It is rare that one gets a perfect score in a chess tournament. The most famous example is Bobby Fischer’s 11/11 at the 1963-64 U.S. Championship in New York City. As a result, he got an interview on the cover of Life magazine. Spencer Masango of Zimbabwe will have to settle for coverage in African-oriented chess sites. Nevertheless, he turned in a “Fischeresque” performance with an 8/8 rout of the 2019 Zambian Closed Championship.
Spencer Masango Photo by Amit Sharma
Masango, affectionately called “Spoon” in chess circles, went to neighboring Zambia as the 21st seed in a sea of Zambian sharks. Top-seeded FM Douglas Munenga along with International Masters Kelvin Chumfwa and Richmond Phiri try to hold home court. Zambia would also have Prince Daniel Mulenga who was just coming off a creditable performance in India so the field would not be an easy one. The countries share the world wonder of Victoria Falls, but this year, Masango took did not have to share first place.
A couple of upsets kept the contenders at bay after Chumfwa fell to Ronald Sakala (1862) and Mulenga lost to Gift Phiri (1872). In the first half, Phiri was nicked for a half-point by Osward Tembo (1939) and Midosantos Chola (2014). Unfortunately for the Zambian brass, Masango kept winning. He actually clinched the tournament after his win in round seven over James Dimba and ended the campaign by beating top seed Munenga capping off a perfect tournament.
ST. VINCENT & THE GRENADINES CHESS FEDERATION LAUNCHED!
GM Nigel Short (FIDE Vice President), The Honorable Ralph Gonsalves (SVG Prime Minister) and Ian Wilkinson QC (FIDE Vice President) President of Jamaican Chess Federation
The evening of Monday, March 4, 2019 saw history being created in St. Vincent & The Grenadines with the launch of the country’s Chess Federation at the Music Centre in Kingstown, the nation’s capital. The newly established “St. Vincent & The Grenadines Chess Federation” (“SVGCF”) was greeted with much enthusiasm and excitement by the approximately thirty persons present, including students.
This significant event in the country’s life was spearheaded by two Vice-Presidents of the World Chess Federation (“FIDE”) – celebrated English International Chess Grandmaster Nigel Short and Ian G. Wilkinson QC, also the President of the Jamaica Chess Federation, who visited the island between March 2 and 5. The formal launch was chaired by Wilkinson.
Prior to the launch of the SVGCF both men met with important stakeholders including Dr. The Hon. Ralph Gonsalves the country’s Prime Minister; the Hon. Cecil McKie, Minister of Tourism, Sports and Culture; the Hon. St. Clair Jimmy Prince, Minister of Education; and Members of Parliament Godwin Friday, the Leader of the Opposition, and Major St. Clair Leacock.
On behalf of FIDE, Wilkinson presents a copy of his book “Excitement Galore: Chess In All Its Glory” to SVG Prime Minister, Dr. The Honorable Ralph Gonsalves. Also present (from left) are the Honorable St. Clair Jimmy Prince, Minister of Education; the Honorable Cecil McKie, Minister of Tourism, Sports and Culture; Grandmaster Nigel Short and Senator Israel Bruce, Attorney-at-Law.
Both Short and Wilkinson also conducted “simultaneous exhibitions” which involve playing many persons on different chess boards at the same time. On Sunday March 3, Short (1993 World Chess Championship Finalist and three-time Commonwealth Chess Champion) took on seven players and won all the games.
On Monday March 4 after the launch of the SVGCF, Wilkinson (a two-time Jamaica Veterans’ Chess Champion) faced six players, won five games and drew with a high court judge.
GM Nigel Short conducting simultaneous exhibition
The SVGCF has established a seven-man steering committee led by Senator Israel Bruce, Attorney-at-Law, who was instrumental in facilitating the visit of the FIDE officials and providing logistical support. This Committee will finalize all the relevant arrangements by March 31, 2019 so that the SVGCF can apply for membership in FIDE.
Bearing in mind the many benefits of Chess (including making students better, developing self-esteem, exercising and developing the brain/mind, teaching responsibility for one’s actions), the SVGCF has plans to promote Chess throughout the length and breadth of the country; introduce a Chess-In-Schools programme; organize national championships; and participate in international events such as the World Chess Olympiad.
Ian G. Wilkinson QC
World Chess Federation
I met Maurice Ashley nearly 30 years ago at the 1989 U.S. Open held just outside of Chicago at the Rosemont Hyatt. At this time, I had already started the groundwork for a chess network for players of African descent. During a graduate-level marketing class, I was able to write a marketing plan for the idea. The plan would include a quarterly magazine with an international circulation.
Maurice Ashley in 1000 words
Honestly, I knew nothing of Maurice at the time since I played practically all of my tournament chess in Illinois. The exceptions were once in New York for the Pan-Am Intercollegiate and once in Las Vegas for the National Open. Nevertheless, I saw this young man playing on the top 20 boards round after round. He walked with an air of confidence and seemed to possess boundless energy.
Meetings of the Minds
One day he was wearing a t-shirt with a “Jamaica” design. Somewhere along the way, I casually introduced myself. After that, we struck up a friendly conversation during which I said, “You’ve obviously been to Jamaica.” He explained he was born there. It became clear that we shared similar interests outside of chess including professional sports and reggae music. The next day, I brought a “boom box” and blared Steel Pulse’s Earth Crisis album in the skittles room. He loved it!
In action at 1989 U.S. Open!
FM Maurice Ashley analyzing with R.O. Mitchell (and his seated opponent) at the 1989 U.S. Open at the Rosemont Hyatt near Chicago. Kimani Stancil, then the Maryland High School Champion, looks on. Next year, Mitchell would win the 1990 U.S. Junior Open and earn his National Master’s title. He passed away in 2007. Stancil went on to earn his Ph.D. in Physics from MIT in 2002. Photos by Daaim Shabazz.
As if by design, I would spend the next summer in New York interning at Time Warner’s Sports Illustrated on Avenue of Americas. I reached out to Maurice. The conversations were lively and cordial as we continued to share our dreams and ambitions as far as chess was concerned. There may have been a fair amount of Chicago Bulls – New York Knicks trash-talking as well!
