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Maurice Ashley: Chessmen At Work
Originally published on Fri August 9, 2013 12:01 pm
Maurice Ashley may be a professional chess player, but he approaches the game like a spy. By carefully studying his competitiors' habits — from their previously played games to their favorite moves – he has taken down enough chess champions to earn the title of International Grandmaster, the first African-American player in history to do so. He's also a three-time national championship chess coach, the author of two books, and the designer of the app "Learn Chess! with Maurice Ashley."
Ashley sat down with Ophira Eisenberg on the Ask Me Another stage and admitted that despite his success, he still considers himself the least accomplished member of his family, as his sister is a world champion boxer and his brother is a world champion kickboxer. But Ashley holds his own in any arena — like the aggressive chess matches in Brooklyn, NY, where he trades the silent calm of the international tournament scene for trash talking and soul music. He also explains how the rise of technology has changed the game, and what it feels like to lose to a 12-year-old prodigy.
Maurice Ashley may be a chess genius, but how will he fare in an Ask Me Another Challenge? For this game, we'll ask him about some of the more human quirks of famous chess masters, from Emanuel Lasker's failed pigeon-breeding hobby to Bobby Fischer's paranoid delusions.
About Maurice Ashley
Maurice Ashley lives his passion. Through his love for chess, he not only made history as the first African-American International Grandmaster in the annals of the game, but he has managed to translate his love to others as a three-time national championship coach, two-time author, iPhone app producer, puzzle inventor, DVD creator, ESPN commentator and motivational speaker.
Maurice has traveled the world as an ardent spokesperson of the character-building effects of the game, going from the rough and tough streets of Kingston, Jamaica and Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up, to the crime-ridden neighborhoods of Detroit, the townships of Cape Town, South Africa and the poverty-stricken jungles of Belize, Central America. His book, Chess for Success, (Broadway Books, 2005) crystallizes his vision for the character-building effect of chess, particularly for at-risk youth, and he continuously spreads his message of living one's dream to universities, businesses, chess clubs and non-profit organizations around the globe.
Maurice's app, "Learn Chess! with Maurice Ashley," has been sold in over 30 countries, and he has received multiple community service awards from city governments, universities, and community groups for his work. Maurice is a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center and was recently appointed a Fellow of the Media Lab at MIT.
In the video below, Ashley delivers a talk about his favorite strategy — working backwards to solve problems — at TEDYouth 2012.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of trivia, puzzles and word games. I'm Ophira Eisenberg and joining me is chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley.
EISENBERG: Maurice, welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
MAURICE ASHLEY: Thank you very much, Ophira.
EISENBERG: I have to ask you right off the top, how do you become a grandmaster? I mean more than the obvious practice, practice, practice.
ASHLEY: You have to play in internationally ranked tournaments with internationally ranked players, Grandmasters, International Masters. And you've got to beat a few of them, or most of them. And then the International Chess Federation takes your result and analyzes it for inconsistencies or otherwise, and they decide if you deserve the title of International Grandmaster.
EISENBERG: And how many games are we talking here through this process?
ASHLEY: Officially, it's only nine games per tournament.
ASHLEY: And you have to do it in three tournaments. It's 27 games. But usually it takes two, three, four, five years for the people to pull it off, at least people like myself who are a little bit slow.
EISENBERG: Oh, that's slow?
EISENBERG: It would take me 200, just so you know, for the record.
ASHLEY: Well there are child prodigies now, you know they're like 12-years-old and they're grandmasters and they make us look like idiots.
EISENBERG: Oh, that would drive me crazy.
ASHLEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, you know it's the worst thing in the world to be sitting across from a 12-year-old and getting your butt handed to you. I can tell you.
EISENBERG: We teased that thing earlier about famous openings. There was the....
ASHLEY: King's Indian.
ASHLEY: And the Fegatello Attack.
EISENBERG: Do you use those? Do you have a favorite?
ASHLEY: Yeah, I don't use any of the ones you mentioned, actually.
EISENBERG: Yeah, too low class for you. I understand.
ASHLEY: The Fried Liver Attack, who's going to use that?
EISENBERG: Yeah, really, come on now.
ASHLEY: I'm from Brooklyn. We don't do that stuff.
EISENBERG: How many grandmasters are there, roughly, out there?
ASHLEY: Now, there are about 1,500 worldwide.
EISENBERG: Nice. And are you guys all friends and hang out and...
ASHLEY: Not at all. I don't like those guys.
ASHLEY: No, you know, there are some that are your friends but you can't get too close, because you're going to give away trade secrets.
EISENBERG: Oh, it's extraordinarily competitive.
ASHLEY: It's cutthroat.
