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  • Written by Maurice Ashley
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  • Written by Maurice Ashley
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Using an Old Game to Build New Strengths in Children and Teens

Written by Maurice AshleyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Maurice Ashley


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41888-3
Published by : Harmony Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony
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Maurice Ashley immigrated to New York from Jamaica at the age of twelve, only to be confronted with the harsh realities of urban life. But he found his inspiration for a better life after stumbling upon a chess book and becoming hypnotized by the game. He would eventually break the chess world's color lines by becoming an International Grandmaster in 1999.

Ashley realized that chess strategies could be used as an educational tool to help children avoid the pitfalls often associated with growing up. In this book, he serves up compelling anecdotes about how chess has positively affected young players. He also offers tips on technique, how to make the game fun for children of all ages and levels, and how to overcome the myth that chess isn't cool. Through his guidance, readers will understand how chess strategies can improve a child's mental agility, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Chess for Success is a much-anticipated resource for parents, teachers, counselors, youth workers, and chess lovers.


The secret to success, happiness, achieving your desires, all of the things that we as humans do and aspire to be, comes down to one concept: the ability to accurately assess your position. Everything you do in life is a move and there will be a response. This is a concept that has been bubbling in my mind and it comes alive for me on the chessboard.



I remember the afternoon I first fell in love with chess. I was in the library at Brooklyn Technical High School working on a class project during study-time. Scanning the shelves for some reference material, I noticed a dusty black book with the word chess in faded block letters. Curious, I pulled the book down, brushed it off, and opened it. The yellowed pages were filled with multiple diagrams of what I took to be chess setups. Bizarre symbols that seemed like some secret spy code appeared on every page. The accompanying explanations used words that sounded like the language of war, where terms like "maneuver" and "redeployment" seemed to be describing important battle plans. Puzzled and secretly excited by this mysterious discovery, I checked the book out at the front desk. That simple act would seal my fate as an addict of an ancient game that has captivated millions of minds--kings and queens, scientists and philosophers, athletes and actors, grandparents and little kids--for over fourteen hundred years. And it would bring meaning and direction to the disorder that had been my young life.


My first experience with the chess concept of sacrifice--giving up something of value in order to attain something more valuable in return--occurred when I was two years old. In 1968, my mother, a single parent desperate for her kids to escape a life of poverty, decided to take advantage of a new U.S. immigration policy that was opening doors to people from all over the Caribbean. Entrusting my brother Devon, sister Alicia, and me to the care of our grandmother (my dad was living in the United States), she traveled to New York City with the hope of finding decent employment. Initially she worked as a live-in nanny taking care of the kids of a well-to-do family on Long Island. Eventually, she moved on to other low-wage positions before finally landing an office job doing clerical work. When she had finally saved up enough money and had secured our visas, she sent for us. The entire process would take ten years.

I took the separation hard. While I made friends easily, not having my mom or dad around left a hole. Our grandmother, Irma Cormack, who we called Mama, filled the gap as best she could. A stern woman who had once been a schoolteacher, she made sure our basic needs were met. Her late-night stories of duppies (ghosts) and obeah men (voodoo priests) kept us both terrified and entertained, her voice crackling with the passion and intensity of someone who had seen such things up close.

From time to time, she would treat us to hot roasted peanuts from the peanut man when he came rolling by with his cart. Having already parented and raised seven children, she was big on discipline and did not hesitate to give us the occasional whipping when we got out of hand. I seemed to bear the brunt of most of the beatings for things like sneaking out of the yard to go see what Devon, older by eight years, was doing with his friends, or for drawing on every single page of a notebook that my mother had sent earlier in the summer for school. Being a sensitive child, I hated being hit for what seemed like normal boyish behavior; many of my tears came from feeling as if my mom might have treated me differently. Though I loved my grandmother, I often fantasized about getting away from Jamaica and living a whole new life.

That day came like a dream.

In 1978, our papers finally went through. On a beautiful sunny day in August, my siblings and I boarded a plane with a few packed belongings and headed for New York. I could not have been more excited. I had spent the past year in a state of near depression, feeling ever more alone and confused. There was very little to satisfy my inquisitive mind and I would read the same comic book nine or ten times to divert myself. Once again, a birthday had passed without toys or books, and I had given up hope that I would one day own a bike. When I had finished third in my class at the prestigious Wolmer's Boys High School,* Mama, noticing my despondency and having nothing to offer in celebration of my achievement, hugged me proudly and stressed the importance of doing one's best for its own sake. I believed her, internalizing that lesson to this day, but I couldn't help but wonder what else life had to offer.