We met at Washington Square Park and I shared with him the aforementioned marketing plan. He immediately gave his support. That plan would later become The Chess Drum. It would appear that our initial meeting in Chicago was not a coincidence. Both of us would serve complementary roles in expressing our own passions for chess.
Coming to America… a Dose of Reality
Maurice’s mother immigrated to the U.S. to chart a better path for her children. It’s not easy to be away from your own children for even a short amount of time. After ten years in the care of their grandmother, Maurice and his siblings (Devon and Alicia) left St. Andrew, Jamaica and landed in New York to be reunited with their mother. Years later, Maurice would later admit the difficulty of the 10-year separation.
The first years of adjustment were challenging as young Maurice had naive ideas about life in America. He soon discovered that Brownsville section of Brooklyn was no joke! In a city of sport-crazed fans, where would Maurice express his talents? Basketball? Boxing? Track? Soccer? No… it would be chess!
How did this 12-year old kid from Wolmer Boys School in Jamaica find his niche in an unlikely game? He previously learned the moves from his brother while in Jamaica, but took no active interest. When he got to Brooklyn Tech High School, he rekindled his interest in the game.
It didn’t go well in the beginning.
Maurice (right) with family members in Brooklyn, New York
Maurice’s confidence as a supreme game enthusiast got the best of him, and he was soundly defeated by a classmate. It would be a pivotal moment in his life. The chess neophyte was licking his wounds from the beating when he stumbled upon a book on chess. This book included the feats of Paul Morphy, an American legend. He was hooked.
A few years later, he started visiting the parks in Brooklyn where he met the likes of Willie “Pop” Johnson, Ron Simpson, Chris Welcome, Ernest “Steve” Colding. The men would serve as role models and would be important to Maurice’s developmental process in chess. Incidentally, he would make mention of this group in his Hall of Fame speech. They were all members of the famed chess fraternity called “The Black Bear School of Chess.”
The Black Bear School of Chess
The Black Bear School was an incubator for chess players that included 30-game blood matches and intense analysis sessions on specific openings. Also a member was William “The Exterminator” Morrison who had bruising battles with Maurice and would later reach 2500 rating.
Maurice Ashley and William Morrison. . . the #1 and #2 ‘Black Bears’. Photo courtesy of Jerry Bibuld
These were crucial years for Maurice. In a chat with the broadcast on The Moth, he recounted his 1985 encounter with George “Firebreather” Golden. It was a “David vs. Goliath” battle of a young understudy taking on the patriarch of the school. It would be cliche to describe it as a scene from the movie, The Karate Kid, but the metaphors are similar.
Maurice described this encounter with the Firebreather as one of the most important measuring sticks of progress. Not only did this encounter give him the confidence, but it would set in motion the mentorship that is so badly needed to create chess excellence. The road to the top of the Black Bear food chain prepared Maurice for the big stage.
Kingsman Chess Club
Kneeling (L-R): Jerald Times, Ernest Colding, Ronald Simpson, Maurice Ashley
Standing (L-R): Robert Ali, David Diamond, Jerry Bibuld, Herminio Baez, John Evans Photo courtesy of Jerry Bibuld
It was in the late 80s and early 90s that Maurice had begun to show that his hard work was paying off. Both Maurice and Emory Tate would earn IM norms at the 1988 New York Open and five years later would meet in a bruising battle at the same tournament. More on that later. While Maurice was charting a course, he had to build a foundation from which to prosper.
By the recommendation of Gisela Gresser (9-time national women’s champion), he started coaching in the Manhattan Public School System at Mahalia Jackson (PS 123). The impact was immediate. The story goes that the team went to Arizona and brought back seven trophies. They received publicity from New York Post, New York Times, CNN and USA Today.
While returning from the championship, they proudly carried their trophies through the airport. A man came up and asked what the trophies were for. When told they were for chess, he seemed shocked. His wife walked up and asked if the trophies were for basketball. Realizing the implication, the husband interjected, “No. They’re for CHESS!” As often as these situations occur in America, this may have been a catalyst in further breaking media stereotypes.
“When I started, there weren’t a lot of good black chess players, so there wasn’t a high ceiling for me to shoot for,” he said. “Now I’m the ceiling for these kids, and I’m hoping they’ll surpass me. I want them to become role models. Their victory already makes a major statement about the potential of kids in the inner city — and about the lost potential of those adults you see on street corners.”
~Maurice Ashley in New York Times interview, April 26, 1991
He began coaching the “Raging Rooks,” from Adam Clayton Powell Junior High School in the historic district of Harlem. In 1991, they traveled to the National Junior High School Championships in Dearborn, Michigan where they won the national title. Eventually, Coach Ashley would lead the Rooks to two state championships and the one national championship. The story made the front page of the New York Times and was titled, “Harlem Teen-Agers Checkmate a Stereotype.”
Trodding a Stony Road
By 1993, Maurice had earned his International Master title and had his sights set on the Grandmaster title. After leading the Mott Hall Dark Knights to three national championships, he decided to take a break from coaching to focus on his ultimate goal. In that year, he matched wits with the attacking impresario Emory Tate. This game is annotated for the Tate biography Triple Exclam by fellow Black Bear, William Morrison.
In the same year, Maurice elevated his broadcasting profile by providing commentary for the 1993 Kasparov-Short championship match at the World Trade Center. Four years later, he would also call the famous Kasparov-Deep Blue match. While both were epic events, the parallel championship was a historic event for so many reasons.
Firstly, the match was in the aftermath of Garry Kasparov’s breakaway from FIDE and disrupting the long line of World Champions. Secondly, it was a match designed to capture the public’s attention with two dynamic commentators, Maurice Ashley and British GM Daniel King. Finally, the World Trade Center would enter the history books in infamy after the attacks on September 11, 2001.
GM Daniel King and IM Maurice Ashley calling the PCA Grand Prix in 1994 Photo courtesy of Jerry Bibuld
There was a question circulating on who would become the first Black Grandmaster. It was merely a conversation piece and not one to be taken too seriously. Besides Maurice, there were a few names bandied about including Emory Tate and Watu Kobese of South Africa. The fact that such a conversation could be had was a testament that Black chess had born the fruits of the “Fischer Boom” and the 80s saw a wave of activity in the African Diaspora.
