Ashley made it clear that our credits would be hard-earned, and in order to pass the class, among other criteria, we had to (1) attempt to checkmate him in a limited number of moves and (2) write a paper on how we plan to apply the tactics and strategies of chess to our respective chosen professions and, ultimately, our lives.
All of a sudden, what I thought would be three easy credits seemed as daunting as the chances of my actually becoming a grandmaster.
I didn't checkmate Ashley in my practical chess exam, but I got an A in that course and learned life lessons that have served me well beyond the classroom.
These nuggets came to mind last week when Ashley made headlines. As the U.S. Chess Championships got underway, he received one of the highest honors bestowed to an American chess grandmaster — induction into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis.
The occasion caused me to reflect on his journey from Jamaica to the world stage and how for almost 30 years he has influenced the lives of countless students — mine included — through teaching chess.
Thinking Chess With Maurice Ashley
I found my old college essay from the chess course I took with Ashley and I reached out to him for an interview. On revisiting my essay, I smiled at how my takeaway from that class was in sync with what he told me this past week.
In part, my essay said:
"My most profound lesson from learning the strategies and tactics of chess is the cognizance of the consequence of my actions. ... I learned that similar to finding every possible convergent square on the chess board, to think through all available options I have when faced with a problem or decision and to consider what may be the result of my actions."
And when I asked Ashley recently what he most wants to teach when instructing students on the game, his answer reiterated what I'd learned: "The absolute most important skill that you learn when you play chess is how to make good decisions. On every single move you have to analyze a situation, process what your opponent is doing and evaluate the best move from amongst all your options."
Ashley says he finds great gratification in reconnecting with students.
"I have had students come up to me later as grown adults to tell me about how chess has helped to transform their lives with their ability to think more critically, to process data more rapidly and to make better decisions," he says.
Taking Ashley back down memory lane, I asked him what he'd accomplished from teaching my class (whose students were mostly education majors).
"The class allowed me to teach the principles behind chess and important critical thinking skills that students develop when they play the game," he says. "It was my goal to infect teachers with a love for the game and the belief that they themselves could teach chess in an actual classroom."
Taking Chess To Ferguson
Most of Ashley's teaching engagements over the years have been through the Chess in the Schools program in New York City and the Harlem Educational Activities Fund. These days, he has also partnered with the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis to bring chess to places like Ferguson, Mo.
"It always warms my heart to be able to teach kids in the five boroughs of New York City, but also to be able to impact young people nationwide," he says.
Several of Ashley's students have participated in national competitions, and three teams — including the Raging Rooks and the Dark Knights — have won national championships. While he's proud of students who become great chess players, he insists his motivation is not to create grandmasters.
"I've had students who have gone onto Harvard, NYU, Yale, the University of Michigan and many other top universities because they've taken those skills from chess that have allowed them to apply [them] to academics and to life. That's really what's critical for me, that they are learning to be better students, role models and citizens."
From Jamaica To The Chess Hall Of Fame
Ashley, 50, was 12 years old when he emigrated from Jamaica to New York City with his mother. He grew up on the tough streets of Brooklyn, and during his teenage years at Brooklyn Technical High School, he honed his chess playing skills in the city's parks and chess clubs.
"Sometimes I didn't feel as though the world could hear my voice or that people really cared," he says. "But I found that with hard work and especially with pursuing your passion, you can grow in ways that you could never have imagined."
Ashley got his first big title in 1992 when he shared the U.S. Game/10 chess championship with Maxim Dlugy. In 1999, he created history by becoming not only the first African-American international grandmaster, but also the first Jamaican-born.
He's won several other accolades for various roles in chess, but says his April 13 induction into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame has been like a "fairy tale ride." He says he never thought that one day his name and face would be mounted on a wall with the greatest chess players of all time. In fact, he doesn't even fancy himself a great chess player.
"A grandmaster, yes, but I am not among the all-time top players," he says. "So I'm humbled because this is recognition of not only some of my accomplishments as a player, but primarily for my accomplishments as a promoter and as an ambassador of the sport."
He adds, "It means that everything that I've put into this game that I love, the blood, sweat and tears, the hard work, and the suffering through the lean times have been recognized as meaningful to others."
Inspiring Others Through Chess Success
Ashley sees his accomplishments as a way of inspiring others, particularly those who come from similar beginnings. And he's encouraging everyone to follow their dreams, no matter how nontraditional. His focus, however, remains on teaching.
"Everyone should introduce their children to the game of chess," he says. "It's an inexpensive way of teaching your children lifelong skills that they will use for the rest of their lives."