Tuesday, May 13, 2008

GM Maurice Ashley Coming to Town

GM Maurice Ashley was born March 6, 1966 in St. Andrew, Jamaica, Maurice's family moved to Brooklyn when he was 12. He is the first and only African-American to attain chess’ highest title of International Grandmaster. The New York Times, USA Today, Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Reader's Digest, Ebony, and a host of other publications around the world reported his achievement. In addition, Ashley has appeared on the Charlie Rose Show, CBS News This Morning, NPR, CNN, Bloomberg Radio, and many other broadcasts.

Ashley’s major chess accomplishments include:
In 1991, he coached a team of kids from Harlem to victory at the National Junior High School Championships, in Dearborn, Michigan.
In 1993, he became the first African-American International Master in US history.
Finished 1st place in the prestigious Enhance International in 1993.
Won the title of Champion at the historic Marshall Chess Club Championship in 1993.
Tied for 1st in the Bermuda Open in 1997.

In 1999, became the first African-American International Grandmaster in history.

Tied for 1st in the 2000 Foxwoods Open.
In 2001, became the only back-to-back winner in Foxwoods Open history.
In 2002, became the 1st African-American in 157 years to qualify for the US Championship.
In 2003, the US Chess Federation awarded him the title of Grandmaster of the Year.

You have written that three of your greatest inspirations were Tiger Woods, Arthur Ashe, and Jackie Robinson. Aside from Tiger, what other contemporary figure inspires you the most, and why? What do you draw from each of them to add to your own character?
Maurice Ashley: I'm motivated by a number of contemporary figures. I think Nelson Mandela for very obvious reasons. His tenacity is unmatched in my opinion. Incredible how someone could have suffered that long and come back out of prison with such a good heart and positive things to say and do. I wish that I could mimic him in some way in my life and realize that nothing that I suffer even compares to what he had to suffer. Other people I admire, Andre Agassi, I think that the ability to go to the very bottom and come back up and rise again is admirable, I think is really truly the greatest of character traits. I guess Michael Jordan is another one, not for his excellence but for his hard work despite being so gifted. Certainly a great character. More recently I've come to deeply appreciate my mother. I know that sounds strange but she has sacrificed so much to make sure that my brother and my sister and I got to where we are today, and only now having my children and trying to do the best for them do I realize just how profound her sacrifice for us was.
So far as drawing from Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe - just his modesty despite being so great, despite being so amazing - just his desire to contribute back to kids and to the African-American community. And Jackie Robinson, for his ability to stand up to the violence and evils with his head held high and his chest out proud, and never letting his spirit be broken despite everything people, I should say foolish people, threw at him and now he shines, as they say, like a shining Black prince. He is definitely a tremendous human being and I hope that I can mimic some of that quality of being able to stand tall despite any obstacle.
On your web site you wrote about one of your inspirations, Tiger Woods, the following: "Tiger's win at Augusta served as a wake-up call. It made me realize the need to make some serious changes in my life if I was going to get to where I wanted to be. I decided there and then that nothing else mattered, that I needed to prioritize my life if I was ever going to accomplish my goal. I had put on hold a career that I was very successful in to pursue one that had brought me confusion and frustration, but that I felt a deep passion for. It was that Sunday in April watching Tiger realize his dream that convinced me that I needed to change my life and go chase mine." Do you still have that single-minded focus about your own chess career, and how have your goals changed over time?
