‘Life is a chessboard’

Interview with Grandmaster Maurice Ashley.

Published : Dec 25, 2013 12:30 IST

Grandmaster Maurice Ashley.

Grandmaster Maurice Ashley.

IN early December, the world of chess was stirred up by dramatic news of a million dollar prize tournament that, at its core, seeks to popularise the game and take it to newer territories. The Millionaire Chess Open (millionairechess.com) is the brainchild of chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley, who has for long been passionate about popularising chess and using the game as a vehicle to transform lives, particularly of children from underprivileged backgrounds in the United States. Ashley is somewhat uniquely placed to be a brand ambassador for chess: his family immigrated from Jamaica when he was young, and although the young Maurice grew up in poverty in Brooklyn, he attained much distinction over the 64 squares and went on to become, in 1999, the game’s first black Grandmaster.

Ashley’s Tiger Woods-ian achievement was, of course, striking for the racial and cultural significance it held, shattering stereotypes of African Americans as being not distinguished in mind sports. But just as important has been Ashley’s decades-long mission of using chess as a medium to inspire down-and-out children from low-income neighbourhoods to reach for the stars. Starting as a college student, when he trained schoolchildren from a rough neighbourhood in Harlem to win the U.S. national championship, Ashley has kept up his public-spirited engagement to this day, teaching chess to—and instilling hope and a sense of self-esteem into—children who have fallen through the cracks in the social structure.

In a freewheeling interview, Ashley elaborates on the “transformative power” that chess has on life and how he uses chess to solve problems in life. “There are so many… lessons in chess that apply to life. And if we talk about them constantly with young people, they… realise that life is a chessboard,” he says.

An established chess commentator, Ashley also frames the recent World Chess Championship between Indian chess king Viswanathan Anand and Norway’s Magnus Carlsen in philosophical terms. Anand, he says, “has established his legacy forever as one of the greatest players ever seen”. Yet, the game needed new blood and a new energy, and “the passing of the torch”—in this case, to Carlsen—“is always an important part of the game”.

Excerpts from the interview:

We want to talk to you about the transformative power of chess: about what chess does to life. Your work in the early 1990s with African American schoolkids from low-income neighbourhoods in Harlem is testimony to that: you trained them to win the U.S. national championships. How did chess change their lives?

This was in 1991, and they were a group of young people from central Harlem, many of them from neighbourhoods that were characterised by poverty, violence, drugs, and a sense of hopelessness. And they were ready for just about anyone to bring something positive into their lives. Chess happened to be the way I did it, but other people could have done it with other things. But what chess specifically did was to give them focus on an activity of the mind: that was not expected of them. And in part because it was not expected, it was that much more dramatic. When they said they were chess players, people did triple takes: they were stunned by the idea that these young people were focussed not on basketball or some kind of music but were instead dedicated to a game of the mind.

When they started playing well, it was a tremendous boost to their self-esteem, their self-assuredness. Just knowing they could be great at chess —and, presumably, whatever they put their minds to—was an impact statement. They went on from there to winning the nationals and living some incredible lives.

What led you, as a 25-year-old in 1991, to take up this project?

Actually, I took up the job of a chess coach because the pay was good; I was in college at that time, so it really worked for me. I had no expectations when I went into the classroom. But once I entered the classroom, I felt that these were the kids I wanted to work with: they were growing up the same way I had grown up.

How hard was it to really want to do something like that?

It wasn’t hard at all for me. I connected with them immediately. I grew up in their circumstances, so I wasn’t an outsider. I spoke their language. I understood it better as it went on, but basically, I was just like a big brother/uncle to many of the kids.

Did playing chess also influence the kids’ scholastic abilities in the classroom?

Well, chess impacted them inspirationally, and actually. That’s the great thing about chess: what it does for you when you’re winning championships. You realise you can do anything and you realise how intelligent you are.

Some of these kids were not interested in coming to school: it wasn’t a great school; it was in a tough neighbourhood…. Initially, we introduced lunchtime chess, but we realised that while they were keen on chess, they were still coming to school late. Then, we initiated chess classes in the mornings. Drawn by the chess, they began waking up early. They were coming to school every day and they were never late: that alone changes your scholastic experience. And we’d say, “If you’re not doing well at school, you can’t come for chess tournaments.” Just the fact that they were keen on chess meant you could inspire them. On top of that, chess taught them tremendous discipline: to sit for long hours, to concentrate.

