has had a chance to reflect on his achievement. "It’s not significant to me to be the best black chess player in the world," he said. "But it was sweet to be the first." n

(Published in Frontline, April 23, 1999.)

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