One could imagine how difficult it was to stay on the GM path, but Maurice stayed busy. From 1991 to 1997, he was the chess director of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), an organization that provided supplemental youth programs for academic and social enrichment. This would also be the organization that would host the historic Wilbert Paige Memorial in 2001.
2001 Wilbert Paige Memorial held at HEAF (Harlem, New York)
Seated (L-R) IM Amon Simutowe (now GM), NM Grace Nsubuga, GM Maurice Ashley (commentator), FM Ronald Simpson, IM Michael Schleifer, FM Stephen Muhammad (now IM). Standing (L-R) NM Jerald Times (commentator), NM Ernest Colding, IM Watu Kobese, FM William Morrison, FM Kenny Solomon (now GM), FM Norman Rogers, NM Elvin Wilson (commentator). Photo by Daaim Shabazz.
In addition to his duties with HEAF, the gargantuan task of earning the GM title took him from coast-to-coast in the U.S., St. Martin, Bermuda, Hungary, Germany and France. Of course, it helped that he was located in the chess magnet of New York. The New York and World Opens were accessible and the strongest tournaments the U.S. had to offer.
Maurice was paying his dues. With few resources, limited norm opportunities, a bit of generosity, and a lot of determination, he charged ahead with a plan. Having celebrated his 33rd birthday during the tournament, he had a slow start. After a couple of nice wins, he picked up steam and clinched the GM norm with a round to spare. Below is his norm-clinching victory against IM Adrian Negulescu. The game appeared in the March 29, 1999 issue of the Washington Post newspaper and notes provided by GM Lubomir Kavalek.
A GM at a Crossroads
The cover story of the May 1999 issue of Chess Life changed the face of American chess, literally. There had been other Black masters on the cover of Chess Life including Walter Harris, Frank Street and, Kenneth Clayton, but Maurice Ashley’s name would forever be etched in the annals of chess history earning the sport’s highest title!
Maurice was awarded the title of International Grandmaster by the World Chess Federation (FIDE). While he completed the requirements 20 years ago in 1999, the title was conferred in 2000. There was a big celebration within the African Diaspora and the question of the “first” had finally been answered!
He earned his first two GM norms at the 1993 Enhance International at the Marshall Chess Club and then the 1997 Bad Wiessee Open in Germany. It seemed appropriate that he earned his last norm at the 1999 Manhattan Invitational since it was not far from where his dream started. The story doesn’t end with the GM title. In fact, it was just beginning.
After earning the GM title, he continued as a professional player even winning back-to-back Foxwoods Open tournaments. Despite this success, he came to a realization expressed in an interview:
The reality for a person like me is if you never make it to the top 20 in the world, there are very limited ways to make money in chess. Teaching is the most consistent because people want to get coached by a grandmaster. That’s nice money. Writing books, doing lectures, doing appearances. I do live commentary online for tournaments around the world. So a grandmaster has to cobble together all that stuff. Otherwise you’ll starve. You can’t make a living only if you play. (link)
Maurice tried his hand in a number of projects including his popular chess software, Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess. We were entering a new era of computer chess software and this CD was an early generation release running on Windows 95. It featured Maurice’s trademark John Madden-style commentary.
Besides the popular CD, he also authored several books along the way and tried his hand organizing his first major event. In 2005, he would organizer the “HB Global Chess Challenge,” with a $500,000 prize fund. This was unprecedented at the time. Nine years later, he would launch a series of “Millionaire Chess Open” tournaments with a $1,000,000 prize fund (2014, 2015, 2016). The series failed to break through and was scuttled after the third edition. However, it created a fierce debate about high stakes chess.
Amy Lee and Maurice Ashley present a triumphant Wesley So with the winner’s check at 2014 Millionaire Open. Photo by Paul Truong.
All of these feats were admirable, but where Maurice seemed to find his niche was in the area of chess commentary. Bringing all of his various chess experiences together has created a type of passion that has rarely been seen. In the following clip, he discussed chess’ potential as a spectator sport, a notion that the chess community has grappled with since the Bobby Fischer era.
From Jamaica to Brooklyn to the Hall of Fame
Maurice has put together a stellar career. Perhaps a crowning achievement was his 2016 induction into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame. This was the culmination of his contributions as a player, coach, author, speaker, commentator, and organizer. It was a long journey for the Maurice, who spent his teen years in the hardscrabble parks of Brooklyn playing pickup chess, a cub among a group of fierce lions.
Having cobbled together a portfolio of projects, the Jamaican-born, Brooklynite has slowly become one of the most visible faces in the chess world. This includes forays into popular culture recently appeared on the popular Trevor Noah Show…
…the TV series “Billions”…
…and who could forget the video that went viral!
If you look at Maurice Ashley’s career, he is one of the few who can say he has been involved in every facet of chess. There is only one area that he has avoided. Maurice has hinted that he does not like the taste of chess politics, but he was one of the advocates for fair play and ending the pattern of quick draw offers in tournament play. He penned an article titled, “The End of the Draw Offer?”
The idea of limiting draw offers has become a fixture in many high-level tournaments, and one method has been dubbed the “Sofia Rules.” Other events have implemented various versions to promote the idea of fighting chess. If chess is to be presented as a marketable sporting activity, it will have to find a formula.
One can say that Maurice Ashley has at least tried to find the formula. As a Grandmaster, he has recognized his role as an ambassador of chess, and 20 years later he continues to pay it forward. Well done Maurice!
At the inaugural Sinquefield Cup at the St. Louis Chess Club in 2013
Posing with Maurice at his Hall of Fame plaque at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis Photo by Daaim Shabazz
Sharif Waswa Mbaziira beams during the 2018 World Junior Chess Championship for the Disabled in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Photo by Dora Martinez
Chess is seen as a rather quiet game, but its beauty attracts millions of adherents far and wide. The game has traversed the entire globe as an enjoyable pastime and it has been able to create some beautiful testimonies. 17-year old Sharif Waswa Mbaziira of Uganda was stricken with polio as a baby and ended up with life-altering disabilities. However, his life was enriched by the game of chess.