You also worked with the U.S. juvenile justice system by teaching chess to young convicts and undertrials. What did you do there?

I don’t want to overplay the work I’ve done with the justice system. It was in Rikers, which is a serious prison in the States. And I did 10 sessions with kids who were locked up and were awaiting either sentencing or trial. And that was a very transformative experience for me to watch 17- and 18-year-olds incarcerated and the real sense of despair and hopelessness that their lives were over and that they had no hope.

The kids who ended up there really believed that they were nothing and that society would never believe in them, no matter what they did. These were mostly African American and Latino kids, and they just had a sense of being black that said, we’re not going anywhere.

I remember the first time I went into the group. A teacher had told them that a Grandmaster was coming. I walk into the room and one kid looks at me, then looks at the teacher and says: “I thought you were bringing a Grandmaster; he’s not a Grandmaster.”

So, I said: “Oh really? Let’s set up the boards.” They had five chessboards there, and I removed the chairs from one side and I started to play simul (that is, simultaneous chess, where a Master plays many opponents simultaneously). They had never seen that before and were in shock seeing me play five people at the same time. And as I’m playing, I’m talking out loud to them and saying, “So, why couldn’t I be a Grandmaster? Just because I’m black?”

And as I’m doing it, you could just see that the symbolism of this black man, who was confident and competent, just expanded the kids’ world. After that, I was able to talk to them about chess, about life, about fixing goals and making good choices. Chess is a decision-making game, and as has been famously said, you can make 40 good moves and ruin the game with just one bad one.

You said that the experience transformed you. How?

Because it made my work so much more important. I came from Jamaica, I’ve experienced poverty back there, and in Brooklyn. I thought I knew about despair, but these kids had made mistakes, and I realised that there was more to do, more people to touch, and that I could really have a larger impact in a different kind of space than what I was used to. And it brought me back home: it brought me straight back to Brooklyn.

And that’s the direction of my life right now in chess: to touch kids’ lives and talk about the transformative power of the game, the power it has to really change lives.

Is there an element of fear of failure in getting the kids to do this?

I never think in terms of failure, ever. There is no such thing as failure by definition. To me, you try something and if it doesn’t work, then you try something else. It’s all about maximising your energy in that space and seeing what that brings. As long as you’re really in it for the right reasons, you’ll be fine.

You speak of the transformative power of chess for young minds like these, but would you concede that real life is not a chessboard, that people do not play by the rules?

Not at all. I think that chess is a structured version of real life. Of course, it’s not my case that chess can teach you everything about life. But it has its wisdom to impart. Let’s say you’re playing by the rules and so is your opponent: you’re coming up with this great idea and your opponent is seeking at every moment to destroy that great idea. This demands a tremendous degree of flexibility on your part. You have to be nimble. If you’re not, you’re going to lose.

You can’t be focussed on your own playing; your opponent is more important than you are. This has tremendous application for real life. Even if they’re not playing by the rules, you still have to understand their mindset, their paradigm. You then have to craft your strategy and be ready to change whatever you were doing and deal with what’s in front of you.

This kind of variability, which is the reality of life, is also the reality of chess, and chess trains you for that. Emotionally and mentally, you’re being trained on the chessboard to deal with all these various ever-shifting challenges from different personalities as well and your emotional reaction to these different settings. Such as your own emotion that you’re winning or your own fear that you’re losing. In such situations, you try to go over all the possibilities and make the best decision. Also, when things are going well, it’s not enough to just sit back….

There are so many of these lessons in chess that apply to life. And if we talk about them constantly with young people, they get it and they realise that life is a chessboard. At the start of my class, my students walk in, bobbing their heads and going: “Chess is life. Chess is life.” I just smile, thinking, “You’re absolutely right. You got it.”

In one of your videos, you speak of retrograde analysis as a way of solving problems. Could you elaborate on that point?

There are different ways to get to a goal. One way is to see the goal and think what’s the best way to get there, and start right where you are and implement various steps to get to that goal. You vary your actions according to the data that come in. That’s how most people do it.

But the other way is to think about what the goal is and to figure out what the steps are before you reach the goal, and work on the last step first and refine your plan as you work backwards. So, instead of working towards the goal, you ask yourself what happens just before you reach the goal, and then what’s the step before that. It’s a different way of thinking about a problem.

Did you plan your life that way? Has yours not been more spontaneous?

When I was 18 years old, I read a book called Passages by Gail Sheehy. It’s about the passages in a man’s life starting from when you’re a late teenager and going into your 70s.