Looking back from the runway, I could see she was beaming with joy and anticipation at the possibilities that life was about to offer the three of us. Her ten years of love, dedication, and hard work were coming to an end; the goal had been reached. On that day, as the plane banked over the mountainside near Kingston and soared north by northwest to the U.S. coastline, I shared her happiness and hopefulness. I did not realize that it was the last time I would see her alive.


The reunion at John F. Kennedy Airport was exciting and confusing. I had seen my mother four or five times when she had visited home on vacation, but those brief meetings had basically left us strangers. She looked like a younger version of Mama, with the same light skin and straight hair that made her almost close to passing for white. Her eyes mirrored the excitement in Mama's eyes; the decade-long journey for their progeny had been inextricably intertwined. Still, my mother's challenge had been different. Her sacrifice had been one of intimacy, ten years without the subtle joys of watching her children blossom, of missed kisses and hugs, of lost laughter and soft tears, and of not being able to provide the love and security only a mother can give. It would take me a long time, and only after I had my own children, to begin to appreciate the full depth of her loss. Those years had essentially vanished, never to be recaptured. She had given up knowing us, and us knowing her, to secure our futures in the great land of opportunity.

From all the stories I'd heard, living in America was going to be like one big party. The programs on television showed beautiful people with nice clothes, big houses, and fancy cars. Rumor had it that there was a street paved with gold. Before we had left, I had made a twenty-dollar bet with Devon that we would live in a skyscraper with a pool on the roof. He laughed, looked at me to see if I was serious, and then tried to talk me out of it. I insisted. Finally, he shook his head and took the bet.

As we left the airport and drove down Linden Boulevard in Brooklyn, my eyes darted back and forth like a hummingbird. Eager to see mansions and rolling gardens, I was confused by the sights: garbage on the streets, shops smeared with graffiti, gaping potholes in the roads. Abandoned buildings with smashed windows resembling a skull's empty eye sockets seemed to haunt every other corner. I was trying to wrap my mind around this twisted version of America when the car slowed to a stop in front of an old two-story tenement. Devon would later remark that it reminded him of a jailhouse.

As we exited the car, some kids stared at us as though we were naked Aborigines visiting the city for the first time. An ambulance, siren blaring, raced by. Confused by the surreal scene, I asked my mom, "A who we a visit?"

Her answer was sharp and abrupt, her still-thick Jamaican patois sizzling from my unintended insult. "Wha' yu mean? Dis is your home!"

We walked up to the second floor and entered a cramped space that would be the first apartment I had ever set foot in. It had all the basics: a living room, small kitchen, and bathroom. Toward the back were two bedrooms. One was for my mother. The other had two beds, one of which had a rollout underneath. Devon, his eyes crestfallen, noticed the disappointment on my face. "Who need a pool 'pon the roof, anyway?" he said. He never asked me for the twenty bucks.


Within a couple of weeks, I was trudging off to a new school--Arthur S. Somers Junior High, better known as J.H.S. 252. I was revolted by the graffiti on the outside walls; to mar a school in Jamaica in such a way was like spray-painting the Lincoln Memorial. Since I was an immigrant student, I was given a standard reading test to see which class I should be placed in. The test showed I was reading on a twelfth-grade level, and I was put in 7SP--the top class in the seventh grade.

After the first day, I went home and told my mother that something had to be wrong. The math we had begun to do was math I had been doing in Jamaica at the end of fifth grade. Unable to take the day off from work and unsure of exactly how to challenge the system, she told me to take in my report card from the year before. When I returned to school the following day, the guidance counselor looked at it like it was Monopoly money. I'll never forget the look on her face as she insisted that I was in the best class available, that I would be with kids my own age. It's not clear to me now what other decision she should have made, but I felt certain that I did not belong in that class. Her irritated brush-off would have consequences I'm sure she never intended.

