Chess may appear to be a cool activity—logical, rational, based on calculated moves—but it's not. Playing chess is like being in a street fight; either you're under attack or you're attacking, out to get your opponent where it hurts most: in the mind.
For Maurice Ashley chess is a sort of medieval Nintendo game. It's more subtly packaged, but just as full of violence. "No other game is so action-packed," Ashley says. "Not football, not basketball, not even boxing. Chess has moments of quiet, and moments you feel you could take the other guy's head off."
Ashley is an expert head-lopper. At 28 he's the strongest black player in chess history. He's an international master on the verge of becoming the first black grandmaster. "The truth is, I'd rather be the thousandth black grandmaster than the first," he says. "I'd be following in a long tradition of black intellectuals who happen to play chess." But he thinks it's O.K. to be first. "Something about being the first," he says, "means there'll be many more."
Ashley, who lives in New York City, can usually be found teaching chess to kids in Harlem. He makes a living coaching the Dark Knights of Intermediate School 223, the Chess Warriors of Public School 76 and the Nubian Chess Masters of PS. 194. But Ashley is perhaps best known for his work with the Raging Rooks of Junior High School 43. They knocked over a few stereotypes about urban blacks by tying for first place at the 1991 U.S. National Junior High School Chess Championships and finishing in the top five in '92 and '93.
The Jamaican-born, Brooklyn-raised Ashley is a mild-mannered guy with a strong sense of himself. Talking with him is a bit like playing chess: He lets you know immediately whether you have made a good or bad move. If a question bores him, he replies tersely, his eyes fixed on some distant point, his fingers twitching. And he dislikes being labeled the best black chess player. "You don't hear anyone being called the best black basketball or football player," he says. "All that means is that somehow I'm not up to the standards of the majority culture, so I have to be signified."
Growing up, Ashley didn't even begin playing the game until he was 14. He got his moves down in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, battling black street players. "I used to lose my lunch money like crazy," he recalls. Prospect Park habituès belonged to what Ashley calls the Black Bear School of Chess. "You can never wound a black bear," he explains. "If you do, it'll just keep coming after you. You've got to kill it." The school was open to all races. "The one requirement was that you study chess," Ashley says.
As a coach Ashley doesn't just sit there contemplating the board with his chin on his fist. "He makes learning fun," says Robert Guzman, a 13-year-old Dark Knight. "He gives you a choice: You're either on the team and taking chess seriously or you're sliding by." An endlessly inventive teacher, Ashley has his students annotate games as cartoons and as science fiction. Today he is scrunched behind a desk in a math classroom at I.S. 223, watching one of his Knights record his moves as rap:
The clock ticks clown as we play d4
Think of c4 'cause we want the center.
The knight's coming down on the square f6,
As they get ready to play the Grünfeld or the Indian.
When the rapping stops, Ashley takes his Knights through some games of 19th-century grandmasters Wilhelm Steinitz and Paul Morphy. A half dozen children look on intently. "In those days everything was slash, slash, slash, like cutting open a sack of peas," Ashley says. "Players would do anything to bust open the game. Steinitz was the crazy man—the wild, attacking player."
Examining one of Morphy's games, the Knights study, probe and analyze. Ashley asks them: Did Morphy's opponent blunder? Was he outgeneraled? Do any patterns of weakness appear? He tells them that the process of learning chess—acquiring new ideas, discarding old ones—never stops.
From chess, Ashley says, kids can learn foresight and responsibility. "They become more aware of their actions and think about the effect of those actions down the road," he says. "Chess is no panacea. But it makes the difference in the lives of some, and that's all I expect."