Maurice Ashley on Hip Hop, GZA and Will Smith

by ChessBase
7/8/2006 – He is the first black grandmaster in history, and also an extraordinary chess teacher, an organiser and a friend of the stars. In this indepth interview by Adisa Banjoko, the "Bishop of Hip Hop", Maurice Ashley tells about his life, his likes and his encounters with GZA and Will Smith. Fascinating stuff.

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Controlled Chaos: Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley

By Adisa Banjoko, "The Bishop of Hip Hop"

One of the beautiful things about chess, martial arts and Hip Hop is that at its highest levels race does seem to fall away. You only see the raw courage and art in motion. International Grandmaster Maurice Ashley embodies these three things when he plays as well as when he speaks. He is the first Black Grandmaster and is also a product of the Hip Hop generation. In this interview, we discuss how he began his journey as a chess player. He tells of how he clashed with GZA and Will Smith on the 64 and squares how martial arts is related to chess. We also discuss the various nuances of chess players on the street vs. classically trained chessmen.

The first black grandmaster in history

Adias Banjoko: So, what does it take to become a Grandmaster in chess? What do you have to do?

Maurice Ashley: You have to get a performance record of 2600 in 25 games. Now, what does that mean? You have to play in different international tournaments. There are various masters and international grandmasters there. You have to perform at a certain level against that crowd. There is a specific kind of rating in chess. The best players are usually ranked over 2600. Garry Kasparov was the highest rated player of all times and he was rated at 2851 at his peak. But 2600 is the top 100 players in the world.

In order to become a Grandmaster you have to perform at that level of ability not once but generally speaking three times. Because most tournaments are nine rounds each. You have to do it in three tournaments. You literally play like one of the best in order to be given the title. If you can do that three times, you are given the title.

AB: Who was your last match against for you to get the title and how nervous were you?

MA: The gentleman was a guy from Romania, Adrian Negulescu. He was an International Master. That game I was incredibly nervous. I went into the game and in the middle of the game everything changed. Around move 14 I realized ”It’s all good. I just need to settle in and play”. I was able to play very calmly, very coolly – just play.

For that kind of important game, you wouldn’t think that I could be calm throughout. It just so happened that I was very calm. My opponent did not know that game would give me the title. He just thought it was a regular chess game. But my friends knew, and a couple of people around me knew. So, after the game he was like “Why are you so happy”? I was like “I just got my title.” He said “Oh, wow”. He was cool about the game. Chess players are real sportsmen. It was a good game – he treated it with respect.

AB: How old were you when you began playing chess and do you remember when you began to actualize the goal of becoming a grandmaster?

MA: I really started playing in Jamaica. My brother was eight years older than me, but I would always tag along behind him. We played a lot of games, Monopoly, checkers, cards but chess was one of the games we played. My brother says that he recalls that when the chess set was there, I treated it differently. He said he remembered me being in the backyard playing by myself. No one else treated the board that way. I was 9 or 10 at the time.

I don’t’ recall taking the game with any seriousness. But what happened is that I was 12 years old when I came to this country. When I was 14 in high school I saw a classmate playing. I knew I knew the rules of the game and how to play. I figured “I know this game I’ll be alright.” I played him and he crushed me. It was ridiculous. It wasn’t even close at all.

I couldn’t understand what was going on. I was in the library doing some work and I found a chess book. I didn’t know they had books on chess. I’m looking at it mystified. “There’s actually strategies and tactics for chess?” I just fell in love with the game right there. I got hooked. It made so much sense, the stuff that was in the book. So, I went and I played my friend again.

Of course he beat me again. He had been reading books all along. Knowledge is power. In chess, knowledge is definitely power. But I caught the bug and he and I played over and over all through high school until I eventually started beating him.

Maurice Ashley – the early days

AB: Few people see the relationship between Hip Hop and chess. When did you start seeing it? Also, coming from Jamaica were you even a big Hip Hop fan originally?

MA: Well I’m old enough to be at the begining of Hip Hop. I came here in 1978. Hip Hop didn’t start until Sugar Hill blew up. That was about 1980, maybe ’79. I was of course a Bob Marley fan first. I grew up where Reggae was playin’ on the streets everyday. That kinda music was a part of my life on a regular basis. When I came here Reggae wasn’t what it is now. It was a Jamaican phenomenon . It wasn’t what it is now with Sean Paul and crew who got things to where they are today.