It would not take long for my motivation to evaporate as school, once the most challenging part of the day, became flat-out boring. I found I could just listen to the teachers during class, and then take the tests and still do well. Math, which had always been my favorite subject, turned into forty minutes of white noise. My math teacher, a short white man with a bushy mustache, tried to challenge us once a month by giving the class a particularly difficult problem. Usually about four or five of us would get it right, upon which we would pile into his car during lunchtime and drive to the neighborhood Burger King for free burgers and fries. I went every time, not because I was smarter than most of my classmates, but because I had seen the math before. I remember at times feeling embarrassed that I could simply glance at the problem and know the answer while the others, who were just learning the material, struggled to figure out the solution. These were the bright kids (we would skip the eighth grade altogether) whose parents valued education. We were being shortchanged from the start without knowing how acutely this would affect our futures.

That a poor country like Jamaica could be that far ahead of the United States in teaching its young was baffling to me then, disgraceful to me now. Over time I would learn that this was not the norm in America, that skin color, the neighborhood one lived in, and low expectations formed a three-headed monster that routinely ate up the potential of millions of kids. My wife, Michele, would later tell me how she had experienced this firsthand, how she had been valedictorian at her junior high in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and had gotten a scholarship to attend high school at the mostly white Friend's Seminary in Manhattan, only to discover that she had been grossly underprepared to compete on equal terms. Thankfully, she is the type of person who attacks challenges; despite the initial embarrassment and resentment, she doggedly made up the gap through dint of effort and hard work. Her bachelor's degree from Columbia and her master's from New York University are a testament to how a bright kid can rise to the occasion, and even excel, once given the opportunity.

For me, after sitting day by day in classes that droned on forever, school slowly went from being the promise of the future to the obligation of the present. Fortunately, there were a few interesting subjects: social studies and the history of the United States were brand new to me, and I also enjoyed listening to my science teacher, a tall burly man with big expressive hands, a round stomach, and a great sense of humor.

Other distractions also kept me preoccupied: I made new friends and I had a huge crush on the prettiest girl in school. I also had the challenge of trying to bridge the culture gap. This was before musical artists like Elephant Man and Sean Paul infused reggae rhythms into hip-hop and r&b, making Jamaican culture cool and sexy. In 1978, having an island accent meant you were one of the boat people. Thankfully, I have an ear for languages: I was able to pick up the Brooklyn twang and slang quickly. I learned all about American sports through television, my favorite player at the time being Red Sox-killer Bucky Dent of the New York Yankees. I was far behind the other boys in actually playing the sports themselves, and was invariably one of the last kids picked when it came time to choose sides. Still, the few friends I had treated me well, inviting me over to their houses to hang out and play games. In those two years of junior high, I ended up learning far more outside of school than I did in the classroom.


Life around the neighborhood was like the Wild West. It seemed as if every other day a stray bullet was hitting some kid as drug dealers fought one another over turf. I remember watching from my living room window as two guys shot at each other in broad daylight like it was high noon at the OK Corral. The three kids that they sent scurrying away in terror were the least of their concerns. Getting mugged was hardly a novelty (I was mugged twice), but the consequences of fighting back were often brutal. It was borderline insanity to wear anything fashionable because sooner or later some guy was going to ask if it might not be in your best interest to loan it to him for safekeeping. You might as well have screamed "Pick me, please" if you decided to wear a sheepskin jacket or Adidas sneakers. Guys who tried to do the manly thing and resist got stomped, stabbed, or shot.

The neighborhood seemed to be under constant police surveillance. Groups of young men were randomly pulled over at any time of day and told to spread-eagle. Most searches through school bags and pockets yielded nothing, in which case the boys were told to move along. The running joke, which still applies in almost every Black neighborhood in America, was that you had better watch out because there was an APB (all points bulletin) out on a "young Black man in blue jeans and a jacket."
Maurice Ashley|Author Q&A

About Maurice Ashley

Maurice Ashley - Chess for Success

MAURICE ASHLEY was named 2003 Grandmaster of the Year by the U.S. Chess Federation. He has been profiled by such publications as the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and USA Weekend. He lives with his family in Queens, New York.

Author Q&A

The first African American grand master of chess has an amazing story to tell: how chess saved him from the lures of street life. Now, Maurice Ashley shows parents and teachers how to get their children involved in the age-old game of chess, and attain skills that will help them in the modern world–from the classroom to the boardroom and beyond.

Recently, Maurice took time from his busy schedule to tell BLACK INK more about his book, the role of chess in his own life, and the first female African American grand master.

Black Ink: How did you start playing chess, and when did you realize you had a special talent?

Maurice Ashley: I really got hooked on chess in high school (Brooklyn Technical) when a friend of mine kicked my butt! I saw a book in the library and fell in love. I never really thought about having a special talent; I just wanted to get really good at the game, so I studied every book I could get my hands on.