“Like other people they are going to go on the road begging for money, so on. And for me I said okay you believe what you know, but for me I believe in myself.”
~Sharif Waswa Mbaziira
Sharif learned the game at the SOM Chess Academy, an organization founded by Robert Katende. Katende is known as the coach of Phiona Mutesi whose life was portrayed in the Disney movie, Queen of Katwe. He helps to manage nine centers around the poorest parts of Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Sharif is one of many examples that chess can empower even the most underprivileged.
Having traveled all the way to the U.S. to compete was a challenge in itself, but having gained the confidence in a world where so much emphasis is placed on appearance and being physically active, Sharif has destroyed stereotypes and also given hope to even the most physically-challenged. He plays at the Kampala School of the Physically Handicapped and describes his passion.
“I can’t imagine a day passing without playing chess,” says Sharif. “It’s become part of my life.”
Social change is rarely without an intense battle. Without going into the history of humanity’s ills against one another, there have been many tales of brutality in the history of the world. Many of these episodes involve nationality, gender, class, caste, religion, ethnic affiliation (tribe) and the general classification of race.
In the U.S., racial animus and the legacy of slavery is well-known. There is currently a burning discussion on reparations in the U.S. political discourse. There are those that believe social equality was achieved when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Others cited Barack Obama becoming U.S. President. The descendants of chattel slaves still suffer from the lingering effects of racism which rears its ugly head often.
On March 21st, World Champion Magnus Carlsen and Dutch Grandmaster Anish Giri became spokespersons for a new UNESCO initiative “#MoveforEquality” to bring light to tensions that have been present in nearly every part of the world. While some are oblivious to various forms of social inequity, this initiative was to bring attention to the matter. They produced a promo video discussing the purpose.
The point of black moving first was not merely to focus on ethnic and racial tensions, but the gesture was symbolic of a broader concept promoting equal opportunity. We know that white has a perceived advantage of the first move and some may infer this to be a sort of “privilege” given to the first player. In chess, some have pointed to the first-move privilege as a mirror of white supremacy. The late Dr. Frances Cress-Welsing offered this hypothesis.
Also, boards in chess books are typically oriented from white’s perspective, and past generations grew up with puzzle books with white playing and mating in every position. There is indeed the idea that one should win with white and be happy drawing with black pieces. Chess is a competitive game, but the symbolism results in a powerful metaphor.
Black is Good!
Some did seize on the occasion and did express many thoughts concerning racism. GM Pontus Carlsson of Sweden tweeted a shocking history of incidents he faced in Sweden and other parts of Europe.
Called the n-word by our music teacher he was talking about a black artist and then said the n-word didn’t even have time to tell him to not use that word before he says to me – do you get offended by the word n…. since you are a n…. Time for a change #MoveForEqualitypic.twitter.com/uCpvGemcsw
Even in chess, the perception of race rears its ugly head all too often. The notion that “white moves first” may be taken as a racial metaphor, but if you paint the pieces blue and red, the narrative is the same. The notion that one has the first move is deemed an advantage.
Magnus Carlsen and Anish Giri help to launch #MoveForEquality with black playing 1…d5 on the game’s first move.
There is a 50-55% win rate with white, but is it because we feel more pressured to win with white and thus have developed more intricate systems to fight for the advantage? Perhaps so. Over the years, dynamic systems for black are in vogue and instead of “fighting for equality,” black sometimes fights for the initiative in the opening.
Carlsen and Girl tried to make an important point…
How does this initiative fit in the chess world? While Pontus Carlsson has felt the wrath of racism throughout Europe, he feels that the environment in tournament chess is much better. Perhaps this is true to a degree, but there are still frequent incidences of prejudice in chess. How many Black players have walked into a chess club and been rudely treated because they were assumed to be a 1200-1300 Elo player? Many have, including this writer.
Years later, a relatively famous Grandmaster had lost to Kobese. When asked how he did, the Russian replied, “I lost to that monkey.” Bystanders were shocked but said nothing to condemn the comment. GM Maurice Ashley tells the story about a legendary Grandmaster walking up to kibitz a game he had won. The GM says to Ashley’s opponent, “You losing to this Schvartzer?” The Yiddish term is said to be innocuous, but Ashley found it offensive in the context of the situation. The next time they played Ashley had blood in his eyes and aptly beat him.
Hou Yifan had been a three-time women’s champion but sought higher heights. In 2016, she left the women’s championship cycle to attempt to compete at the highest levels of chess. Creating a stir, she threw a game at 2017 Gibraltar Open after expressing disappointment at being paired with several women! This incident created a firestorm in the discussion of gender equality!
Another issue of Olympiad is the rule change in awarding of medals. Using performance rating virtually eliminates the chance of a player from a small federation winning a board medal. Having used win percentage since the Olympiad began awarding medals, the 2008 Olympiad in Dresden, Germany started using total performance rating (TPR) to determine medals.
(Note that high performance ratings are routine for top-level players and many have received Olympiad medals for playing within 100 Elo points of their expected strength.)
IM Robert Gwaze (then 2280 Elo) scored a 9/9 at Bled Olympiad in 2002, a gold medal feat that is still marveled to this day and is one of the highlights of African chess history. In the current Olympiad format, his 2690 total performance rating (TPR) would not qualify for a medal and would barely make the top 50. Photo by Jerry Bibuld.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s idea was to have an outward appeal of professionalism to gain credibility in the eyes of the Olympic Committee. It is now possible that an 11/11 score from an obscure nation would not receive a mention at an Olympiad, but a player with a TPR lower than their Elo wins a medal? Sergey Karjakin (then rated 2785) wins a bronze medal at 2012 Istanbul Olympiad with a 2784 TPR.
Yes, players like GM Evgeny Ermenkov winning medals for Palestine was an oddity, but there should be a revised formula that combines several factors for medal contention. Individual Olympiad medals have helped small nations spur interest and establish a memorable historic footnote. Balanced medal criteria would level the playing field and allow more players an opportunity to win glory for their nation.
