Black History Month 2022-Day 23: Ashley’s Unity Tournament Series (1992)

The 1992 African-American Unity Tournament Series was a novel idea and 30 years later, has never lost its relevance. If there is one aspect of the Hall of Fame career of Maurice Ashley that is overlooked or perhaps underrated, it is his visionary ideas. We know about his ambitious tournaments such as the HB Global Chess Challenge and the Millionaire Chess Open series (2014, 2015, 2016). We may even remember his role in the Wilbert Paige Memorial, but few will remember his revolutionary idea of assembling all of the strongest Black players in the country for a theme tournament.

I met Maurice at the 1989 U.S. Open and over the next couple of years (particularly the summer of 1990) we shared a lot of ideas. He was one of the persons with whom I shared the idea of a Black chess network. It would later become The Chess Drum. He shared with me his vision of providing more opportunities for Black players to achieve titles. We were brimming with ideas… young and energetic. Of course, we had moral and material support from people like Jerry Bibuld and Jones Murphy. Bibuld was very generous in allowing me to use his photographs, some of which he willed to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Other National Masters like Wilbert Paige, Norman Rogers and Elvin Wilson, all of Philadelphia, were supportive.

So what happened in 1992 was an initiative that Ashley would call the “Unity Chess Tournament Series (UCTS)” or “African-American Unity Tournament.” Here was his plea:



Maurice Ashley
1144 Lenox Rd., #3B
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11212
(718) 498-4268
February 8, 1992

MY DEAR BROTHER IN CHESS:

The Unity Chess Tournament Series is on! That which may arguably be the single most momentous event in the history of African-American chess is about to become a reality – and soon! Read on.

Conception

The inspiration for the UCTS came to me shortly after my reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X and from some reflective conversations with a friend who is well-versed in similar subject matters. It has long been a concern of mine (and yours, no doubt) that the African-American chess community is as fragmented as it is. There is no place in this country I can think of that boasts four or five black masters meeting on a regular basis, if only to just ‘throw-down’. This has always bothered me, but it was not until the aforementioned ‘stimulations’ that I was ready to conceive of the project in its entirety. It came to me in a flash and with such force that I can only say I feel humbled to be able to serve as the vehicle through which the idea carries itself onward, upward, and beyond.

Purpose

The UCTS is, simply stated, designed to educate, uplift, and unify the strongest players of African descent in the United States. It is based on a simple concept: Together, we stand – divided, we get mated! The Soviets have been the undisputed masters at applying this formula to absolute perfection. I don’t need to tell you that the next Westerner to challenge Garry for the title of World Champion will have to face him, his homeboys, and the rest of the Commonwealth. While Americans have been sitting on their rear ends chewing cud and reminiscing about the good old days of Fischer, the Soviets have been consistently producing thoroughbred after thoroughbred to the tune of complete world chess domination. Well, the time has cane for the Brothers to come out full force in the flesh with a vengeance!

Goal

Make no mistake about it; we must stop at nothing short of the World Championship title. But “the longest journey begins with a single step.” What is that first step? More National Masters, more Senior Masters, some International Masters (for crying out loud!), and inevitably a handful of Grand Masters. Unrealistic? Not at all! Just raise the rating of every African-American master by two hundred points and the U.S. chess map would be changed forever. Take a look at our Top Ten if you need to be convinced:

1. Maurice Ashley (NY) – 2485
2. Emory A. Tate Jr. (NY) – 2441 (USCF 12/92)
3. Ronald Buckmire (NY) – 2424
4. Morris Giles (IL) – 2423
5. Maurice Broomes (PA) – 2408
6. Ronald Simpson (NY) – 2390
7. Steve Booth (CA) – 2387
8. Alfred Blake Carlin (LA) – 2386
9. Charles Lawton (MO) – 2363
10. Marvin Dandridge (IL) – 2351

(Source: Jerome Bibuld as of 1/92)

If I have mistakenly left anyone off this list then he or she is further proof of my point: that as a group we are extremely strong and would be a tremendous force to be reckoned with if we were stronger.

The Plan

But exactly how do we go about making our assault on the elite of the American chess establishment? A good question with a clear and straightforward solution. As I see it, it would require the following:

1. Get as many of us as we possibly can together under one roof on a consistent basis! This in and of itself would be a remarkable occurrence.