I read the book with fascination because it was like a road map for my life. And I understood what my life would be like in my 70s. It had a big impact on me. It gave me a broad view of my life, and from there on, I feel like I’ve been living my life backwards. I realised that someday I’m going to be either 70 or dead. So what do I do to prepare myself for that?

It’s of course impossible to live now as though you are 70: there’s so much to learn, so much wisdom to gain before that. But thinking about it helped me have much more respect for older people and to seek their advice, seek the things I will not know as a 20-year-old and they know at 70: their carefree attitudes towards life, the lack of need to impress other people, and this idea of not regretting things you didn’t do as opposed to the things you did.…

Chess proficiency is grounded in spatial ability—about objects in space, for instance. Does it make you a better driver, for instance?

I can’t say it’s true because I can think of a chess player, a friend of mine, who’s a horrible driver. [Laughs] But on one occasion, my ex-wife was lost in an area in New York: she called me to ask for directions. I knew the general area where she was, but I did not know the roads at all. I knew she was east of where I was and that the road she was trying to get to ran east to west. So, I imagined myself in the car and started looking around: I visualised the sun and thought, “Okay, this is how we’re going to do it.” I said, “Look at the sun and just keep driving on roads that keep the sun on your left.” She said, “How is that supposed to work?” I said, “Just keep doing it.”

It’s a simple thing, but what I did was to literally put myself in the situation and I saw the world with her eyes as best as I could and it helped me solve the problem. And I find that chess helps you do these kinds of things. Chess has helped me solve so many problems in life.

When you became the world’s first black Grandmaster, you said that it mattered hugely and yet it didn’t. What did you mean by that?

To be black in this world has some kind of mythology around it. People categorise black people in a certain mindset relative to them. Black people are expected to follow a certain set of rules in their own minds; the black people either take it on themselves to follow these, or reject it. When I was trying to become a Grandmaster, there were so many people—particularly African Americans—who would come to me and say, “We can’t wait for you to become a Grandmaster.” They said they were proud of me and I know it mattered more to them that I performed the feat but also not for me, but really, for themselves, as a black person, for us as a people and for the next generation. And I understood that this had tremendous meaning. But I also understood that many of the reasons why it was important were largely irrelevant because a big part of it was about whether black people were intelligent enough to succeed in chess and this idea that perhaps black people were just not that bright and that’s why there were no black Grandmasters.

But I already knew that to be garbage. I knew that my becoming a Grandmaster really didn’t mean anything because, if anything, it changes a perception externally without changing facts. Or rather, the perception had to catch up with the facts. Perception is tremendously important—but the facts were always the facts and I was simply doing what anybody of any race could do.

You have also been doing some work in fusing hip hop and martial arts along with chess. Do you see a point of intersection between these three?

It’s pretty clear that the mindset you need as a chess player and the mindset you need as a martial artist dovetail. Not because you’re out to demolish your opponent but because you’re out to understand the world through their eyes so that you can handle the situation.

One of the great lessons I learnt from martial arts has helped my chess game. It isn’t about my genius; it’s about my opponent’s genius and what I am going to do about it.

I was very much from a culture and mindset that said the smarter I am, the easier it will be for me to outsmart you. Without really understanding that the deeper I understand you, the easier it is to crack you.

And getting into the mind of the other person is very much a factor in the martial arts that I took, which is Aikido, which is all about using your opponent’s energy, as opposed to using any of your energy. All sports, and in fact all activity, gets to a level where they realise I’m really not that important; it’s the other person that’s important. Aikido is a very protective art; it demands that you do not injure the attacker. If someone comes after you with a knife, Aikido demands that you counter their attack but not harm them. Because their world is warped in some way, you have to see through their warped lens and say, “Maybe he’s having a real bad day, a horrible life, and is desperate trying to get food for his family.” And you’re just going to demolish him, but you’ve never walked in his shoes. So Aikido tries to get you to see some of that.

Now, chess is about winning the game, ultimately, but you have to know what your opponent is after. You must always be in the mind of your opponent: it can never be about you and never about your plans; it’s always about the other person’s plans. You have to craft your ideas and strategies based on that. That’s a lesson for life. This applies in politics, which our politicians never seem to learn; in social interactions; international affairs; and even in personal relationships, where you must try to see through the eyes of your spouse. Chess players understand it; they get it.

Mayu Saini and Venky Vembu are writers who share a passion for chess.


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