Is James Black the 2nd Stephen Muhammad?

There are times when you notice the style of a player and then see similarities with another player. For the past few years, I have been covering James Black, Jr. and he reminds me of another player… in temperament, style of play and even some of his personality traits.

There are always caveats when comparing two players, but after some consideration, young James appears to be a younger version of IM Stephen Muhammad. Of course, Black has been able to accomplish many things in such a short time whereas Muhammad played in an era where strong tournaments and norms opportunities were very scarce. Muhammad’s peak USCF rating was 2468.

Here are some basic similarities besides their lanky frames… 🙂

  • Both are tremendous blitz players (Muhammad once had a 3000+ blitz rating on the ICC);
  • Both prefer 1.d4 with a positional mindset, but sharp tactically;
  • Both have similar board demeanors;
  • Both are generally confident against all opposition;
  • Both like to joke (although Muhammad has stoic side);
  • Both have the propensity to work hard at chess.

Stephen Muhammad

IM Stephen Muhammad

While James’ story is much different from Muhammad’s relatively late foray into competitive chess, both have similarities that may eventually turn into an alliance of some sort. There are rumblings that Muhammad may be coming out of his hiatus, but nothing concrete has been stated.

Muhammad has not played competitively in six years, but during his successful pursuit for the International Master title from 2001 to 2003, he set a standard of play that made him successful against very strong players. His style was more positional as he employed the London System with white and King’s Indian with black.

The key to Muhammad’s game was his slow buildup, but his sharp eye for tactics meant that you had to be very alert. Muhammad last played in 2007. He earned his 3rd IM norm at the 2003 U.S. Championship capping off his run of strong results. That evening he and GM Maurice Ashley engaged in a bruising blitz battle of 28 games… played to a 14-14 tie. An amazing battle!

Here are a few examples of Muhammad’s play:

At this point, James is still trying to find his game and has been dipping back and forth over 2300 (career high of 2339) He continues to play at the Marshall Chess Club, but of course his studies at Edward Morrow High are taking a priority. As a freshman, he is an alumnus of the famed I.S. 318 dynasty which was the Middle School team that made history by winning the National High School championship.

James was featured in the documentary “Brooklyn Castle“. In “Brooklyn Castle” Elizabeth Spiegel stated that young James “sees everything” and has shown some flashes by upsetting a number of strong players including Grandmasters. Here is a show of Black’s blitz prowess against GM Gregory Kaidanov. Video was taken by Spiegel.

James’ speed and lightening reflexes are also something Muhammad was famous for.

Certainly, if it is within James’ desire, he can certainly vie for the IM title at a young age. Players like Ashley and Muhammad paid their dues in Open Swiss tournaments and had to scrape by with a small selection of tournaments in the U.S. for norms. The young stars now have so many more opportunities, in the U.S. and abroad. It would be good to see the veteran Masters of the Black community (even if retired) provide mentorship for the up-and-coming scholastic stars. The idea of seeing someone similar to you can make a difference in your confidence and ability to envision success.

GM Maurice Ashley and IM-elect Stephen Muhammad conversing after having successfully completed the U.S. Chess Championship. Copyright © 2003, Daaim Shabazz.

GM Maurice Ashley and IM Stephen Muhammad conversing after having successfully completed the 2003 U.S. Chess Championship. Copyright © 2003, Daaim Shabazz.


  1. Daaim, you’re doing a great job keeping this new generation of talents inspired. Nice article on a carefree Kid!

  2. A tournament made up of GM Ashley, IM Muhammed, IM Tate, NM Morrison, NM Steven Golden, IM Adu,IM Farai, NM Norman Rogers, NM James Black Jr.NM Justus Williams, NM Josh Colas, and NM Jehron Bryant would be a classic. It would be interesting to see how experience v youth turns out.

  3. Guy,

    You would not believe, but I had been trying to put together such a tournament since 2005. I never get the support needed… and some players would not give me their commitment (Tate did though). By living in Florida, it is difficult to organize from a distance and find reliable people to assist.

    Initially I wanted to have it right after Philly’s World Open, so international players could put together three good tournaments in a row. However, I couldn’t get any reliable help, nor anyone with the initiative to do the footwork. With such an undertaking you have to be serious and very dedicated.