Arkady Dvorkovich Photo by David Llada
What can the chess world learn from this #MoveForEquality initiative? Will it call for a drawing of lots each game to see which color gets to move first? Of course not. Will it change deeply bigoted minds? Of course not. However, it will bring more awareness that these things are happening and provide an environment where individuals can seek equal protection under national laws.
What will be of interest is what the chess world does about some of the issues above. Arkady Dvorkovich has taken a step to have elite tournaments in a variety of regions including Africa and Asia. That is a start in terms of equal access. It will create interest throughout diverse countries and provide the chess world with better use of its resources. There have been 43 Olympiad tournaments. Today players still rave about the 1986 edition in Dubai, UAE. If we “spread the wealth,” great things can happen in chess.
Tallahassee’s BBCC hosted the 1st Capital City Open on a beautiful spring weekend. The tournament was the first open tournament in Florida’s capital since 2014 Froemke Memorial. More than 50 players came from Tampa, Jacksonville and Gainesville.
NM Todd Bryant trotting out the Dragon against Steve Lenhert.
The large majority of players were scholastic players with the highest-rated player being National Master Todd Bryant from Tampa. The 13 players in the Open section included four Experts and a cadre of promising scholastic players. In fact, two scholastic players would win the event!
As it happened the open section saw the top contenders taking points from each other. There were no upsets in the first round as all the rating favorites won. In the second round, Bryant (2216) and Steve Lenhert (2087) drew in a tactical slugfest in a Sicilian Dragon. Lenhert told The Chess Drum that both were under a minute in the end and he couldn’t find a win, so they game ended in a three-fold repetition. Meanwhile Daaim Shabazz (2007) beat young upstart Erick Zhao (2113) with a prickly hedgehog.
While Benjamin Chen (2087) was held to a draw in the second round by David Liu (1677) of Gainesville, he beat the elder Liu brother, Jackie (1944). William Wu (1788) upset Erick Zhao (2113). Two professors battled it out as Florida State’s Lenhert defeated FAMU’s Shabazz in a very complicated game in the English. The game featured a pawn sacrifice resulting in tactical fireworks. The game was imbalanced and was the last to finish. Shabazz finally falling to time pressure mistakes.
Daaim Shabazz (FAMU) battling Steve Lenhert (FSU) in 3rd round, 0-1 (link)
Going into penultimate round, Lenhert, Bryant and Chen were at 2.5/3, so the pairings were Lenhert-Chen and Shabazz-Bryant. Chen, who has been teetering around 2100, went into his game with Lenhert with aggressive intent. The game went into a theoretical Najdorf variation. Lenhert told The Chess Drum that he played the same line against Chen in a blitz game, but forgot the analysis. Chen two bishops and active play was able to win the day. “I was happy I survived as long as I did,” said Lenhert.
In Shabazz-Bryant, black has just played 19…Bxg4. How did white respond?
Shabazz was the highest on 2/3 and paired against Bryant. The game was another Sicilian, but started out 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Qxd4!? The game went into a main line until black’s 12…Qb6. The game continued on with 16…Nh6 and after 17.g4 Bf3! 18.Rd6 Qc7.
At this point white was in danger of losing the thread and had to retreat with 19.Rd4. Now black can seize the initiative with 19…Qe5! but played 19…Bxg4?? instead (diagram). White responded with 20.Qxh6! since 20…gxh6 gets mated after 21.Rxg4+ Kh8 22.Bf6. After 20…Qxe7 21.Rxg4 white nets a piece and went on to win the game.
With Benjamin Chen winning he was atop the field with 3.5/4 and Jason Shen moved into a tie for second on 3/4 along with Daaim Shabazz. Steve Lenhert, Jackie Liu and David Liu had 2.5/4. The final round would be Chen (3.5/4) against Shabazz (3/4) and Shen (3/4) against David.
Jackie Liu and brother David Liu of Gainesville have been regular participants of Tallahassee tournaments. There are now two more Liu brothers!
Chen quickly drew with Shabazz clinching a tie for first with 4/5. Shen ended up defeating Liu and also finished with 4 points. There was a three-way tie for 3rd-5th with Bryant, Lenhert and Shabazz finishing on 3.5/5. The Liu brothers scored 50% with 2.5/5 and five players ended with 2/5. It was a very balanced field as the lower half of the field essentially beat each other.
In the under-1800 section, top-seed Jake McIntosh blitzed the field with 5-0. Dylan Yu and James Zhang tied for 2nd with 3/5. Zhang’s only loss was to Yu. In the under-1400 section, Jolie Huang took top honors as she went undefeated with 4.5/5 and only gave up a draw to 3rd place finished Christopher Taylor (3.5/5).
Paul Reynolds failed to catch Jolie Huang, but had a good showing. Photos by Daaim Shabazz
Paul Reynolds took clear second with 4/5 losing to Huang, but beating all other opponents. A podiatrist by training, Reynolds told The Chess Drum that he feels better about his work schedule because it allows more focus on chess. The results were apparent. In the under-400, Liang Zhou took clear first in his first tournament with a perfect score of 5/5! Keep an eye out on him!
If it wasn’t apparent that we have officially entered a new era in U.S. Chess, it should be fully clear at this point. In a very exciting pair of tournaments, we saw the dominance of rising star Jennifer Yu. After her medal-winning performance at the Olympiad last fall, the 17-year old from Ashburn, Virginia has now added her name to the annals of U.S. chess history with her first championship. From the looks of it, there will be many more. She amassed 10/11 and clinched her crown with one round remaining.
Jennifer Yu, 2019 U.S. Women’s Champion. Photo by Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.
Hikaru Nakamura, now one of the senior statesmen at 31, shows how young the field is compared to previous editions. Actually the oldest in the field at 35 was Leinier Dominguez(two months older than Varuzhan Akobian) who was playing in his debut since switching his federation in December 2018. The Cuban national was actually in the running into the final round making the tournament a sign of things to come in future Olympiad. The five-time Cuban champion will add to an already formidable Olympiad lineup. Fabiano Caruana noted that it is the strongest national championship in the world.
What a truly special feeling to turn back the clock and win so many must games in order to become the 2019 US Chess Champion!! Big should out to the amazing twitch community from whom I drew so much inspiration!