From the very beginning though I was into Hip Hop. Chess and Hip Hop definitely have elements that intertwined. One of those things is creativity. The greatest chess players are creative. Of course there are some calculations that have to be made. There is skill involved. Much like there is skill involved in Hip Hop. But it is not the mathematics that separates the greatest players it’s the creativity. It’s the ability to change with the environment. Having the ability to deal with any situation that confronts you no matter what the danger. To be able to overcome. To stay cool under all pressure. That’s the real mark of a champion in chess.

A guy is trying to kill you in chess. He is trying to maim you intellectually. It is not some esoteric general exercise. It’s war! I’m trying to break you down. I’m trying to break down your pieces. I’m trying to break down your mind. I’m trying to break down your spirit- everything. When guys lose at the highest level it’s brutal. You feel like you have totally prepared to come out. You have all these skills. Then a guy comes and takes your position and rips it apart. That’s personal.

So, you fight to the death in a chess game. You try to use all your skills, your weapons your capabilities to win the war. A lot of people do not realize that kind of depth in a chess game. Because they can’t. They do not have access to the mind of a champion. It’s not like other sports that are much more obvious.

A lot of people think of chess as slow, or boring. Because they can't step inside and realize what the two competitors are struggling with as they play. It’s tremendous. It’s activity, activity, activity- danger is around every corner.

AB: I know that you have mentored the GZA from time to time on chess strategies. I know you also mentored Will Smith talk about that for a minute.

MA: VIBE was doing an article on the connection between chess and Hip Hop. So, they linked us together. In the end they only explored the Hip Hop side and just did the article with GZA. But we found out we had to do a photo shoot together. We finally ended up meeting. We hung out at a chess club in Brooklyn and I showed them some stuff.

AB: What did you think of GZA’s game and what have you helped him develop?

MA: Well, I was very surprised by his game. Considering he has never played a tournament in his life, he plays like a tournament player. The problem he has is he does not have the long foundation one needs to avoid certain categories of mistakes. I was stunned to hear that he had not read many chess books. What happened was, he just played.

Through practice he developed a lot of ideas on his own. When Wu-Tang fights they get down. Their strength is mathematical-tactical. It’s like street fighting. But street fighting does not work against a polished boxer. There are tremendous limits, and they will show up . As the game goes on sooner or later you are going to make a mistake.

It’s like “You can’t get away with that idea. This is gonna hurt you in the long run. Even if you cant see it now, it’s gonna hurt you in a few moves. It’s gonna decrease your position in ways you don’t suspect.”

I was very impressed, but I was like, “OK, this guys needs some lessons.” A lot of times you need to beat a guy down before he can see what’s up. “What’s Grandmaster? You must be kinda good, but I don’t know what that is?” So we played, and I showed him what the level was like and he was very respectful. He realized that there was a chasm between us. But now he wants to take lessons. He’s been in LA doing his latest album Grandmasters. When he comes back I’m gonna elevate his game. He said he does not mind losing to me, but he does not want to lose to the people out there in the park. He said, I gotta show him how to beat those guys!

GZA – pronounced jizza, also known as "The Genius", is an American rapper, famous for his cool, precise flow and cerebral, literate rhymes.He is regarded by many as the best pure rapper in the entire Wu-Tang Clan. The Genius was born Gary Grice on August 22, 1966, in Staten Island, NY. He started learning rhymes by the earliest hip-hop MCs while spending time in the Bronx, and returned to Staten Island to share them with his cousins, who later became Ol' Dirty Bastard and the RZA.

AB: Tell me about Will Smith.

MA: I was blessed to meet him. He saw me when I was first getting attention for being the first African American Grandmaster back in 1999. He reached out as did other stars, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Cosby – I met quite a few people. Because they understood the significance of a brother making it in that kind of field.

I met with him briefly at a studio. But I could only stay a few minutes because I had my young four-year-old daughter with me. I did not hook up with him again until the next year. His wife’s assistant called me and said that his wife wanted to surprise him on Valentines Day. She wanted to give him a lesson with a Grandmaster and asked could I come.

Chess player in black: Will Smith

When I came in the room he was “Woah, what’s going on?” She was like “Happy Valentines Day”. At first he was like “but aren’t you and me supposed to be hangin’ out?” She was like “No, it’s ok” and that’s all he needed – he was OUT (laughs). We played for like three hours. He has a very good game. He had been playing a while and he reads. I would think that he would do better against GZA if they rumbled because his game has less holes in it.