    For these tournaments, I had a couple designs. One design was a 32-player nine-round Swiss with six GMs (possibility for GM and IM norms) and the other idea was two nine-round tournaments, a 10-player GM tournament and 10-player IM tournament. I still have my lists. There are many specifications for norm tournaments including average rating and tournament category. It has to be approved by FIDE and there has to be an International Arbiter. The lead time is about two years… and it has to be held in a non-Olympiad year if you want players from other countries. Many take their vacations for the Olympiad and can’t take two vacations for chess.

    Also for norms purposes the field must have players from three federations. This is for starters… equipment, documents, printing cost, sponsorships must also be secured. The biggest thing is merely getting everyone there and finding the facilities to house the players and a facility to play. You need a playing space for 10-12 days, hotel accommodations, a dining hall, a prize fund and money for appearance fees. I had suggested a university. The logistics are not easy, but having it at a university in the summer would be ideal.

    The problem is if you want the young players to play, then it probably won’t be a norm tournament since their low ratings will not make norms possible. The lower the average rating for the field the higher the points needed for a norm. Most of our young masters have low FIDE ratings and it would eliminate them from norm contention. If you are speaking of having a tournament just for prosperity (without norms) then that is another matter.

  4. Hello Guy, Are you suggesting a tournament as mentioned in Daaim’s last remarks,”If you are speaking of having a tournament just for prosperity (without norms) then that is another matter”? If so, it would be very interesting as well as historical. I wonder if any sponsors are available!!

    1. Cleveland,

      There are barely any sponsors for the elite tournaments with top players. There may be small sponsors (via fundraising), but one budget I had for the 32-player tournament was approaching $100,000. I was putting together a PR package for this tournament, and had an entire program (including a banquet). It could be done and it would be a first-class event, but you need dedicated people wanting to invest time in a sustained effort.

      Here are some of the invitees I had for the ten-player GM tournament. Pete Rogers and Stephen Muhammad are not active players, but they would probably prepare for such a historic tournament. Steve Colding’s FIDE rating (2172) would be too low for the norm tournaments. There are players to field competitive GM and IM tournaments, but the ELO ratings make a difference in the norm possibilities.

      GM Invitational (need 10 players)
      1. GM Pontus Carlsson (SWE, 2520)
      2. GM Amon Simutowe (ZAM, 2470)
      3. GM Maurice Ashley (USA, 2465)
      4. IM Dionso Aldama (CUB, 2447)… based in the USA.
      5. IM Robert Gwaze (ZIM, 2428)
      6. IM Farai Mandizha (ZIM, 2400)… based in the USA.
      7. IM Watu Kobese (RSA, 2385)
      8. IM Stephen Muhammad (USA, 2361)
      9. IM Kevin Denny (BAR, 2332)
      10. IM Emory Tate (USA, 2322)
      11. FM William Morrison (USA, 2320)
      12. FM Kassa Korley (USA, 2261)
      13. IM Oladapo Adu (NGR, 2234)… based in the USA.
      14. FM Norman Rogers (USA, 2239)

      These are some of the top players of African descent, but if this is to be a norm tournament then we may have to invite other players and have a GM tournament and an IM tournament. This is especially true since getting Carlsson, Simutowe and Ashley to commit would be a longshot. There are players who could be invited in such a situation. GM Eric Hansen (2557) of Canada would be approached as well as someone like GM John Fedorowicz who had expressed interest back in 2007.

      The young stars at Master level would be: NM Justus Williams (2188), NM Josh Colas (2201), NM Jehron Bryant (2099), NM James Black, Jr. (2187). Because their FIDE ratings are a bit low at this point, there may be a separate tournament that is not FIDE-rated and no norm opportunities… just for prosperity.

      1. Hi Daaim,
        what about Kenny Solomon? Also when you do arrange such a tournament then the condition must be that no draws will be allowed before move 30.

        Because some of these players always have short draws against each other. Don’t want to mention names.