2. Two weeks in advance furnish all the players with topical thematic positions, i.e. positions 12 to 14 moves deep in an opening variation which will be played on every single board. The two weeks will give everyone more than enough time to prepare a sequence for playing both with White and with Black. Herein lies the true secret to the entire strategy: instead of attacking each other tooth and nail in our own pet lines, we will be forced to do battle on even ground in positions that are guaranteed to be mind-numbing, heart-thumping, pulse-racing, hand-quaking, knee-jerking, nerve-racking, mouth-watering, deeeeeliciously complicated!

3. Include only those players rated over 2100 and also include two to four of our most talented youngsters. The latter category is extremely important. It is the young people who will be our real foundation for continuous growth. Without them, we would just be an endangered species waiting to become extinct.

4. Make up a bulletin for each tournament and distribute it to all the participants for further study. Then repeat(!) the same positions in future tournaments. This will not only put the best ideas in everyone’s hands, but it will also raise the quality of the games immensely.

5. Guarantee prizes at every tournament so that if the spirit of unity doesn’t get you, the cash will. Prizes will be absolutely guaranteed up to eight places. With only about 20+ players in each tournament, the chances of winning your money back will be pretty good!

6. Set up a “Continue the Unity Fund” to which anyone may contribute. The fund will assure that this series of tournaments remain a part of our community for as long as there are black chess players. Since my positions as organizer and participant could cane into conflict, any share of the prizes I win will be contributed to this fund (minus my entry fee, of course.)

7. Get some publicity. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be approaching local African-African newspapers with the idea for a chess column. This column will feature the best game from each event, thereby providing sustained coverage of our activities.

8. Let the rest take care of itself. There is no question that things will snowball after that. New alliances will form, old rivalries will flare up, and a refreshing fighting spirit will be ignited in a very constructive fashion. We are sure to benefit, not just one, not just a few, but all of us – TOGETHER.

“The time has come”

Needless to say, without everyone’s wholehearted participation the chances of our succeeding as a group became that much more diminished. The time has come to stop complaining about what could be, and to bring to life that which is. We need you. We need each other. I sincerely hope that I will see you at as many of these events as possible, for the skills you have developed will enliven the discussions, and the spirit you bring will give us strength. Peace and love, my Brother. It’s Unity time!

Signed, Maurice Ashley


February 22nd. 1st African-American Unity Chess Tournament: 4-SS; G/45; open to 2100/above (OTB or DOCUMENTED correspondence); St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, 230 Malcolm X Blvd. between 121st & 122nd Sts. (see below for directions); EF: $20. $$(400 gtd.), 150-100-50-20-20-20-20-20; NOT USCF rated; Reg. 10:30-10:45; Rds. 11:00-12:45-2:45-4:30. Info: (718) 498-4268 or (914) 939-5023.


This tournament announcement was the first of four thematic tournaments Ashley would host: one in February, two in March, and one in April. Each game would start from a different thematic position.

1st African-American Unity Tournament Series, 1992 1st African-American Unity Tournament Series, 1992

1st African-American Unity Tournament, 22 February 1992
Theme 1: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Be2 e5 7.0-0 Nc6 8.d5 Ne7 9.Nd2 a5 10.Rb1 Nd7 11.a3 f5 12.b4 Kh8 13.Qc2 Ng8 (diagram)
2nd African-American Unity Tournament, 7 March 1992
Theme 2: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Bb7 10.d4 Re8 11.a4 h6 12.Nbd2 Bf8 13.Bc2 exd4 14.cxd4 Nb4 15.Bb1 c5 (diagram)

Willie “Pops” Johnson vs. FM Ron Simpson (front) & Jeffrey Mitchell vs. FM Maurice Ashley (back); 2nd African-American Unity tournament, 7 March 1992. Photo by Jerry Bibuld.

1st African-American Unity Tournament Series, 1992 1st African-American Unity Tournament Series, 1992

3rd African-American Unity Tournament, 21 March 1992
Theme 3: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e3 e6 5.Nf3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5 8.Bd3 Bb7 9.e4 b4 10.Na4 c5 11.a5 Nd5 (diagram)
4th African-American Unity Tournament, 4 April 1992
Theme 4: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 6.g4 h6 7.h4 Nc6 8.Rg1 h5 (diagram)

Maurice won the 1st and 3rd editions while Expert Jeffery Mitchell and National Master Mark Meeres won the 2nd and 4th, respectively. The last tournament of the series featured Wilbert Paige and Elvin Wilson. What was so clear in this effort is the simple idea of having a series of tournaments providing Black players with an opportunity to sharpen each other’s skills.

