At 9:00 on a Saturday morning, a room in New York’s Rockland Community College is filled with nearly 100 Black grade school and high school students all attentively watching one man speak.
His name is Maurice Ashley.
He is the first Black person to be named International Grand Master in the game of chess. He is arguably one of the dopest chess players alive according to the Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE). And on this day, a few lucky kids from the New Rochelle-White Plains Kappa League and the Naomi’s Program of Excellence (NPE) group get one-on-one play time with this Grand Master.
So how did Ashley keep the attention of these iPhone carrying, tech-savy millennials? Simple. He just put a chessboard in front of them and watched their instant curiosity kick in.
For Ashley, chess is as much a sport as any other exercise: It requires focus, high energy and a strong competitive edge.
If you have a perception of chess as your grandpa’s favorite game, “you are way behind the times.”
“Chess is a kid’s game,” dominated by top players who are 24 years old or younger, Ashley told ESSENCE in an exclusive interview.
According to Ashley, the game is blossoming in a wide-range of communities including among Black kids and students in inner-city schools. Ashley, who was introduced to the game as a student in Brooklyn Technical High School, can attest to that.
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“You go all around, city after city in the U.S. and you see Black kids playing chess,” Ashley told ESSENCE. “You go to any national championship and you find a lot of Black kids playing.”
Studies have shown countless benefits to playing chess, including increased problem solving, developed critical thinking skills and cognitive skills. Still, there’s a resistance to incorporate chess into schools.
“It’s really about the adults who decide if they want to bring chess into their homes, so they can learn how to play or into their schools. It’s not at all about the kids themselves because you’re going to get a group of kids loving chess in any setting that you find,” he said.
There are programs all over the country urging principles and parents to introduce chess clubs into predominately Black schools. There is Chess in the School (New York City), Train of Thought Chess Education Program (Los Angeles), and Detroit City Chess Club (Detroit) all doing excellence work to expose kids to the game, Ashley said.
”We need to make sure we’re giving [kids] the opportunity to see chess so that they can see that they like it.”