What is interesting in the women’s field was that it was mostly comprised of school girls. There were the mainstays like defending champion Sabina-Francesca Foisor, 7-time champion Irina Krush, and 4-time champion Anna Zatonskih. Tatev Abrahamyan and Anna Sharevich rounded out the field of veterans. None of the other players were out of their teens.
GM Jeffery Xiong shocked Sam Shankland… and the Californian undoubtedly hears his footsteps. Photo by Daaim Shabazz.
What does this mean for the future of U.S. chess? It means that on the men’s side the competition just got more stiff and it will be interesting to see what the addition of Dominguez does to the rise of homegrown stars like Jeffery Xiong, Sam Sevian and Awonder Liang. With five top 30 players on the national team, it will take a lot of determination to crack the Olympiad lineup. As far as the women’s field, it seems as if the veterans’ days are numbered and the torch is being passed to a cadre of ambitious scholastic players.
In both fields, the U.S. had been bolstered by immigrant talent. In the 80s and 90s, it was from the Soviet bloc after which the U.S. championships were dominated by these players. Twenty years later, these players became coaches and helped to raise the next generation of talent. However, many of them held onto to their top positions for another decade… until now. It has taken 20 years to raise the level of elite talent and with the steady stream of strong players emerging, the future looks bright.
Life Master Charles Covington is a man of many talents. A former bodybuilder, master magician, draughts expert, USCF Life Master and jazz pianist par excellence, Covington is a renaissance man. The Chess Drum interviewed him back in 2002 and he stated,
“Those who know me for my music don’t know I’m a chess master; those who know me for chess don’t know that I’m a musician.”
While Covington has retired as the Chair of the Music Department at Howard University, he has not retired his musical talents. He is a master organist and has performed with some of the greatest entertainers to ever live. That list includes Sammy Davis, Jr., Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Eartha Kitt and Herbie Hancock.
Charles Covington at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (August 18, 2018)
Covington was born in Baltimore, Maryland and was a contemporary of some of the first Black chess masters in the U.S. That included Frank Street and Ken Clayton, who both were living in the Maryland area. Clayton passed away in 2017. He also sparred with William Morrison and Emory Tate, the irrepressible tactician. He mentioned that Tate used to get a thrill sacrificing pieces against his Polugaevsky Sicilian.
Charles Covington giving simul in Baltimore
Covington traveled Europe performing he got to rub shoulders with a number of legends including GMs Jan Timman, Anthony Miles, Vlastmil Hort, John Nunn, John van der Wiel, and Zsuzsa Polgar. While living in New York as a musician, he visited the famous Chess and Checker Club where he recalled interacting with Pal Benko, Larry Evans, Bobby Fischer, Walter Browne and the famous hustler Asa Hoffman.
More than 20 years ago, Covington wrote the book, “Memoirs of an African-American Chess Master: NM Charles Covington.” It recounted his chess history along with a collection of games including Grandmasters Nona Gaprindashvili, Samuel Reshevsky, Bent Larsen and Viktor Korchnoi. He was also a competitive draughts (10×10 checkers) and played Grandmaster Iser Kuperman, six-time World Champion!
Here are a few of his games…
Being multitalented in so many areas is a blessing, but it is always important to have supported and Covington has the best support one could wish for in his wife Becky Covington. When chatting with Covington, he still speaks with admiration of his wife Becky who was once featured on these pages.
Both Charles and Becky have been married for 54 years and sent this to The Chess Drum back in 2007. It is appropriate to repeat this tribute to his effervescent wife.
Dr. Daaim Shabazz,
I would like to thank my wife Becky for her time and patience in helping me to be a good chess player. We have been married for 41 years and Becky is my biggest fan. She bought chess books for me so that I could study to become a better player. I remember several times I would come home from work and she would have chess players waiting to play me. She would fix lunch and dinner for them. She would enroll me into chess tournaments without me even knowing it. I remember there was a chess exhibition coming to Maryland and she encouraged me to enroll in it to better my game. My wife bought most of my chess sets’ clocks, and I also still have the chess books, to this day, that she has bought me over the years. I am still thanking my wife for the countless hours and time I spent away from our family concerning chess tournaments, and she never complained. My wife is the cause of my success in chess. Becky is an asset to me and I am still thanking her to this day.
While there are many adorable chess couples, there are a lot of casualties as a result of a chess player having two loves at the same time. Some spouses force you to make a choice. Others realize that to make one’s husband or wife the happiest, they have to figure out what ways to help them realize their potential.
(Note: I remember seeing Becky Covington sitting next to Charles every round at a tournament in Chicago. It was a beautiful sight!)
Another thing that is beautiful is Covington’s music. Here is a performance that took place last year. The opening is the best part! 🙂
On March 16th, the New York Times ran a story on Tanitoluwa Adewumi, a Nigerian boy whose family migrated to the U.S. for a better life. The story generated more than 400 comments. A follow-up story generated another 400 comments. “Homeless,” “refugee,” and “chess champion” are an unlikely combination of search words indeed, but the top result will be a boy affectionately known as “Tani.”
The New York Times that spawned a frantic fundraising campaign.
After Tani won a New York Primary Championship, the story went viral. The 8-year old boy initially learned chess from his older brother Austin Adewumi and then at P.S. 116 a year before winning the tournament. Many children win these awards each year, but what makes the story so compelling was the fact that the family had been living in a homeless shelter for more than a year. Kayode Adewumi, wife Oluwatoyin decided to take their sons to the U.S. for a better life, but could not have imagined what was to follow.
After Tani’s story hit the mass media, a campaign was launched to raise money for the family. To date, the donations have more than quintupled the original $50,000 target. This has been a wonderful gesture from the public minus some negative comments and a good number of “cling-ons” looking to divert attention to their own campaigns. There was enough intrigue that former President Bill Clinton wanted the honor of meeting Tani and invited him to his office in Harlem.
42nd U.S. President Bill Clinton is showing Tani a depiction of Ganesha, the Hindu God who is a symbol of good fortune, but also the remover of obstacles. Photo by Nicholas Kristof.
