Justus Williams, Josh Colas and James Black, Jr. have a lot more in common than their names beginning with the same letter. All are from New York state, all have won multiple scholastic titles, all earned the title of National Master before their 13th birthday and all have desires to become Grandmasters. All three will put their skills to the test in the World Youth Championship in Brazil this week.
Dylan Loeb McClain wrote a piece, “Masters of the Game, Leaders by Example” for the New York Times highlighting the three young masters. GM Maurice Ashley was interviewed for his insights and McClain also contacted The Chess Drum’s Daaim Shabazz to get a historical perspective of Black Masterdom in the U.S.
McClain noted from the “Drum Majors” list that about 85 African-American players had reached Master level. Of course this includes the one Grandmaster and two International Masters (Emory Tate and Stephen Muhammad), but not those outside of the U.S. Walter Harris made the first breakthrough around 1959-1960 at age 17. The development of these three young masters is unprecedented and this sentiment was echoed by Ashley in the interview.
Masters don’t happen every day, and African-American masters who are 12 never happen. To have three young players do what they have done is something of an amazing curiosity. You normally wouldn’t get something like that in any city of any race.
The article also featured comments by James who gave an informal assessment of their feats. “I think of Justus, me and Josh as pioneers for African-American kids who want to take up chess,” he said. Ashley, who made National Master at age 20, reflected on the daunting tasks ahead and noted that it is difficult to make a living in chess. Nevertheless, with computer technology, available trainers and their location, these goals may be more attainable than in Ashley’s day.
NM Justus Williams (13), Nigel Bryant (15), NM Josh Colas (13), NM Jehron Bryant (15) and NM James Black, Jr. (13). All are part of a new wave of long-awaited chess success in the Black community. Photo by Derrick Bryant.
While it remains to be seen whether any of the three (or all) will reach the Grandmaster level (see essay on challenges on Black players), what is certain is that they have bright futures in chess or any other endeavor they choose to pursue. At the least, chess has taken them to far-flung places that most youth will never see. That alone is worth the journey.