        1. GM-elect Kenny Solomon is there too. Thanks! He probably more of a lock than many others on that list (in terms of getting a commitment), but I definitely had him on the list. Him being based in Italy may make it easier for him to travel. We’d certainly have the Sofia Rules in effect!

  5. Cleveland,
    I was thinking of it in terms of both, but had no idea how much was involved until I read Daaim’s remark. I guess money is not everything, but almost everything comes down to money. If I hit Lotto, I will make sure it happens 🙂

  6. Yep… it takes quite a bit to put on a norm tournament especially with foreign players. There are all types of regulations and conditions that have to be met. I had actually thought of a tournament involving Justus, Josh and James some time ago to give them exposure. By the time we actually get a tournament like this together, the youngsters will have much higher FIDE ratings.

    I was actually prepared to invest a substantial amount and spend a month in the host city to secure the resources. I could probably raise a good amount from a few key people, but sponsors will be needed and foot soldiers are needed. I cannot and will not do this by myself living at such a distance. Imagine my own personal expenses.

    When you are organizing such a tournament there are so many incidental costs that add up. That is how the budget ended up around $100,000 for the 32-player tournament. For two 10-person tournaments (GM norm and IM norm), the costs will be less. You could probably do two nice tournaments (20 players) with $50,000. You have to give appearance conditions to the GMs in the GM tournament and the IMs in the IM tournament and modest prize funds. The rest of the players will have to pay their air and lodging, but we could provide a per diem or if at a university, get access to a meal ticket at the dining hall. Since Philly is no longer the home of the World Open, it messes things up. It will probably have to be in New York, but the place is so expensive and it’s not easy to find such accommodations.

  7. This a great platform where all of the titled players mentioned above can jot down a word or two occasionally, like when the kids accomplish something good, to help inspire and motivate them. It helps when they get it from someone all the way from Jamaica, like Ian Wilkinson, but it would do much good to get support from those here at home that knows what it takes to get to those titles. Daaim has and continues to do all he can, but he and the other supporters are not enough.

  8. Guy,

    It’s true that this is a good forum for discussion, but a small percentage of players are active in Internet forums and blogs. Most that visit these venues consume the content, but don’t participate… they lurk. The Internet cuts the distance so it doesn’t matter where people are… they can participate. Many choose not to.

    Facebook has become an active platform and The Chess Drum is there also, but it is the same behavior… lurkers. Most of the discussion is on chess matters such as current events, games, positions, opening theory and such… no real planning for the future or sustainable ideas being executed. Since we don’t see each other very often, the Internet becomes the only way to exchange ideas at a large scale.

    We had one good discussion in the past at the 2002 World Open and a couple of people networked, but the momentum was not maintained. We need to provide a path for young players like James Black (and others) and offer assistance in ways… including ways that are not chess-related. Many players are successful in their respective careers and could lend a lot of advice to youngsters, but where is the forum to do this?

    There is very little innovation in the chess community and there are few new ideas being executed… this is American chess in general. Maurice Ashley had discussed this problem in an interview that I did with him concerning the popularity of chess. How do we keep people like Justus Williams, Josh Colas and James Black motivated? How about Darrian Robinson and Rochelle Ballantyne?

  9. NM Justus Williams, Nigel Bryant, Josh Colas, Jehron Bryant, James Black, Jr. Photo by Derrick Bryant.

    National Master James Black, Jr. (right) with his friends NM Justus Williams, Nigel Bryant, NM Josh Colas, NM Jehron Bryant. All are part of a new wave of long-awaited chess success in the Black community. Photo by Derrick Bryant.

  10. Dr. Shabazz,
    Even as old as this article is, it still touches my heart to read it!

    First off, it is very well-written. secondly, it is an honorable salute to so many of our African-American and other minorities talent, ambition, and priceless contributions to chess that would not even be mentioned or recognized anywhere else!

    I read this article, not only because it is motivational, but one is I have just started back competing in chess tournaments myself, in pursuit to beat many odds against me(age, limited time for study, work and general life responsibilities).

    The other reason is I truly miss a great player who made a great impression on me coming up as a youngster playing in my first chess tournament back in the late 80’s in Alabama. And that is none other than the “great” Stephen Muhammad!

    He is truly missed in competitive chess!

