Often called the Tiger Woods of chess, Maurice Ashley reached the pinnacle of his game, when he attained the title of International Grandmaster of Chess in 1999, and became the first and only African American to achieve such status.
Maurice Ashley was born in St. Andrew, Jamaica on March 6, 1966. He started playing chess against his brother when he was nine years old. When he was 12, his family moved to Brooklyn and it was there while playing chess with a friend that, as Ashley tells it, he got his butt kicked. Soundly beaten and thoroughly dejected, he went to the library, found a book on chess and his life was never the same. He was, at first, amazed that someone (American World Champion Paul Morphy) had written an entire book on chess, but he digested it and many more afterwards. He was hooked.
His ability to read and study the game is one of an exceptional nature. Playing in local tournaments soon led to the Black Bear Chess Club where he sharpened his game against older and proven African American masters. Ashley even slipped in enough time to earn a Bachlor of Arts Degree in English from the City College of New York, compete against the sharks in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and attain the rank of National Master at the age of twenty.
It was approximately at this point in Ashley's life that another mission took place. Having circumvented the typical gang environment throughout his youth, he realized that others might do the same. Therefore, Ashley began to lead the way for after-school programs in the New York City area and especially in Harlem, where clinics were set up for stimulating and enhancing learning skills for children in inner-city public schools. From 1991 to 1997, Ashley was the chess director of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, where he led teams to three national championships. In 1999, Ashley opened the Harlem Chess Center where amongst his students were the likes of Will Smith, Wynton Marsalis and many of the New York Knicks.
His avocation of teaching and coaching kids left him little time time for chess in the streets, so he took a break and began to train for his dream, a grandmaster rank. Training like a prize fighter, he stepped into the ring at an invitational in Manhattan in March of 1999 and came out smelling like a rose. A Grandmaster rose at that. When asked to reflect on this crowning achievement as the first black grandmaster, Maurice Ashley replied;
It's not significant to be the best black chess player in the world. But it is sweet to be the first.
In 2003, Maurice Ashley was named Grandmaster of the year.
Ashley also is the author of Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess which is available in print or CD.