Maurice Ashley was raised in St. Andrews, Jamaica, by his grandmother, while his mother tried to save enough money to bring him and his siblings to New York. It was a tough childhood at times, and the Ashley children grew up tough: Devon would become a world-champion kickboxer; Alicia, a world-champion boxer.
The world's first black grandmaster: Maurice Ashley
But Maurice's toughness didn't develop in the ring. Instead, he found it in the heated speed-chess matches of Brooklyn's Prospect Park. In 1999, he became the world's first black grandmaster, and now he's the first black to qualify for the U.S. Chess Championship, which begins Thursday at Seattle Center.
"I feel like I've already won, just coming in the door," Ashley, 36, said Wednesday. "If I'm the first, what that means is that there's going to be a second, and a third, and a fourth. That I'm very pleased about."
In fact, there already is a second: Stephen Muhammad, of Columbus, Ga., qualified after Ashley and will also vie for the title. Their participation marks another landmark in a tournament that, for 155 years, drew white men pretty much exclusively. Last year, America's Foundation for Chess radically changed the tournament's format, opening it to dozens more players – including, for the first time, women.
This year's event, which wraps up Jan. 18, offers record prize money: $255,000, with $25,000 going to the winner and $12,500 to the top-finishing woman. Larry Christiansen of Cambridge, Mass., who won last year's event in a sudden-death playoff, is seeking to retain his title, while the top female finisher, 22-year-old Jennifer Shahade of Brooklyn, is hoping to play even harder this year.
Jennifer Shahade of Brooklyn
"It definitely helped me a lot with confidence, and in chess, confidence is everything," said Shahade, who graduated from New York University a few weeks ago. "I have a new attitude: I don't necessarily expect my opponents to make a perfect move every time. Everybody can mess up, even if they have a higher rating."
She and Ashley, like many of the players, are staunch advocates of teaching chess in schools; they say it teaches kids an intellectual discipline that serves them well in life. Ashley, the world's only black grandmaster, coached teams from Harlem to national championships before quitting to focus on his professional play.
Ashley's rating of 2515 puts him near the middle of the tournament's pack. Gregory Kaidanov of Lexington, Ky., is the tournament's highest-rated player, at 2742, followed by Alexander Goldin of Skokie, Ill., at 2713; Boris Gulko of Fair Lawn, N.J., at 2694; and Yasser Seirawan of Seattle at 2690.
Muhammad, who holds the lesser title of World Chess Federation master, is rated 2396.
"Anyone that plays in this championship has a chance," said chess writer John Henderson, of America's Foundation for Chess. "Ashley will probably not be among the favorites, because there are some whales out there, but anything can happen – anything."
John B Henderson