    I am from the “old school” and graduated from Murphy High School, and attended the University of South Alabama in Mobile.
    So, I grew up with awesome players like the very strong and extremely bright Expert Derek Womble, Sulaiman Smith, Ioyobebe Hanson, Emory Tate, Mumtaz Yusef, Kazim Gulamali, Daniel I. Miller, Raymond Williams, Brent Inman, Stuart Rachels, Tom Denton, Gerald Squires, Andrew Whatley, Bill Melvin, Joseph Jurjevich.

    I was fascinated with chess, but lacked proper training and learning of the game. so this cause me to peak at high 1600s and never advance from there. Many of my “majority race” friends and colleagues had parents who could afford GM trainers for $40 – 50″ per hour and vhs tapes and informant books, and to travel to compete in tournaments with flight costs, lodging costs, entree fee costs, etc.

    I grew up in a single-mother environment and my mother could not afford for me to travel and compete in “high stakes” tournaments like The World Open, New York Open, etc. So, while many of my “majority” friends went to the World Open and New York Open, I could only wait for the results to be published in Chess Life(and Review) and read up on it.
    However, when I saw Stephen Muhammad(Stephen Booth at the time), I was so amazed and extremly impressed with this “Brotha” who looks like me, and is successful in the upper echelons of US players(at that time) like Seirawan, Gulko, the two Ivanovs, Gurevich, Yermolinsky, Christiansen, Kudrin, De Firmian, Tal Shaked, Robert Seltzer, Patrick Wolf etc) who did not look like me!
    So Stephen was my hope that Blacks can compete at this level regardless of the many social and economic obstacles and challenges they face.

    I after becoming and adult and an IT Professional, I was finally able to travel and compete in various tournaments, but still will inconsistent results due to work, divorce, personal issues, etc. So, I would compete for a short while, start to improve and then have to give up chess for a few years and not compete at all due to the above mentioned, etc over the years. I relocated to Atlanta in 2000, lived there until end of 2013, took a high profile position as CTO(Chief Technology Officer) for a company in Bermuda and relocated there; eventually could not see eye to eye with the CEO, whom was an undercover racist, and decided to leave Bermuda and took a position in Miami, FL, where I currently reside. Now I am 43 years old and that is considered “old” in chess years(like Basketball). But I am currently finally on the right chess regimen and hope to finally get to my desire level and accomplishments as a competitor.

    We have so many talented and very strong “minority” players(both past and present) that have produce “masterpieces” over top masters that never got recognized, with the exception of “The Chess Drum”.

    You may not remember me, but I met you on several occasions at various tournaments.

    I could only afford to go to these big tournaments after I was good and grown and became a Computer Network Engineer”.

    In closing, I just want to say “Thank You” for all the work you do to highlight and recognize the many “minority” players who would normally not get any recognition at all.

    In closing, I want to share with you that I teach an absolutely free Information Technology Boot Camp.

    I have successfully placed over 97+ students in IT jobs whom never had any former training or experience in IT! Many of them making $45 – 60 per hour after being placed upon completion of my Boot Camp!

    It is open to anyone wanting to obtain a lucrative skill and cannot afford school or schedules do no accommodate a university.

    My website is

    The Boot Camp is only 4 months in length and I train in the following:
    * Active Directory
    * Cisco Routing & Switching
    * Citrix
    * VMWare
    * SharePoint/SQL Server/Lync Server
    * Linux/UNIX
    * Desktop PC Support

    Thanks for your great contributions Dr. Shabazz!

    “The Atlanta Computerdude”

    1. Wonderful story! I believe we all relate to it. In fact, it was the same motivation that led to The Chess Drum being created in February 2001.

      I remember meeting you at the Atlanta Chess & Games Center. I believe we even played once. I only remember that our exchange was pleasant after the game, but time slips away and we have seen each other since. I’m in Tallahassee, Florida for the last 16 years. You brought back some names that many have been long forgotten, but chess gave them a place in history.

      Good to hear from you!

  11. thanks for creating the website.
    it’s good to find news and information
    about black chess players.

    1. Yes dt. agreed great site, wonderful job Daaim Um sure our ancestors feel them drums!!!

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