Eliot Majors, age 9, slides his queen diagonally across the chessboard, then inexplicably halts one square short.
Several watching youngsters groan.
“Nooo!” cries one, clutching his chest, and falls to the ground in dramatic disbelief. Maurice Ashley, age 34, removes his dark sun glasses and his leather jacket. “You sure you want to do that?” he says.
It doesn’t take long for a group of kids to gather round. At the Harlem Chess Center, Ashley is treated by the young players with respect usually reserved for professional athletes or rap stars. He’s got star power. He is after all, a grandmaster, a title shared by only 500 other in chess including Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov.
The difference is, Ashley is black, and the only black to have achieved that rank. You might say he’s done to chess what Tiger Woods did for golf or what, three decades ago, Arthur Ashe did for tennis.
“It’s very exciting,” said Jerald Times, a friend of Ashley’s, and himself a master in chess. “Maurice Ashley really made a statement as an African American chess player. He set a new standard.”
Ashley opened the Harlem Chess Center at the Police Athletic League community center on 119th Street and Manhattan Avenue just over a year ago. He wanted to give kids who usually didn’t have access to the game a chance to play. One of the most depressing things about growing up in the inner city, he says, is that “there’s basketball, football, all kinds of sports, but very little that in the way that’s intellectually stimulating.”
Among the kids, there’s been no shortage of interest. During the week, some 80 children pack a tiny room lined with white-and-green checkered boards. It’s anything but quiet, despite the reputation chess has for being a cerebral game.
Here kids jump out of their seat when they capture an opponents bishop or queen. Good moves are celebrated with “whoops.”
“I got your bishop,” 10-year-old Marcus Walker shouts at his young opponent, waving the black plastic piece in the air. “Whatya gonna do now?”
The room is filled with light, playground banter. Game winners call their opponent “son.” A careless move may be result in being called “fish,” the ultimate insult in chess. Egos are large, so is the desire to win.
On a snowy December afternoon the room a group of 8- to 10-year-olds take off their backpacks and coats and throw them on a pile in the back of the room. They gather around Brian Hawkins, the center’s assistant director, who started getting serious about the game about 10 years ago after a knee injury cut short his football career at Norfolk State University in Virginia. He saw it as something that could satisfy his competitive spirit.
“Chess is a sport,” he says before showing the kids the very first chess game he ever played. “Which I lost … to a five-year-old,” he says standing in front of a horizontal chess board display.
This sparks cries of appreciation, and a flurry of questions.
“How old were you?” one boy asks.
“In my teens,” says Hawkins.
“Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen?” another child probes.
“Let’s just say my late teens,” says Hawkins, now 30.
“Ooooohh. That must have been embarrassing! And you remember the whole game?”
“Well, it was a very short game,” he says.
In fact, the game was over in four moves, thanks to the not-so-helpful advice from the young player who set up a classic “Fool’s Mate” scenario.
The lesson, Hawkins tells the kids, was “Never ask your opponent for advice.” Also, that this is a game that evens the playing field in life. You can win regardless of you age, color, nationality, what type of sneakers you wear, or where you live.
Girls and boys perform equally in their first few years, though at the 6th grade, girls start losing interest. Hawkins makes a point of ensuring that they get special attention _ that includes setting up times when the room’s door is closed to boys.
One of the best players at the center is a girl, 9-year-old Esme Rogers, who regularly beats New York University volunteers, even after giving them a three-minute handicap in speed chess.
Watching two instructors wrestle with a complex chess problem, she can’t stay away; her fingers twitch with desire to move the pieces.
She’s unable to figure out the problem by the time her father comes for her and writes down the pieces’ places so she can keep trying at home. “I like this one,” she says. “It makes you think.”
Making chess available to disadvantaged youths had long been a dream of Ashley’s, a Jamaican immigrant who was himself nine when he learned the rules of the game. His family moved to Brooklyn when he was 14, and he latched onto a group of obsessed teens and twentysomethings who played rough-and-tumble games in Prospect Park for hours on end.
After graduating from City College he coached the Mott Hall Dark Knights, a Harlem middle school chess team
In 1997, Ashley took a year’s sabbatical so that he could train for the grandmaster title. After he succeeded, he opened the Harlem Chess Center which, like Mott Hall, is funded by the Harlem Educational Activities Fund.
Ashley’s experience at Mott Hall showed him that chess can open doors. Last year, all of the eighth graders in middle school’s chess program were accepted in Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, the two of the best high schools in the nation.
“We had some rough kids in that class, and I honestly believe it was chess that made difference,” said Ashley’s friend, Times, who now heads the school’s chess program.
Reading scores go up; concentration improves. The game teaches strategy and consequences and instills confidence. “This is why I say, so much government funding goes to thinks like midnight basketball,” Times said. “Well basketball’s okay, I’ve got no problem with basketball. But what we say to the school system and the government in terms of funding is lets spend money on other things.”
Chess also breaks stereotypes, though sometimes the process is not as fast as one would hope.
Though he grew up in the inner city himself, chess was Times vehicle to travel overseas. Once, while in Paris, he picked up a game with a Frenchman who quickly fell behind.
When Times took his opponent’s rook, the Frenchman put the rook back on the board.
“It was like he was denying it ever happened,” said Times, still incredulous. “Finally I said, ‘Parlez vous anglais,’ and the man said ‘yes, I do,’ and I said ‘Well you can’t DO that!’
The game ended, badly for the Frenchman, who grabbed his pieces and went home, breaking chess protocol. Others who had gathered round to watch the game told Times the man was a sore loser.
“I think they were protecting me,” said Times laugh. “But the way I saw it, he did not like losing to an American first of all, but ESPECIALLY not to a black American!”