By Allan Herbert

A chance encounter over the internet by top local junior player Justin Blackman of Queens College, followed by an innocent suggestion of “why not come to Barbados instead” was all it took to get the phones ringing between New York and Barbados.

This week, Round-Up would like to offer a warm Bajan welcome to Grandmaster Maurice Ashley and his family who are schedule to arrive in Barbados today for a short working holiday, thanks to Blackman’s suggestion.

Ashley made history in 1999 when he became the first and to date only African-American to attain the coveted title of International Grand Master of Chess.

At the time the story was covered in Time Magazine, USA Today, New York Times, Sports Illustrated, London Times, Ebony, and a host of other papers around the world.

He has appeared on The Charlie Rose Show, CBS News This Morning, National Public Radio, Today New York (W-NBC), CNN, Bloomberg Radio, and a number of radio shows around the U.S.

It was not long before the US and international sports press realized his natural ability in front and behind the camera that he became one of the most sought after public speakers and chess commentators in the world.  

Those who had the opportunity to see his ESPN coverage of the historic 1996 Man vs. Machine match between Gray Kasparov vs. Deep Blue and the rematch in 1997 would remember how accessible he made a very complicated sport to the non-chess player.

Ashley treats the chessboard like a playing field and the players like real life athletes.

"Chess is a sport," said Ashley when interviewed by Contemporary Black Biography. "It's competitive, it's work, it's pressure, it's tension, it's pain, it's guts and glory, and disappointment and defeat. All the classic sports metaphors are in chess, so it was very easy for me to transfer many of the ideas that I found in the sports world to the chessboard."

Often called the Tiger Woods of Chess, Ashley names Woods, Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson as his inspirations and role models.

In speaking about the influence of Woods in his quest to become a Grandmaster, Ashley recounts:

“I had been dreaming about being a grandmaster for over a decade, but life had seemed to be constantly pulling me in different directions. I was a national championship coach, a commentator, and a designer of my own CD-ROM. I was married to a beautiful wife and I had a little girl that was Daddy's pride and joy.”

“Still I was depressed because the dream that I felt should surely have been mine had remained elusive as ever. There was not a day that went by, I didn't think about the fact that I was not a Grandmaster. I was getting older and I thought my chance might never come. Then Tiger Woods arrived onto the scene.”

“Tiger's passion for excellence was clear. He had won many amateur tournaments, but it was his historic win in April of 1997, at the Masters, by an unheard of 12 strokes that captivated my imagination…and sent me deeper into my depression.”

“Here was a man dominating at the highest level of a sport that had once kept out his kind. He had literally smashed all the barriers with his greatness, making it look easy in the process. It took four days for him to change the world of golf. He showed that a person of color could excel in anything.”

Sadly this story is one shared by many of the English Speaking Caribbean’s top players who obviously have the talent but see their dream drifting elusively further away as each year goes by.  This is why, in Black History Month, Ashley’s visit to Barbados is such a treat for the local chess community and the public.

Whether you play chess or not, have a passing curiosity about the game either as a parent of a child who has just learnt the game or someone wishes to learn the game, the Barbados Chess Federation (BCF) invites one and all to a free public lecture by Ashley on Tuesday February 19th at the L.V. Harcourt Lewis Training Centre in Belmont Road at 7:00 p.m.

The journey from promise to achievement of the Grandmaster title is a story that will resonate with not only the likes of our own Dr. Philip Corbin, Kevin Denny, Delisle Warner and Terry Farley but our next generation of juniors like The Lodge School’s Martyn Del Castilho, Queens College’s Justin Blackman, UWI’s Shamel Howell, Alex Jackman and Asabi Layne of Lester Vaughn, and Corrine Howard of Barbados Community College.

On Wednesday February 20th, Ashley will give a clock simultaneous exhibition against thirty students drawn from nine secondary schools and UWI at The Lodge School. This simul launches 2008 United Insurance Inter-school Team Tournament and starts at 1:00 p.m. The BCF would like to remind teachers/coaches that all participants must be at the The Lodge by 12:45 p.m. latest.

Coming Events

  • Lecture by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley, Tuesday February 19th, 7:00 p.m. at L.V. Harcourt Lewis Training Centre, Barbados Public Workers Credit Union, Belmont Road.

  • Schools Simultaneous Chess Exhibition by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley, Wednesday February 20th, 1:00 p.m. at the Lodge School

  • Pot Luck Fridays Blitz Tournament at the Bridgetown Chess Centre, Bridge House, Cavans Lane, 7:00 p.m.

  • United Insurance Inter-School starts on Saturday March 1st at 9:00 a.m. at St. Michaels School