O ne of the beautiful things about chess, martial arts, and Hip-Hop is that at its highest levels, race does seem to fall away. You only
see the raw courage, and art in motion. International Grand Master Maurice Ashley embodies these three things, and he plays as well
as when he speaks. He is the first Black grand master and is also a product of the Hip-Hop generation. In this interview, Maurice discusses
how he began his journey as a chess player. He tells of how he clashed with GZA and Will Smith on the 64 and squares, and who would come out ahead in his opinion. The mysteries of chessboxin are revealed in this interview between the Bishop and the King. Check
AllHipHop.com: So, what does it take to become a grand master in chess? What do you have to do?
Maurice Ashley: You have to get a performance record of 2600 in 25 games. Now, what does that mean? You have to play in different international tournaments. There are various masters and international grand masters there. You have to perform at a certain level against that crowd. There is a specific kind of rating in chess. The best players are usually ranked over 2600. Garry Kasparov was the highest rated player of all times and he was rated at 2851 at his peak. But 2600 is the top 100 players in the world.
In order to become a grand master, you have to perform at that level of ability not once, but generally speaking, three times. Because most tournaments are nine rounds each. You have to do it in three tournaments. You literally play like one of the best in order to be given the title. If you can do that three times, you are given the title.
AllHipHop.com: Who was your last match against for you to get the title and how nervous were you?
Maurice Ashley: The gentleman was a guy from Romania, Adrian Negulescu. He was an international master. That game I was incredibly
nervous. I went into the game, and in the middle of the game, everything changed. Around move 14 I realized, Its all good. I just need to settle in and play. I was able to play very calmly, very coolly and just play.
For that kind of important game, you wouldnt think hat I could be calm throughout. It just so happened that I was very calm. My opponent did not know that game would give me the title. He just thought it was a regular chess game. But my friends knew, and a couple of people around me knew. So, after the game, he was like, Why are you so happy? I was like, I just got my title. He said, Oh, wow. He was cool about the game. Chess players are real sportsmen. It was a good game he treated it with respect.
AllHipHop.com: Few people see the relationship between Hip-Hop and chess. When did you start seeing it?
Maurice Ashley: Well Im old enough to be at the beginning of Hip-Hop. I came [to the United States from Jamaica] in 1978. Hip-Hop didnt start until Sugar Hill [Records] blew up. That was about 1980, maybe 79. I was of course a Bob Marley fan first. I grew up where Reggae was playin on the streets everyday. That kinda music was a part of my life on a regular basis. When I came here, Reggae wasnt what it is now. It was a Jamaican
phenomenon. It wasnt what it is now, with Sean Paul and crew got things to where they are today.
Chess and Hip-Hop definitely have elements that intertwined. One of those
things is creativity. The greatest chess players are creative. Of course there are some calculations that have to be made. There is skill
involved, much like there is skill involved Hip-Hop. But it is not the mathematical that separate the greatest players, its the creativity.
Its the ability to change with the environment. Having the ability to deal with any situation hat confront you no matter what the
danger – to be able to over come. To stay cool under all pressure. Thats the real mark of a champion in chess.
AllHipHop.com: I know that you have mentored the GZA and Will Smith from time to time on chess strategies
Maurice Ashley: VIBE was doing an article on the connection between chess and Hip-Hop. So, they linked us together. In the end, they only
explored the Hip-Hop side, and just did the article with GZA. But we found out we had to do a photo shoot together. We finally ended up meeting. We hung out at a chess club in Brooklyn, and I showed them some stuff.
AllHipHop.com: What did you think of GZAs game and what have you helped him develop?
Maurice Ashley: Well, I was very surprised by his game. Considering he has never played a tournament in his life, he plays like a tournament
player. The problem he has is he does not have the long foundation one needs to avoid certain categories of mistakes. I was stunned
to hear that he had not read many chess books. What happened was, he just played.
Through practice he developed a lot of ideas on his own. When Wu-Tang fights, they get down. Their strength is mathematical-
tactical. Its like street fighting. But street fighting does not work against a polished boxer. There are tremendous limits, and they will
show up . As the game goes on, sooner or later you are going to make a mistake.
AllHipHop.com: Tell me about Will Smith
Maurice Ashley: I was blessed to meet him. He saw me when I was first getting attention for being the first African American grand master, back
in 1999. He reached out as did other stars, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Cosby I met quite a few people, because they understood the
significance of a brother making it in that kind of field.
I met with [Will] briefly at a studio. But I could only stay a few minutes because I had my young four-year-old daughter with me.
I did not hook up with him again until the next year. His wifes assistant called me and said that his wife wanted to surprise him on
Valentines Day. She wanted to give him a lesson with a grand master and asked could I come.
When came in the room he was like, Whoa, whats going on? She was like, Happy Valentines Day. We played for like three hours. He has a very good game. He had been playing a while, and he reads. I would think that he would do better against GZA if they rumbled because his game has less holes in it.
AllHipHop.com: Like that?
Maurice Ashley: Wills game has a little bit more polish to it. You gotta be careful with Will.
AllHipHop.com: In the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, there is the theme of balancing the street hustlers chess style [played by Lawrence
Fishbourne] and his classical chess teacher [played by Ben Kingsley]. What are the strengths and weakness of both kind of players?
Maurice Ashley: I think it goes back to the same concepts I mentioned earlier. The classically trained player knows the history, knows that which
has occurred in the past, knows what is proven. Because you can always draw on the classics to draw on a problem as you face it. The classics are tremendously important and provide the foundation of what it is you need to be successful.
However, something the classical player might lack, is that spontaneity. That innovative style. The ability to handle chaos. Because chaos has no rules.
AllHipHop.com: It has sublime rules.
Maurice Ashley: Well you have chaos theory and the butterfly effect and all that stuff Its not an easily quantifiable set of rules that you can say
Well, stuff hits the fan this is what you do. [Laughs]
The classically trained player might get confused in those situations, while the street player knows all about those situations. Knows all about life getting wild. Sometimes you dont have money to pay the rent. You might have to go to Mikey Ds to get that next meal, or hustle up to get a drink.
AllHipHop.com: In the chess movie Fresh, which features Samuel L. Jackson, there is a scene where Jacksons character sits in a trailer with his
son. He has photos of all these various chess greats. Bruce Pandolfini, Bobby Fischer, and others. He starts talking about as good as
a lot of these guys might be that with a chess clock- they cannot hang. That the pressure of a timed game proves the toughness of the
mind. How does a clock change the nature of the game?
Maurice Ashley: Control becomes a real issue. Some people think lightening quick and can control a game all the way through – even at the five-minute mark. But its almost impossible to do. Many more situations occur that force you to relay on intuition than calculation. That kind of intuition does change the game dramatically. People who are more used
to thinking fast on their feet play better clock chess, or whats known as speed chess than they will over the board- which is a
slower version. You can have a player who will crunch you with no clock who will have trouble against you on the clock. Because
that person cannot check your ideas with a thorough search.
A lot of street players when they get into tournaments, they have failed. They sometimes dont do well, because they dont have the
dedication. They dont have the patience for sitting at the boards for a long period of time.
Adisa Banjoko is the author of “Lyrical Swords Vol. 2: Westside Rebellion”. To download an ebook today visit