MA: Will’s game has a little bit more polish to it. You gotta be careful with Will.

AB: Tell me about a chess player you really respect.

MA: Number one on my list is a former world champion, Mikhail Tal. He was Latvian. He was the youngest champion at the time, before Garry Kasparov broke it and that’s actually since been broken.

But Mikhail Tal could have grown up in Brooklyn. His style was radical chaos. He basically tried to play chess as if he was standing in a hurricane. His opponent would get so confused by what was being thrown at them – including the kitchen sink… That they couldn’t figure it out. He didn’t play perfect chess, and he did not care to. He just wanted to get down – to brawl. He was like “Let’s do it. Let’s get wild. No quiet strategic games. I’m throwin’ some of my pieces at you. Some of them may die, but that's all right. Ultimately I'll strip the king naked, checkmate you and break your back. That’s it”.

An unknown picture of Will Smith in a chess situation

It took computers to break his game down. His game would be over and people would analyze his game not days, not weeks – but months. Computers think much faster today. But they look at the game and they found “Wow, if the guy had walked the tightrope, through the jungle and by-passed the snake, and then got through the quicksand – THEN he would have been safe on the other side. But who is gonna do that?”

He burnt out very young. He had many problems. He was a chain smoker, a drinker. The whole nine. He had a lot of physical ailments and could not keep it up. I guess that’s kinda like living the hard life as a rapper. He couldn’t sit still. So he was extremely creative during his peak years and just wasn’t able to keep it up.

AB: How do you deal with the mental, physical and even spiritual stress of chess? I mean, I have been in games where you make one wrong move and you can feel your heart drop like you jumped off of a building. You can have an attack that is so flawless and then one mistake that undoes 15 good moves. I’m just a casual player, I suck – and I feel it. So, I can't imagine what it must be like for someone on your level.

Maurice during a simultaneous exhibition in a school

MA: I think that part of what goes into being a Master or Grandmaster is that. The constitution to handle it. A lot of players have gone up, but then stopped. They have not been able to pass the bridge. There is something about their constitution that does not allow them to get there. There is a certain amount of fortitude that a player has to be able to maintain to tolerate that kind of tension day in and day out.

People do various things. During my quest to become a Grandmaster I was doing a lot of Aikido. It is a marital art that stresses internal relaxation. It stresses using your opponents force against them. It stresses meditation. It was very powerful for me.

AB: It was interesting that you mentioned Aikido. I study Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and there is a fighter named Ricardo De La Riva. He has a DVD of techniques called “Chess on the Mat”. I gotta get you guys together!

MA: Chess on the mat? Wow, that’s cool. Martial arts and chess absolutely go together. Especially with the internal martial arts. Many times you cannot tell the difference between the feeling and the overriding strategy.

It’s no accident that much of what you see in chess is applicable in life. Certainly the skilled martial artists recognizes the connection. There is a certain ebb and flow that happens. At the highest level of martial arts, it doesn’t take two mistakes to lose (laughs). You are not getting a chance at a second mistake. So, you know you have the same kind of intensity, need for thorough focus, need for total balance. All the things that make a great martial artist make a great chess player.

AB: How long have you been studying Aikido?

MA: I started studying in 1998.

AB: What brought you to that art?

MA: Seriously enough chess did. I had not become a Grandmaster yet. I had played in a tournament. I made a breakthrough in chess. I realized that a lot of the greatest aspects of chess had to do with using your opponents force against them. I was surprised by it. ‘Cause I’m the type of guy. I like to take out the bazooka and shoot. That was my style. The brawl. But that was not working against the top players. You had to be a bit more subtle. Or, it could backfire against you.

But then I played in a tournament where I was able to use my opponents force against them. I talked to my wife about it. I understood Tai Chi. Mentally it was built on the same concept. My wife was practicing an art called Kido, which is a derivative of Hapkido. She said “That’s similar to what my sensei told me”. So, I started to research that. I came to Aikido. I first read a book on Aikido, and when I read it- it was like reading a chess book.

AB: Was it “The Art of Peace”? ‘Cause that book is like one of my top three books.

MA: It was actually another book called “Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere”. That book is deep. The art of centralization, the art of exploring the opponents initiative – it was like “woah”. I found it to be profound. I started translating some of that energy into my chess game, and it was magical. I was doing stuff to people that they just did not understand.