Maurice Ashley: I would say that I do not have that same focus for my chess career, because achieving the grandmaster title was probably the most significant achievement of my life. I mean I very much fancied becoming world champion one day, maybe even US Champion, but I don't think that even necessarily will leave the mark of the first, that becoming the first African-American did. Also I think it is a little late in my career, to be thinking about becoming world champion. And I have other goals now. My other goals are dramatically different. I see myself more as an ambassador of the game. And I hope to bring chess to a higher level in the United States. Making bigger tournaments, more interesting events. Making it a respectable profession for young people to be able to pursue in the future. And so as an ambassador, I see myself doing tournaments, I see myself traveling around, talking about the benefits of chess, writing books. Making chess fun, making the public realize that chess is something that people can have a great time at and enjoy as much as they enjoy any other traditional sporting activities or art or music. Chess has elements of them all and I think I can be a small part of making that happen here in the United States.
Susan Polgar recently spoke of her struggles in chess as a pioneering woman player, what struggles have you experienced as a pioneering Black chess player in the USA?
Maurice Ashley: I have to say that I got off very easy. There were incidents. Some crass incidents for example one Grandmaster remarking while I was playing against an International Master, Jay Bonin we were playing speed chess. And he looked at Jay after I defeated Jay a game and said, “Are you letting this shvarts beat you?” And you know this term is a derogatory one in Yiddish. But, you know, stuff like that , of course it angered me, but my best way to respond to that was over the chessboard and when I played this Grandmaster two games I defeated him both games and I had nothing to say. I let my game do the talking. I’ve had incidents like that but when I compare my own story to the stories that have happened forty or fifty years ago particularly to Jackie Robinson for example. I think I got off easy. I think that by and large chess players have been very kind. Like I said there have been a few incidents, but they certainly didn’t serve to bring me down any. And knowing the strength of character that African-Americans before me have displayed against much greater obstacles, I think that I have no reason at all to complain about how my experience went.
Who really is Maurice Ashley - what are your essential qualities?
Maurice Ashley: Well, I'm still looking for Maurice Ashley. My essential qualities. I think that more than anything, I try to do the right thing, I think about doing the right thing. I was brought up to be someone who gives back. Also someone who is very determined. Whenever I have a goal I come up with a million and one ways to execute that goal and I usually expect to fail nine times out of ten, but sooner or later I figure that I will succeed if I just keep trying hard enough. And I think that I want to see young people succeed. I guess from the way I grew up, just growing up as a poor boy in Jamaica. Finally getting an opportunity to show what I could do and then being able to work hard and do it. And I know what it feels like to not have opportunity or to dream and not be able to just do what it is you want or have what it is you want. So I have a soft spot in my heart for young people and giving to them and making sure that they grow and flower in the best way. But you know I have a lot of qualities. I don’t think I could really touch on only one or two that would take every thing and say that this is Maurice Ashley. But the couple I said, I think really speak to the things that I value. Pretty much more than most other things.
What are your professional goals in chess at this point, do you have specific rating gains in mind, or certain levels of competition you are working to achieve? Where do you see your life in chess developing in five years time? What plans do you have to achieve your goal?
Maurice Ashley: As a professional player I am almost in semi-retirement right now. I can pretty much say that I have achieved most of my goals in chess and I am at a point where I just want to get better. But I don’t have anything really specific in mind. Well, maybe winning the US Championship is something that I think is realistic, but you know if it doesn’t happen for me, it’s not going to kill me. As I said before, my big thing right now is to propagate chess, to spread it around the country. And that is a very difficult job and I think that I’m tailor-made as a chess player, coach, commentator, ambassador of the sport to be able to do that more than many of my colleagues. So I think that’s were my life is headed. In five years time I see my company, Generation Chess, exploding, really making a difference in the chess world. Bringing on sponsors, doing a lot of innovative ideas, executing a lot of interesting tournaments and plans that will keep the chess world abuzz. But as far as a player, I think right now I just want to get better. And keep enjoying the game.

