Historic Moments: Black History Month: A Special Tribute!!

The Moors of Spain

The month of February brings us much reverence from those who have blazed the trail so that we may strive for higher heights. In this “Black History Month,” and on the 1st anniversary of The Chess Drum (12 February 2002), we take time to honor those pioneers so that we may draw inspiration and honor their memory. The question is often raised as to why such a month is necessary, but there is no question that self-knowledge is the first law of nature and key to a people’s survival. Thus, Blacks must reclaim their history and command the respect due to all civilized peoples of the world.

For many millennia, people of African descent have engaged in a variety of sport and games. Chess is one of many games that people of African descent have enjoyed. Of course, draughts (10X10 checkers also known as “el Quirkat”) and “Warri” are mainstays in West Africa. Africa has produced many strong draughts Grandmasters, most notably from Senegal. West Africa was also home to the Moorish chess masters who carried the game with them into Spain where it became a favorite pastime. Blindfold exhibitions were commonplace and tournaments were held frequently. After an 800-year rule, the Moorish empire crumbled, but the game would be transformed into the game it is today.

Theophilus Thompson

Over the years, Black players have achieved moderate levels of success, but one cannot forget the valuable contributions made by pioneers such as problem composer, Theophilus Thompson and Cuban master, Rogelio Ortega. Both of these men were certainly noted figures of their day and left positive impressions in the chess circles in which they traveled.

In the late 50s and early 60s, NM Walter Harris gained distinction by becoming the first Black player to compete in the U.S. Junior Championships, scoring 6-3 and a 5th place finish from 40 entrants. In the same week, he played in the 1959 U.S. Open, a tournament which featured Master Ortega from Cuba. NM Harris scored 7-5, while Ortega scored 8½-3½. NM Harris would later become the 1st Black player in the U.S. to earn the official rank of National Master.

In the mid-60s and early 70s, a new era would be ushered in with the genesis being the DC/Baltimore area. Masters like Kenneth Clayton and Frank Street challenged the chess elite which included NM Harris. NM Street would gain distinction of winning the prestigious U.S. Amateur and as a tribute, graced on the cover on U.S. Chess Life magazine.

NM Frank Street on the July 1965 cover of U.S. Chess Life. Copyright © 1965, United States Chess Federation. GM Maurice Ashley on the cover of the May 1999 U.S. Chess Life. Copyright © 1999, United States Chess Federation.

Fast forwarding into the 80s, a tremendous growth of interest in chess (fueled by the “Fischer Boom”) resulted in the production of many talented Black Masters, one of which would perhaps become the most visible Black chess player in history. Maurice Ashley would capture the imagination of millions of players around the world by earning a GM title in 1999.

History in the Making

Over the years, there have been a fair amount of Black chess masters who have graced tournament halls around the world. In the U.S., the history of Black chess masters is well known and is chronicled in articles such as “A Brief History of Black Chess Masters in America” and featured in some of the pages of The Chess Drum, most notably in the “Drum Majors of Chess.” Notable players such as FM Emory Tate have been the cause for excitement and has certainly expressed a unique brand of chess artistry, both in his play and in his spellbinding analysis. He is clearly one of the most brilliant chess players in Black history.

In Africa, the latest star on the horizon is 20-year old IM Amon Simutowe of Zambia who is poised to win his Grandmaster title in 2002. Both he and South African IM Watu Kobese represented the Africa in the recent FIDE World Championships. Despite losing his match, IM Kobese scored a stunning upset victory over super-GM Peter Leko of Hungary and forced a tiebreak playoff. Both of these African pioneers represent the elite class of African players and history will certainly be better for it!

African nations, as well as those from the Caribbean region have the opportunity to compete in the Chess Olympiads. These historic events feature many of the world’s top players and provide ample opportunities for sharpening one skills and earning international titles. Both IM Kevin Denny of Barbados and FM Warren Elliott of Jamaica are two recent examples of the success from the Caribbean region and hope to make their mark in this year’s Olympiad in Slovenia. Hopefully the year 2002 will be filled with memories and more chapters will be added to annals of Black chess history!!

Happy Black History Month!!

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