Besides the generous outpouring toward the GoFundMe campaign, the family received many offers from well-wishers and are now living in a small apartment.
The family settled on one of the more modest and practical housing offers: An anonymous donor paid a year’s rent on a two-bedroom apartment near Tani’s current school. The apartment is clean, comfortable and freshly painted, without being luxurious, and the Adewumis gaze adoringly at their new kitchen.
The story evoked notions of “American Dream,” “Immigrants Making American Great,” and other narratives that took a swipe at the immigration policies being bounced around by the current Trump administration.
A week after the initial article, a second article stated that the family planned to give 10% of their fund to their church and set up a foundation to assist embattled immigrants. This gesture may take many by surprise considering that the money was donated with the idea of helping the family chart an economical path to help Tani realize his dreams.
“I’m a hardworking guy.”
~Kayode Adewumi on why he is donating the entire fund
If Tani is to rise in the competitive world of scholastic chess, the family will need a plan. Eventually, many well-wishers will offer the Adewumi family advice on Tani’s development in chess, but they will have to discern the best path. For the immigrant family, some of it will entail adjusting to the unique social dynamics of American society.
Josh Colas and Justus Williams are recent Black talents out of NYC, but there is no shortage of examples in the city’s chess history. Both are now juniors at Webster University. Photo by Elizabeth Vicary.
Another reality is that New York can be a challenging place to live up to potential in chess. Media attention comes at a price, and the expectations will be tremendous. Tani has stated that he wants to become the world’s youngest Grandmaster, a goal uttered by many young players worldwide (past and present). There is no tailor-made plan for success in chess, but what will be an essential factor is Tani’s social well-being. There are quite a number of positive influences in New York to help him realize his talents.
Tanitoluwa Adewumi at PS-116 Photo by Nicholas Kristof
Media has heaped effusive praise labeling him a “genius,” “prodigy,” “Magnus Carlsen’s challenger” and other superlatives. This type of hyperbole is bound to increase the amount of pressure especially if a young player is competing against equally ambitious children. With all the media attention, chess players will begin to track every tournament result and every available game. Agadmator, a popular YouTube channel, featured one of his games. The quest of chess mastery is a coveted goal, but improvement is not always a linear progression. There will be some disappointing results, but he will have widespread support in the New York chess community.
“This school showed confidence in Tanitoluwa. So we return the confidence.”
~Oluwatoyin Adewumi to P.S. 116 principal, Jane Hsu
Abhimanyu Mishra of New Jersey made National Master at age 9 years, 2 months and 17 days. Nevertheless, Tani does not have to chase records as some are encouraging him to do. There is a danger. Josh Waitzkin of the Searching for Bobby Fischer fame wrote in The Art of Learning about the tremendous pressure he faced while trying to live up to the hype generated by the movie. He ultimately gave up his plight to become a Grandmaster and embarked on a successful competitive career in the martial art of Tai Chi. In fact, he became a World Champion.
There have been many recent success stories in New York, but the paths have varied. Whether or not Tani becomes the youngest Grandmaster in history, he stands to be a success in life. Becoming a Grandmaster would be fantastic, but becoming an engineer, physician, lawyer, banker, or professor are not bad alternatives!
Magnus Carlsen will compete in GCT Rapid & Blitz in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. Photo by David Llada
Arkady Dvorkovich made a pledge to spread elite chess to other continents besides Europe. Speaking in Nairobi, Kenya during his campaign Dvorkovich stated,
“We need to change the geographical location when it comes to big tournaments, I will ensure that the game is staged not only in Russia and Europe but to other regions like Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Arab speaking countries to bring diversity.” (link)
This is something we have sought in The Chess Drum community for two decades and is the reason the site seeks more inclusion of the African Diaspora. Nevertheless, others have had similar ideas including former World Champion Garry Kasparov. It was actually Kasparov’s endorsement of Cote d’Ivoire combined with the passion of Dr. Essis Essoh that help to create this initiative. The country had hosted the CIV Rapid and Blitz, an event modeled after the Grand Chess Tour’s Rapid and Blitz event. It was a rousing success.
Dr. Essoh Essis, President of the Ivorian Chess Federation will host one of the rapid and blitz events as part of the 2019 Grand Chess Tour. It will be the first elite event held in Africa since the 2004 FIDE Knockout in Tripoli, Libya. Egypt’s Bassem Amin (left) has earned a wildcard nomination to participate. Photo by Alina L’Ami.
There were questions swirling around in social media whether a sitting World Champion had actually played in Africa. There are no known records of Emanuel Lasker, Jose Capablanca, or Alexander Alekhine ever visiting Africa. Apparently, none of the Soviet champions (from Mikhail Botvinnik to Boris Spassky) had visited there for chess.
There have been a number of visits by Viswanathan Anand who visited South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania. These were visits where he addressed the business and chess communities and conducted chess exhibitions. There was no chess competition or matches in which he participated. Anand has (by far) been the most conscientious sitting World Champion when it comes to promotion of chess in Africa. It has meant a lot to the continent.
Anand giving simultaneous exhibition to schoolchildren in Durban, South Africa.
Photo courtesy of Keith Rust
Tshepo Sitale, then-President of the Botswana Chess Federation, receives Viswanathan Anand. Photos by Booster Galesekegwe
Reception committee at Nairobi International Airport from left – WFM Sanjana Deshpande, Chess Kenya Chairman Benard Wanjala, GM Viswanathan Anand, Satish Deshpande, Sumit Deshpande & Sandhya Deshpande. Photo credit Allan Victor of Arongoey Photography. (Kenya Chess Masala)
Bobby Fischer played in Sousse, Tunisia in 1967 during his rise to the 1972 crown. Rustam Kasimdhzanov was not yet a sitting champion when he won the FIDE Knockout Tournament in Tripoli, Libya in 2004. At that time, FIDE was still divided and that tournament determined the FIDE World Champion. Carlsen actually played in Libya as a President’s nominee, but was eliminated in the first round by Levon Aronian.
It just so happens that one former World Champion has played in Africa, but it was not during his reign. Dr. Max Euwe, 5th World Champion (1935-1937), played in the Johannesburg Open in 1955. He returned in 1974 in the capacity of President of FIDE on a three-week fact-finding mission to evaluate allegations of racism within the chess community.