You've been quite outspoken regarding the so-called "GM-draw", first with your editorial "The End of the Draw Offer?", and then the Generation Chess International Tournament where a no-draw rule was employed. Still, it seems this was all in the past, and we haven't heard much of late about this effort. What's new on this front, and are you going to keep "fighting the fight?" What's the next step in promoting your anti-draw initiative?
Maurice Ashley: Well the HB Global Chess Challenge is the next step in promoting this initiative. The point is if players don’t comply, they’ll be fined or they will be forfeited rounds or they won’t be allowed to play in our events. Well we won’t fine them, but we will prevent them from playing in our events and they will be forfeited that round. I think that the only way to convince players that this rule is important to us is to show that you mean business and if they want to play in the top event in the world then they will have to adhere to the rule. No we haven’t heard that much about it, but it really doesn’t matter. We feel as a company that we are on the forefront of something very important. That chess fans all around the world e-mail me in droves to say how much they appreciated my coming out and writing this article. I don’t think I did anything special, I just stated something very very obvious and just to me it’s not really a fight, although you know some chess players might disagree, but I don’t see it as a fight. I just see it as a natural evolution of the game. It's very natural, it not even something that should be considered unusual, except maybe to people who have it so ingrained in them that they can’t change, but I see it as very natural. A part of the game that simply has to change, it has to become current with the fighting spirit that is exhibited in all major sports. Hopefully all the top chess players will come around and see that this is the way it has to be and with enough money on the table they’ll start making an effort to make this change.
What sort of reaction did you receive privately from other GMs and tournament organizers about your anti-draw initiatives?
Maurice Ashley: Well, it was probably the strangest thing to me that GMs kept so quiet on this. But, actually the only public one I saw was Nigel Short who agreed that this is a rule that he feels definitely needs changing. I also saw Viswanathan Anand in an interview say that he is not sure about the way I wish to implement it but he thinks that something should be done and that it should be tried in every single chess tournament. Or by organizers, just try it and see what happens. That the important thing is in the attempt to try to work this out in a way that’s going to suit both players and fans. Privately I have received a great response from chess fans, from Grand Masters, for example Gregory Kaidanov. Kaidanov he said that this was really a big change for him, that after reading my article, he decided inside that this what he wanted to do, to just not have these quick draws anymore. And organizers, Jerry Weinkel, who organizes the Reno tournament he called me recently and said he wants to do one in March. The organizer of the Millennium Tournament in Virginia Beach, Tom Braunlich, wants to do the same thing also for his tournament in upcoming years. So its catching on. Recently in Corsica they had a tournament where they wanted to do no draws at all. No agreed draws at all and also three points for a win and one point for a draw. So I think the movement is beginning. And I think when people see the big tournament like the HB Global Chess Challenge work, they’ll start to realize that things aren’t as bad as they thought and that this is not some kind of bizarre rule that is being imposed on them from on high, that it’s just about playing chess.
What is the shortest draw that you ever played and under which circumstances did it occur?
Maurice Ashley: I've had a few quick draws. Mainly the quickest draws have been in the last round of major tournaments, that I was about to win. I remember playing in the Bermuda Open and Joel Benjamin and I tied for first place by just having a quick draw in the last round. I remember in both Foxwoods that I tied for first place in, having quick draws with my opponents, it was Wojtkiewicz one game and Serper the other. Look, this is something that's been part of chess. It's not something I'm proud of, but it's also something that was within the context (I say was, but it still is) of how grandmasters earn their living. Unfortunately the practice is terrible for chess, and I didn't wake up to it until after the US Championship of 2003, and after Kasparov drew Deep Junior in the last game of a huge match where if he'd won he would have won the match. So, I think it's something that I've only recently awoken to and now that I have I just have a passion for it and I want to see it changed.
In order to develop more home-grown American GMs, what needs to change? Have you ever considered opening a chess program that trains students to reach the levels of master and grandmaster, much like they do in Russia and other parts of Europe?
Maurice Ashley: I have considered opening a school, and I think eventually Generation Chess will open a school or have a camp. I think more needs to be done though. I think you'll find American grandmasters coming about when it seems as if chess is a real lucrative profession to pursue. When Bobby Fischer became world champion, American grandmasters came out in droves, and the reason for that was simply because they felt like there was excitement behind the game, there was potential dollars behind the game, there was a reason to play. With no real money behind the sport, smart young American kids - they are going to be lawyers and doctors and they should be, in my opinion, if there's no real promise for them then just to pursue the sport that's not going to feed them, why do it? So I think that's the final piece. I think if kids see a monetary opportunity, a lucrative opportunity, in chess then they'll continue to pursue it and you will see a ton of GMs coming out of the United States, but until then they're going to go and pursue regular degrees like all their friends and become successful business people or doctors and lawyers. That's only natural, so I think that's the real thing that has to change.
What are your thoughts on the scholastic chess movement?
Maurice Ashley: I think the Scholastic movement in chess is fantastic, it's growing, the USCF is really putting a lot of energy into it, and in groups all around the country they're doing the same. That really is our future, and that should be promoted as much as possible. They're the fans of the future, they're the stars of the future. So I am very pleased to see just how these different initiatives around the country are burgeoning and will continue to blossom over time.