EISENBERG: It's cutthroat.
ASHLEY: It's cutthroat. Yeah, it's bloodlust. It's bad.
EISENBERG: So it's super aggressive.
ASHLEY: Well, yeah.
EISENBERG: I mean it just seems silent, calm, patience.
ASHLEY: I got to take you to the Hustlers in Brooklyn, on Fulton Street. You won't see silent and calm. You'll get soul music, trash talking. They'll be talking about your mother, your sister. My sister's here, actually and...
ASHLEY: They used to tell me, you know, we're kicking your ass. Could we meet your sister?
EISENBERG: You mention your sister. Are you from a competitive family?
ASHLEY: Very competitive family.
EISENBERG: Oh, really?
ASHLEY: I'm probably the least accomplished person in my family. My...
EISENBERG: Wait a second, an international grandmaster is the least...
ASHLEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's really pathetic. My brother is a three-time world champion kick boxer, and my sister is a four-time world champion boxer. I know.
ASHLEY: So I'm not a world champion, so I've under achieved officially in my family.
EISENBERG: So that's very interesting that they are very sports minded and you are very brainy.
ASHLEY: I'm athletic.
EISENBERG: I'm not saying you're not athletic, Maurice.
EISENBERG: When did you first start playing chess? Do you remember your very first game?
ASHLEY: The critical game was a game I played in Brooklyn Tech High School against a friend of mine, Coultier Collis. I called him Tiko. And Tiko ripped me apart, and then I went home - I went to the library, got a book, studied it, came back and played Tiko and got crushed again. And it turns out, he had read that book and nine other books. And that started a love affair right there.
EISENBERG: And this is when you were living in Brooklyn, because you're originally from Jamaica.
ASHLEY: Originally from Jamaica. Yeah, this was in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
EISENBERG: But you did not play in chess in Jamaica and Kingston growing up?
ASHLEY: We played a little chess in Jamaica. We played it with a lot of other board games. In Jamaica, there was not much to do back in the late 70s when I was a little kid, and so we played games all the time. And I remember my mother - my mother had lived in this country while we were in Jamaica, and I remember her sending down a softball and a glove, because she knew we'd play with stuff.
ASHLEY: But it was Jamaica. Nobody played softball in Jamaica. So we threw the glove away and used the softball as a soccer ball.
EISENBERG: Not good enough.
ASHLEY: Yeah, we were creative. We just played all sorts of games back then and chess was one of them but we didn't play it too much. It wasn't until I came here that I got really serious and played a lot.
EISENBERG: So, obviously, you've learned all these great thing in not only chess but how to think properly and be patient. Are you an aggressive player or are you more of a...
ASHLEY: Do I look aggressive? Honestly, I'm just aggressive, that's it. When I play, I try to kill. That's like the first thing, the first instinct. Although I had to hold that back when I was playing against top grandmasters because they see all that stuff coming and then it just doesn't work and then they beat you up.
EISENBERG: Oh, so you have to strange your strategy depending on who you're playing against.
ASHLEY: You just have to get them a little bit slower than throwing all your pieces at them. It doesn't depend on who you're playing against. If they screw up, you go kill them immediately. But usually they don't, and so you have to like...
EISENBERG: I feel like I'm talking to a spy half the time.
EISENBERG: And then I realize we're talking about chess.
ASHLEY: Well, you know, we have databases. Computers have changed everything, right, so you can get these databases with millions of games, literally, five million games. If you do a search on Maurice Ashley and hundreds of my games will pop up.
And you can study my games, the openings, middle games, what kind of positions I like, you know, what I eat for breakfast. Well, that's not in there. But, you know, all kinds of stuff. And we do that on each other and we analyze everything about the other person and you feel like you know the inner workings of their soul.
ASHLEY: And so when you're in a position, you're like, he's going to hate when I play this move.
EISENBERG: Ha, ha.
ASHLEY: Yeah, you know, and we're always trying to outwit each other, so it's pretty deep stuff.
EISENBERG: Well, we've done a lot of work on - you know, we have done that same thing. We've gone on the computer and, like, figured out everything about your head. And with that, we have put together a very intense high-risk game on ASK ME ANOTHER for you. So I'm going to ask you, Maurice, would you like to take an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
ASHLEY: Bring it.
EISENBERG: All right. Maurice Ashley everybody.
EISENBERG: Let's welcome Julian Velard to the stage.
EISENBERG: Hello, Julian.
JULIAN VELARD: Hello, Ophira. I like this guy.
VELARD: Yeah, I want to take him.
EISENBERG: No, he's cool. He's cool.
VELARD: Let's take him down.
EISENBERG: He's a killer.