BI: You were the first African American grand master in Chess. What was that like, and how are you helping children in urban areas develop their chess skills?

MA: I'm thrilled to be the first African American grand master. It means that there will be a second and a third, etc. I travel around the country speaking to young people about the benefits of chess and about the importance of working hard to realize their dreams. Right now I am working with the top African American girl in the country to realize her dream of becoming the first Black female grand master. 

BI: What are the top three things children can learn from playing chess?

MA: I don't think it's just three, but I would say I'm most impressed by determination, planning, and focus. And I have to add flexibility.

BI: Chess has certainly transformed your life, and I can imagine that after reading your book, many parents will be eager to have their children learn the game. What are some ways to encourage your children to learn chess?

MA: It really doesn't take much to get a child started. Chess has the wonderful power to fascinate almost everyone. It's as simple as buying a nice chess set (www.chesscafe.com) and putting it on any table in the house. Trust me, your kids will want to know what the pieces do!

Also, I would recommend you rent the wonderful movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. Kids always fall in love with chess after watching that movie.
BI: What if a child is only interested in video games or television–can they also be turned on to chess?
MA: As I mentioned, chess has an intriguing quality to it. It has been around for over 1,400 years for a reason. It is ideal for all game players, especially those who play video games, because it can be very competitive if you let it. As far as the TV crowd, all I can say is that the sooner you get them hooked on chess, the better.
BI: You've played chess with a great variety of people throughout your many years at the top of the game. What was your most memorable match? Who do you enjoy playing chess with the most now?

MA: Of course, I'll never forget the day I won the game that made me a grand master. I played against a Romanian International Master named Adrian Negulescu. I was incredibly nervous at the beginning of the game. But somehow a great calm came over me during the game, and I was able to go for it and win.

These days I mostly play online. I can get on anytime, day or night, and find great players to play. It's hard to do that in my neighborhood since there isn't another grand master around for miles.

Common Myths About Chess

Myth 1: Chess is hard to learn.

Reality: The average person can learn all the rules of chess in less than an hour. Kids as young as four years old are ready to learn to play, while most six-year-olds will have no difficulty picking up all the rules in one or, at most, two sittings.

Myth 2: Kids are intimidated by the game.

Reality: The truth is that adults, holding fast to the belief of Myth 1, are far more intimidated by chess than kids are. To them, chess looks like a cooler version of checkers.

Myth 3: Chess is for nerds.

Reality: In this country, it’s generally the case that anything cerebral is thought of as nerdy. In the worst case, this even applies to getting good grades in school. This image of chess does not hold sway in most countries around the world where the game is hugely popular and gets the sort of respect soccer does. Corporations clamor to sponsor major chess tournaments because of the pluses of aligning brands with the game’s intellectual image. In the United States, the nerd image will be very hard to shake. But when superstars like Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, and Madonna, just to name a few, show their love for the game, it might not be long before chess deservingly takes on the image of being a cool activity.

Myth 4: Chess is just a game and has no redeeming social value. We might as well teach kids Parcheesi.

Reality: I don’t want to rile all the Parcheesi lovers out there, but chess is most definitely not Parcheesi. As I’ve stated, there is a mountain of evidence, scientific and anecdotal, that points to the social and intellectual benefits of chess. Thousands of kids in chess programs all around the country have been transformed by their involvement in the game. I have seen it with the young people I have coached, and I have heard it in all the cities I have visited in my travels. Chess works!



“Chess improves strategic thinking, attention span, patience, camaraderie, and sportsmanship. Maurice Ashley is not only an International Grandmaster as a chess  player but also as a teacher and activist.” —Wynton Marsalis

“Maurice Ashley has been like a brother to me since I was twelve years old. I know the man, I know the competitor, I know the artist, and I know the teacher. There is no better source for the abundance of educational potential bubbling from the game of chess. Read this book!” —Josh Waitzkin, International Chess Master and subject of the book and film Searching for Bobby Fischer.

“It’s a great message of hope, that chess can be one piece of the puzzle to help our young people shine. It’s what we all want for our kids.” —Will Smith

  • Chess for Success by Maurice Ashley, International Chess Grandmaster
  • August 09, 2005
  • Family & Relationships - Parenting
  • Harmony
  • $19.00
  • 9780767915687

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