Garry Kasparov talks to anchor Maurice Ashley in the ESPN show

AB: I gotta get you and De La Riva together, man.

MA: That’d be fascinating.

AB: In the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer” there is the theme of balancing the street hustlers chess style (played by Lawrence Fishburne) and his classical chess teacher (played by Ben Kingsley). What are the strengths and weakness of both kind of players?

MA: I think it goes back to the same concepts I mentioned earlier. The classically trained player knows the history. Knows which has occurred in the past. Knows what is proven. Like mathematical proofs. Like “execute in this fashion and you will be successful”. Because you can always draw on the classics to draw on a problem as you face it. The classics are tremendously important and provide the foundation of what it is you need to be successful.

However, something the classical player might lack, is that spontaneity. That innovative style. The ability to handle chaos. Because chaos has no rules.

AB: It has sublime rules.

MA: Well you have chaos theory and the butterfly effect and all that stuff…It’s not an easily quantifiable set of rules that you can say “Well, when stuff hits the fan this is what you do (laughs). The classically trained player might get confused in those situations. While the street player knows all about those situations. Knows all about life getting wild. Sometimes you don’t have money to pay the rent. You might have to go to Mikey D’s to get that next meal. Or hustle up to get a drink.

A classically trained player will recognize the imperfections in the street hustlers game. But sometimes he won’t be able to take advantage of it. Because there is a slipperiness to the street players style. Because he is very hard to pin down. He is a survivor. He knows how to survive. So, there will be trick upon trick in his bag. You might be surprised by some of the tricks because just when you think you have him you’re like “Where did that come from?” Then you start saying’ “I should have seen it”. But then, part of his game is to play dead, when he still has life. So, that is a real aspect of both sides.

AB: In the chess movie “Fresh” which features Samuel Jackson, there is a scene where Jacksons character sits in a trailer with his son. He has photos of all these various chess greats. Bruce Pandolfini, Bobby Fischer, and others. He starts talking about as good as a lot of these guys might be that with a chess clock – they cannot hang. That the pressure of a timed game proves the toughness of the mind. How does a clock change the nature of the game?

MA: A chess clock is a clock that has two faces. When you press your side, it begins the time for the other player. You can play two hours a side, or you can play 5 minutes a side. What that does is it forces you to be more intuitive in your decision making process. You’re gonna be more intuitive and less calculating. Control becomes a real issue. Some people think lightning quick and can control a game all the way through. Even at the five minute mark. But it’s almost impossible to do. Many more situations occur that force you to rely on intuition rather than calculation. That kind of intuition does change the game dramatically. People who are more used to thinking fast on their feet play better clock chess, or what’s known as “speed chess” than they will over the board- which is a slower version. You can have a player who will crunch you with no clock who will have trouble against you on the clock. Because that person cannot check your ideas with a thorough search.

A lot of street players when they got into tournaments, they failed. They sometimes don’t do well. Because they don’t have the dedication. They don’t have the patience for sitting at the boards for a long period of time.

AB: You are known to be an excellent teacher and you have some product out right? Also, what is the essence of being a great chess teacher? I know a lot of great fighters who cannot pass on what they know. I’m sure it’s the same thing in chess.

Maurice Ashley teaching chess to school children in Harlem

MA: I have one CD Rom “Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess” and the DVD is “Speed Chess”. I think there are different qualities. One is being able to communicate the game in a simple easy to understand language. You have to draw connections between chess, sports and real life that a student will be able to understand and readily grasp. You can be a great chess player. If you’re explaining something and making it sound like calculus, kids are not gonna be able to follow you.

The second thing is to have a passion for the students learning. It’s not a job. If you see it as just a job, the student will see that you don’t really care about them. So, whenever I coach… Now I don’t as much as I used to, but whenever I do, I always did so to the detriment of my chess game. I so wanted to communicate the concepts to the student, I’d get caught up in their growth, as opposed to my own growth. That is the essence. Simplicity in what you do and love for what you do.

AB: Thank you. You have no idea how grateful I am that you have taken this time to talk with me.

MA: No, it was a pleasure, really.

Adisa Banjoko is the controversial author of the upcoming book “Lyrical Swords Vol. 2: Westside Rebellion. To download an ebook today visit, where you can also contact him.


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