Kenneth Clayton is a trailblazer for many reasons. A distinguished man with a presence that commanded respect, he was one of the earliest pioneers of Black chess… more specifically African-American chess. He won the 1963 U.S. Amateur Championship in thrilling fashion and would precede Frank Street who won the tournament in 1965.
Clayton was born July 26, 1938 and raised in Washington, DC, one of the more progressive cities for Black families. With Howard University as a backdrop, the DC/Maryland area was a place where college-trained Blacks were able to aspire to a stable lifestyle. Clayton came from a relatively well-to-do family and attended Dunbar High School where he earned many honors and was salutatorian of his class.
Photo from Dunbar H.S. yearbook, 1955
According to his brother, Attorney Robert Clayton, Kenneth earned early admissions to attend an Ivy-League university (of his choice) by virtue of acceptance by the “Ivy Group.” After receiving the telegram and considering the options, he chose Harvard and decided on Chemistry. At 17 years old, he enrolled in 1955, the same year he took up chess and improved rapidly. For the next two years, he played for Harvard along with Shelby Lyman, Arthur Freeman, and G. Sveikauskas.
Dr. Arthur Atkinson, Jr. had fond memories.
In 1955, Ken and I were both freshmen at Harvard. He was then playing the #3 board on the Harvard Chess Team. I had tied Horowitz in a simultaneous exhibition at Deerfield Academy earlier that year (see cover story Chess Review, April 1955) but had been prohibited by my father from continuing to play competitive chess. Nonetheless, I could not resist visiting a Harvard Chess Team session and saw that Ken had just beaten another player. So I sat down and played a hard-fought game that I was fortunate to win. Since we lived in adjacent houses in the Harvard Yard, I became his sparring partner our freshman year but lost track of him when he left Harvard the following year.
Leaving Harvard was a surprise to many, but he gained an interest in computing sciences and worked for Hydronautics, Inc in Laurel, Maryland. Clayton’s first rated tournament was the 1959 DC Open in which he placed 6th earning a provisional rating of 2020.
In 1963, he entered the U.S. Amateur Championship in Asbury Park, New Jersey as the 8th ranking player, rated 2102. Clayton was already 24 and had started a family, so perhaps he was unable to apply himself fully to chess. Nevertheless, he won the tournament in thrilling fashion.
Going into the last round, three players had 5-1/2 points, Clayton, Stan Tomchin and David Daniels. Clayton quickly drew with Tomchin and Daniels was held to a draw by Charles Rehberg. As a result, Clayton won on superior tiebreaks among several players ending with a 6-1 score.
U.S. Chess Life, June 1963, page 140
After earning an initial rating of 2020 and now having a national championship under his belt, he admitted to “struggling to make master ever since.” That honor would come years later in 1967 becoming the 4th Black player in the U.S. to earn this title.
Clayton got a contract as a computer advisor in Vietnam. There is speculation about the work that he did, but he was thought to be involved with the U.S. intelligence community. While in Saigon, he met the Truongs, Tien (father) and Hoainhan (son). He mentored the boy who later assumed the name “Paul.” After taught Paul some of the finer points of the game, he created a sensation winning the national championship at age eight!
When the government fell to the north, the Truongs leave the country on December 1st, 1979 in what was a truly gut-wrenching journey. Randall Hough did a piece in the September 1986 issue of Chess Life describing the harrowing details of the death-defying escape. The Truongs were very appreciative of Clayton for helping with the resettlement.
FIDE Master Paul Truong (right) pictured here with Kenneth Clayton with his wife Grandmaster Susan Polgar in Rockville, Maryland during the 2013 College Chess Final Four tournament. Photo courtesy of Paul Truong
Clayton is also known for the mentorships of young chess talent. After his passing in 2017, there were many comments about his kindness and willingness to share his chess knowledge. He was known for his mentorship of Baraka Shabazz, the teen prodigy who made national news in the early 80s.
Clayton was featured on an ABC broadcast as her coach. It is always a treasure when chess players come across video footage of a chess figure. You get to hear their voice, see their mannerisms and get a feel for their personality. In a classic segment, Clayton assesses Baraka’s talent.
Video by ABC News
His brother added,
“Kenneth was pursuing excellence in areas in which African Americans weren’t encouraged to be excellent and still achieving significantly in those areas… there may have been encouragement to be a professional baseball player… but there certainly wasn’t encouragement, even within the African American community, to achieve in the game of chess.”
Kenneth Clayton certainly made an impact in the chess community and touched souls. He passed away from the effects of Alzheimer’s on December 26th, 2017 at age 79. Christine Barker (Baraka Shabazz) learned of his demise and stated,
“Sorry to hear about Mr. Clayton, I know he is missed. He had a full life going absolutely everywhere in the world, spreading peace, encouragement everywhere he went. Thank you for letting me know.”
The Chess Drum community honors the memory of National Master Kenneth Roger Clayton. Thank you for serving us!