ASHLEY: I like you too, man.
VELARD: All right, all right, leave it for after. Let's listen.
EISENBERG: Now, Maurice, chess players are often seen as these incredible geniuses with the processing power of a computer and the creativity of an artist. But they're only human, right? Many stories of the greatest chess players in history revolve around their more human quirks.
So in this game, we're going to explore the lighter side of chess history. Today, you're going to be playing for Christopher Vehon from Phoenix, Arizona. So here's how it works. If you get three questions right, you and Christopher win a prize.
EISENBERG: All right, let's see how you do.
ASHLEY: How many questions do I get?
ASHLEY: Nineteen, good.
EISENBERG: No, no, no.
ASHLEY: Whew, I needed that.
ASHLEY: What? On a game?
EISENBERG: Let's see what goes on here.
ASHLEY: All right.
EISENBERG: Emanuel Lasker, do you know him?
ASHLEY: We've played once or twice.
EISENBERG: Okay, so he's not only a chess champion but a world class bridge player and mathematician, who was good friends with Albert Einstein. But he wasn't an Einstein at everything. At one point, he became interested in breeding championship pigeons for the Berlin Poultry Show. After months of failing to get his pigeons to mate, he realized his fairly obvious mistake. What happened, Maurice?
ASHLEY: He was breeding roosters.
EISENBERG: I think that's a good idea that he didn't even know they were pigeons.
ASHLEY: Emanuel - by the way, I didn't play him once or twice since he's been dead for over 60 years.
EISENBERG: No, I know, obviously, if he was friends with Einstein. Yeah, he bought a bunch of - no, he definitely was sure they were pigeons. And he bought all these pigeons. He clearly didn't check one important thing. And then he put them all together and he was like, oh, they're going to breed, and something happened.
ASHLEY: Well, like I said, the rooster thing, they were probably the same gender.
EISENBERG: You are correct. They were all male, exactly.
EISENBERG: I see what you're doing there. That was very smart. Written in the 1980s during the height of the Cold War, the musical "Chess" features a bad boy American, a defecting Russian, a love triangle and spies. The same plot as "White Knights," by the way.
In the musical's most famous song, the main character extols the seedy virtues of the Asian city hosting the world chess championship. Julian, let's have a little of that song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
VELARD: Something, something and the world's your oyster. The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free. You'll find a god in every golden cloister and if you're lucky, then the god's a she. I can feel an angel sliding up to me.
ASHLEY: I should know this song.
EISENBERG: Maurice, do you know this song?
ASHLEY: I know the song, except I don't know the city.
ASHLEY: But I want to say Bangkok.
EISENBERG: You want to say right, "One Night in Bangkok." The best song from that musical.
ASHLEY: Yeah, you know, no chess player went to see that musical.
EISENBERG: What do you mean no chess players went to the see the musical "Chess," it was a hit. One of the greatest champions of the 1920s and 30s, this grandmaster was born in Riga, then part of the Russian empire.
He was known for his many eccentricities, including wearing bed clothes to tournaments and insisting in restaurants that he was intentionally being served portions that were smaller than everybody else's. The answer is not my dad.
EISENBERG: Who was he?
ASHLEY: The first answer that popped in my head, but I can't believe you guys would choose this guy, but I'm just going to say because it's the first one. I have another answer. I'm trying to pick between two.
ASHLEY: So I'm going to say Bogoljubov.
ASHLEY: I really meant to say...
EISENBERG: Who was the other one you were thinking of?
EISENBERG: Nimzowitsch is correct.
EISENBERG: Nailed it. At a 1925 tournament, Aron Nimzowitsch found himself losing a match to Friedrich Saemisch. Incensed, he stood up on the table and shouted what phrase that I'm sure you have thought to yourself from time to time.
ASHLEY: I have no idea. I resign.
EISENBERG: You resign on that one. You know what, I'm not sure but I would love to do this. Anyone out there?
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIENCE YELLING)
EISENBERG: Wrong. All right, cheater. I like that.
ASHLEY: I'd be really upset if somebody else got the answer.
EISENBERG: He said, just why must I lose to this idiot.
ASHLEY: Yeah, yeah, I've heard that many times.
EISENBERG: Has that every rolled through your head at all?
ASHLEY: It ain't just Nimzowitsch. I've heard that many times.
EISENBERG: With the exception of why must I lose to this idiot, which I know you are just too nice to ever think, you got them all right. So...
ASHLEY: I'm going to practice that one though.
EISENBERG: So not only do you get a prize, but also Christopher Vehon, congratulations, you have won. You've both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes, your very own to have. Well done.
ASHLEY: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much, Maurice Ashley.
ASHLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.