Others may not understand the importance of this bonding in a competitive sporting environment where you are in a minority. Perhaps Maurice, in his own way, was demonstrating the beauty of the Black Bear School of Chess. Seeing that this school has produced a number of Black masters, it provided them with a training platform from which to share ideas and gain confidence. The method speaks for itself.

Maurice Ashley and William Morrison. . . the #1 and #2 ‘Black Bears’.
Photo courtesy of Jerry Bibuld

Ashley explains the legend of the Black Bears.
Video by The HistoryMakers

These training tournaments are invaluable to help a player get a feel for different types of positions and not just their own pet lines looking for cheap tricks and quick wins.

Too often you see players in our community not knowing how to analyze a game properly in a post-mortem analysis. The thought process is not fluid and there is a tendency to look for moves instead of ideas. With a theme tournament, you are forced to do your homework in unfamiliar territory. This helps one to become a more well-rounded player. While Ashley wanted more of the top Black players to attend, it was a start to a novel idea. Ashley’s last newsletter points to a need for collaboration and that issue that is still relevant today.


MAURICE ASHLEY
322 Park Place
Brooklyn, NY 11238

June 3, 1992

Dear Brother in Chess:

The first thing that must be said is that the editor of these bulletins apologizes for the tardiness of this issue. Partially, this has been caused by the work required for the NY Open mate­rial that is enclosed. Partially, it is because he has other personal matters to handle which have taken his time.

The New York Open material is offered for your enjoyment, for your study and as an incentive for you to join us in the Second African-American Unity Chess Tournament Series, which will be held. Count on it! If it doesn’t begin this month, it will take place this summer. The brief article on the New York Open does not give information on our own players in the tournament, except for mention of my IM norm, so the following table will let you know how our brothers did in the international section:

  • Emory Tate (2441) scored 4.5/9, drawing with GM Lev Alburt;
  • Norman Rogers (2386) scored 4.5/9, beating IM Jay Bonin;
  • Alfred Carlin (2330) scored 4.5/9, drawing with Bonin and IM Francisco Ochoa (ESP, with a FIDE rating of 2410);
  • Ernest P. Colding (2277) scored 3/7; and
  • Mark Meeres (2249) scored 6/9 (including a half-point bye), beating IM Leslie Leow.

Jerome Bibuld has permission to include with this bulletin a mailing of his own, concerning the historical work he is doing.

In terms of score, Mark Meeres rolled to a $150 victory in the 4th African-American Unity Chess Tournament, which ended the First African-American Unity Chess Tournament Series. Meeres scored 3.5?.5 by winning his first three games, then drawing with Wilbert Paige, whose 3-1 record tied with Ernest P. Colding, to split the $1.50 2nd and 3rd prize moneys. The next four players got their $20 entry fees back, while the last four in the ten-­player field split the remaining $40 of the guaranteed prize fund.

Following is the bulletin of the 4th African-American Chess Tour­nament. One game is missing because the editor found it imposs­ible to reconstruct.

4th African-American Unity Chess Tournament, 4 April 1992

Theme: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 6.g4 h6 7.h4 Nc6 8.Rg1 h5 (diagram)

That’s it for now. I’ve received very little comment from those of you who have not come out to the tournaments and would like your input. A disappointment is that, with the exception of Wilbert Paige and Elvin Wilson in the last one, only New Yorkers have played. If some of you would join us, provided housing Friday night, that might be arranged. Please let me know.


These training methods were instrumental in Ashley’s development. He would become an International Master in 1993 and a Grandmaster in 1999. He would be the first African-American player to earn the title, and 23 years later, is still the only one. Today there are only two African-American players with Grandmaster norms… International Master Kassa Korley (2) and FIDE Master Josh Colas (1).

In my years of covering the African Diaspora, there seems to be a lack of collaboration when it comes to serious play. We love blitz cage matches, and a lot of effort is expended in organizing these battles. However, they do very little in deepening the understanding of overall play. I see many blitz-oriented players clinging to their own pet lines looking for tricks, traps and quick wins.

Perhaps there is a need to revisit training methods and perhaps organize similar theme tournaments. It has been far too long.

Daaim Shabazz, “Historic Moments: African-American Unity Chess Tournaments (1992),” The Chess Drum, 1 September 2004

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