When teaching inner-city kids chess as you do, do you make it a point to tie in the life lessons, such as thinking ahead, consequences of bad choices, etc? What have been the responses of such lessons (such as, any positive feedback from the kids as they got older and looked back on those lessons)?
Maurice Ashley: I can't help it when I teach but to incorporate life lessons, it's actually embedded in my style. I bring up all sorts of connections between chess and life and sports and success. I do it just naturally as I'm teaching. It actually enhances how the kids learn chess itself, learn even just basic tactics. And kids have great response. Years later now I have kids who have graduated from Harvard and Yale, kids who are pursuing PhDs in music programs and business degrees, MBAs. To a person they all tell me chess was fabulous and the way I explained chess to them really helped. They weren't able to articulate the benefits then, but now they say it's just so clear to them that they use chess constantly in the way they think, the way they approach life, how they think about life. So I'm real proud of the fact that that was something I had to offer, and I continue to watch them blossom. They're fantastic kids, now fantastic young men and women and chess really had a part, a big part, to do in their eventual success.
Drawn from your observations of teaching chess to children, what aspects of their character do you observe is being most developed?
Maurice Ashley: I really can't point to a single one but I think that a critical one is self-confidence. Playing chess is viewed by the rest of society as something extremely difficult to do. So when a kid plays chess well they get positive feedback from most adults, who just hearing it think 'Wow, you must be really smart.' And in fact chess does help your critical thinking skills, I know it helped mine coming up for sure and it's something that I try to stress with the kids all the time. So I think that as that happens, as you start to solve problems in an effective way, use your mind, you know it's you that's doing it, so you have a real sense of ownership over every single chess game. The strength of character that develops is really tremendous and I think that it definitely helps your self-confidence and anytime you're confident you've already won half the battle for anything that you have to do in life.
Describe one life lesson you have taken away from the game of chess that you apply regularly in your life.
Maurice Ashley: There's so many lessons I get from chess, it's incredible, but I think the biggest thing for me has always been is that losing is learning. Whenever I won a chess game it was so easy to forget the game, I almost didn't even feel that great. You know I felt pretty good, but it seemed like it was supposed to happen because I just kept making the moves and it happened, but when you lose, whoo. There's so much to learn from that. To identify mistakes and figure out what it was exactly that went wrong. That to me is the hardest thing, but it was always the thing that developed me the most. I go away from losses stunned, hurt, but thinking, analyzing, wondering. And I come out of losses so much stronger, almost to a point where I look forward to my losses. I know that sounds strange, but the things that kept me down, that got me down, brought me up, so much afterwards. I was so inspired by it, that to lose was just not a big deal. It just became part of the growth process. And I think that's the biggest lesson that I ever learned from chess - that you can grow from failure.
The perennial discussion about how to be a better player goes on and on, what combination of elements do you think are key to developing chess performance.
Maurice Ashley: There's no mystery, I don't think it's a mystery. I think hard work, truly hard work, study, examining your mistakes, the ability to bounce back from defeat - and to grow from it. Naturally it helps to have some talent and the ability to calculate and to analyze. But I think even if you look at a gifted youngster like Hikaru Nakamura for example; sure he's a great thinker, he's quick on his feet, but more than anything I like about this kid is he's so determined. And you'll find that top chess players have that quality time and time again. Their determination despite all obstacles and odds or challenges. The ones who stick it out, the ones who push themselves, push to learn more, push to become better players, are the ones who actually do become better players. I see that time and time again, the difference between mediocrity and excellence is effort. And that applies to everything. It's just no mystery; those who don't want to work don't go anywhere, and those who do always end up succeeding on some level. And I think that in addition to natural skills and talent that I think are pretty obvious in chess, I think to me that's really the quality.
What parting thoughts would you like to leave to the readers of this interview? Perhaps something we haven't touched upon yet, or something you would like to elaborate on.
Maurice Ashley: I think a strong message I would like to send to chess fans everywhere is that really and truly the fans are going to make the difference in chess. The fans have to mobilize. The fans have to show that chess is a meaningful activity and that they're willing to spend dollars to make chess successful. As fans, as players, traditionally we have been very lazy in showing our support for chess in real ways, in concrete ways that can make a difference, whether it's in terms of giving to chess charities, whether it's in terms of doing our own promotions for events. We tend to sit back and let other people do all the work. If we continue to do that chess is going to be at a standstill, but if each fan figures out a way to help grow chess then our sport really stands a chance. And one of the big ways to do that is to get our dollars behind it in some way, even if it means buying a bunch of chess sets and giving them to your local community center. Those things make a difference, and we will grow chess fans one by one. If each fan were to create just one more fan, if each member of the USCF were to create just one more member of the USCF then we'd have 200,000 members in the organization, and that's huge. So if each one teaches one, then we grow. So I would like to see the fans really take up this mission of spreading chess, so that we can see the game that we love really thrive.

*courtesy chessville.com

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