On International Chess Day, July 20, we celebrate one of the world’s most popular board games. Its popularity continues to increase, particularly in light of technology that allows for global competition via the Internet. Although chess seems to be thriving across the country and the globe as a whole, with an increase in chess clubs and tournaments, the board game is still not widely embraced in many African American communities. Maurice Ashley, who became a master of the game at 20 and later went on to become the first African America to achieve the International Grandmaster of Chess 14 years later, commented “Chess just isn’t that big in the African-American community.”
The blog Stuff Black People Don’t’ Like comments, “Black people love dominoes. Black people love checkers. Black people love games with dice. But Black people do not love chess.”
The game has become increasingly popular among young African Americans, despite the overall lack of support of many black communities. Dr. Daaim Shabazz, associate professor of business at Florida A&M University, chronicles the achievements of black chess players and provides a wealth of history and commentary regarding the board game in the African American community in The Chess Drum —a website maintained by him.
Shabazz notes that there has also been an increase of Black youth playing chess through various programs, such as Chess-in-Schools, but he asks about the current state in the Black community and shares some of his observations in “The State of Black Chess in America”:
Shabazz also points to three junior players who have emerged as leaders in the chess movement in the Black community: National Masters Justus Williams, Josh Colas and James Black, Jr. “The Three J’s” from the New York City area were spotlighted in the New York Times, as three prodigies who achieved the rank of masters, all of whom are under age 14.
“Masters don’t happen every day, and African-American masters who are 12 never happen,” said veteran player Maurice Ashley, 45, the only African-American to earn the top title of grandmaster. “To have three young players do what they have done is something of an amazing curiosity. You normally wouldn’t get something like that in any city of any race.”
In his discussion of the “State of Chess in Black America,” Shabazz refers to this triumvirate as the “Young Lions” who can be seen at tournaments, matching wits with the best players. He goes on to say, “All have defeated a number of GMs and IMs and all exude a confidence beyond their years. This has to have a powerful effect on all three as they are constantly challenging and encouraging each other. From this perspective, it has been a wonderful organic development and hopefully others will follow.”
On International Chess Day, it seems appropriate to reflect upon the achievements of Maurice Ashley and others, as we look to the future with anticipation of even greater success and more widespread support of chess in the Black community.
The accompanying video shows Maurice Ashley as a Grandmaster on CNN.
Take a look at a slide show of chess sets and other related artifacts over centuries from around the globe.
Take a look at a more extensive article related to “The State of Black Chess in America.”
Here is an article celebrating International Chess Day in the Central Ohio area and around the world.