The Wisdom & Advice of Maurice Ashley, the First African-American Chess Grandmaster

I don’t know about you, but when I’ve thought of chess grand­mas­ters, I’ve often thought of Rus­sians, north­ern Euro­peans, the occa­sion­al Amer­i­can, the guy on the Chess­mas­ter box — pure­ly by stereo­type, in oth­er words. I’ve nev­er thought of any­one from, say, Jamaica, the coun­try of birth of Mau­rice Ash­ley, not just a chess grand­mas­ter but a chess com­men­ta­tor, writer, app and puz­zle design­er, speak­er and Fel­low at the Media Lab at MIT. Since we’ve only just entered Feb­ru­ary, known in the Unit­ed States as Black His­to­ry Month, why not high­light the Brook­lyn-raised (and Brook­lyn-park trained) Ash­ley’s sta­tus as, in the words of his offi­cial web site, “the first African-Amer­i­can Inter­na­tion­al Grand­mas­ter in the annals of the game”?

Giv­en the impres­sive­ness of his achieve­ments, we might also ask what we can learn from him, whether or not we play chess our­selves. You can learn a bit more about Ash­ley, the work he does, and the work his stu­dents have gone on to do, in The World Is a Chess Board, the five-minute Mash­able doc­u­men­tary at the top of the post. Even in that short run­time, he has much to say about how the game (which, he clar­i­fies, “we con­sid­er an art form”) not only reflects life, and reflects the per­son­al­i­ties of its play­ers, but teach­es those play­ers — espe­cial­ly the young ones who may come from less-than-ide­al begin­nings — all about focus, deter­mi­na­tion, choice, and con­se­quence. Per­haps the most impor­tant les­son? “You’ve got to be ready to lose.”

Ash­ley expounds upon the val­ue of chess as a tool to hone the mind in “Work­ing Back­ward to Solve Prob­lems,” a clip from his TED Ed les­son just above. He begins by wav­ing off the mis­per­cep­tion, com­mon among non-chess-play­ers, that grand­mas­ters “see ahead” ten, twen­ty, or thir­ty moves into the game, then goes on to explain that the sharpest play­ers do it not by look­ing for­ward, but by look­ing back­ward. He pro­vides a few exam­ples of how using this sort of “ret­ro­grade analy­sis,” com­bined with pat­tern recog­ni­tion, applies to prob­lems in a range of sit­u­a­tions from proof­read­ing to biol­o­gy to law enforce­ment to card tricks. If you ever have a chance to enter into a bet with this man, don’t.

That’s my advice, any­way. As far as Ash­ley’s advice goes, if we endorse any par­tic­u­lar take­away from what he says here, we endorse the first step of his chess-learn­ing strat­e­gy for absolute begin­ners, which works equal­ly well as the first step of a learn­ing strat­e­gy for absolute begin­ners in any­thing: “The best advice I could give a young per­son today is, go online and watch some videos.” Stick with us, and we’ll keep you in all the videos you need.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­cel Duchamp, Chess Enthu­si­ast, Cre­at­ed an Art Deco Chess Set That’s Now Avail­able via 3D Print­er

Kas­parov Talks Chess, Tech­nol­o­gy and a Lit­tle Life at Google

Free App Lets You Play Chess With 23-Year-Old Nor­we­gian World Cham­pi­on Mag­nus Carlsen

Watch Bill Gates Lose a Chess Match in 79 Sec­onds to the New World Chess Cham­pi­on Mag­nus Carlsen

A Famous Chess Match from 1910 Reen­act­ed with Clay­ma­tion

Chess Rivals Bob­by Fis­ch­er and Boris Spassky Meet in the ‘Match of the Cen­tu­ry’

Vladimir Nabokov’s Hand-Drawn Sketch­es of Mind-Bend­ing Chess Prob­lems

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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