(Note: Months later, both South Africa and Rhodesia were expelled during the 21st Olympiad in Nice, France in 1974. See olimpbase reference.)
Keith Rust also weighs in…
I remember playing against Dr Max Euwe when I was still a schoolboy, in a simul held in Durban in 1974 (my game ended in a draw). In 1974 Dr Euwe was touring Southern Africa on a fact finding mission, when he was the president of FIDE. Dr Euwe also played at the Johannesburg international tournament in 1955 and gave numerous simuls throughout SA in 1955.
Dr. Max Euwe’s giving a simul on his trip to South Africa.
Photo courtesy of Keith Rust
Also according to Rust, Euwe played in 12 simuls with a score of +259=34-11. While that is an impressive score, it would be interesting to know who the winners were!
So Magnus Carlsen stands to be the first sitting World Champion to compete in Africa and perhaps set the stage for more professional activities on the continent. For decades, it had been thought that African players must travel overseas to play in Europe. Many have done so.
The Rapid and Blitz in Cote d’Ivoire has a chance to be a ground-breaking event and the world will be getting their first glimpse into African chess organization. While South Africa missed getting the Olympiad bid for 2018, there is hope for the future. Given the success of recent events, the Ivorian Chess Federation will spare no effort to ensure that this event will be the standard by which other GCT tournaments are measured.
About 14 years ago, a little girl in Katwe, Uganda followed her older brother who was increasingly occupied with an activity after school. After seeing him disappear inside of a building, she wandered inside and found the Sports Outreach Institute, a sports club where there was a chess club meeting being held. Little did she realize that this event would change her life for the better.
Phiona Mutesi at Northwest University. Photo by Eilís O’Neill for WBUR
Fast forward to 2019, Phiona Mutesi has since traveled the world sharing her story to thousands and serving as an inspiration that one can find a beacon of light in the darkest of circumstances. Now a student at Northwest University outside of Seattle, Washington, her journey has come with many challenges. In addition, she ponders about unfulfilled expectations in chess. However, her story should be an example to us all.
The book was released in 2012 and captured international acclaim despite the chess community being skittish. Chess purists seemed more interested in her FIDE rating than in the obstacles she overcame. Unfortunately, many chess players (especially from the west) cannot empathize with the type of abject poverty Phiona experienced and how difficult it was for her to survive in such conditions. On chess discussion groups, many boiled her story down to her rating, title and tournament activity. The moral of the story was completely missed or at least underappreciated.
The movie did not gain traction in the media. It may have been due to the fact that the marketing crew handled this as someone would a story on Bobby Fischer. The idea of a chess champion is a common one, but by comparison, Phiona’s feats had been rather modest.
In addition, it was billed as a rags to riches story of a “chess champion” instead of a story about triumph over the most depressing conditions. Crothers may have even contributed to the narrative with his pronouncements about her becoming a “Grandmaster,” a very specific title in chess. There were many misleading characterizations about Phiona’s abilities.
Coming to America
With this new-found fame, Phiona grappled with her champion image portrayed in the movie. During an interview with WBUR (Boston), she reflects…
“My name, like, went so high, and my chess — it was still so low,” she says. “I wasn’t even the best chess champion, like, in Uganda. It was so hard.
I was working hard, but the more I worked hard, I couldn’t find my name. My name is there, but my chess is still here. I’m working so hard on it, and I felt like I was starting to forget about myself, my family.”
The movie fizzled. Nevertheless, Phiona was able to secure admission to Northwest University in the fall of 2017. While ecstatic about the new opportunity and perhaps releasing some of the pressures at home, there were challenges. Despite her fame, there were plenty of struggles including financial.
Arriving at Northwest, Phiona had not used a computer before. Completing a single assignment was a tremendous task. Today, Phiona is completing her second year at Northwest and has played for their Pan-Am Intercollegiate chess team. While chess has provided some relief from the rigors of study, it was socially challenging in the beginning.
Phiona Mutesi at 2017 Pan-Am Intercollegiate Tournament. Photo by Al Lawrence
She also noticed how different things were in the U.S., a decidedly more individualistic society. At home in Uganda, there was more of a community feeling that everyone is accountable for each other. “I never appreciated it until I came here,” Phiona reflects during the aforementioned interview. Her scholarship covers tuition, but other living expenses are her responsibility. She has to fend for herself and has done motivational speeches to help cover costs of school. It leaves little time for chess. According to the WBUR interview, her zeal for chess may be subsiding.
“I don’t feel like I really have love for chess like the way I used to have,” she says. “Because, during that time, I felt like [chess was all] I had to use in my life. But, right now, I feel like there are a lot of stuff that I can do in my life. I feel like chess has opened the door for me.
While the conditions were totally different for Phiona, I’m sure she could give some sage advice to the Adewumi family. Chess is part of a journey, not the destination. Phiona’s life lessons will become much more impactful than any accomplishments should could ever gain in chess. We would hope that this example will lead more boys in girls out of the “poverty of thinking” whether it is in Katwe, or any desolate ghetto anywhere on the planet.
Hometown: Milford, New Hampshire Education: B.S. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2012), M.B.A University of California-Berkeley (2019) Peak Chess Rating: 2097 (USCF) 2078 (FIDE) Chess Accolades: 2-time Massachusetts H.S. State Champion Activities: MIT varsity football, OmegaBrite Scholar, MIT Minority Business Association (co-founder), Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. (Rho Nu Chapter) Current Profession: Principal, OVO Fund (Palo Alto, CA), JW Chess Academy Last tournament: 2006-08-29 MCC SUMMER VACATION SWISS (MA)
Jacob Wamala Photo by Daaim Shabazz
Jacob “Jake” Wamala, who just celebrated his 29th birthday, is the older brother of Jessica Wamala. Both were very close early on in life and shared passions of academics, athletics and chess. Both were able to gain success at the scholastic level and both won state championships. Entering competitive programs in undergrad, they had less time for chess, but the training they received helped them excel academically.
Jake gained an interest in MIT after hearing a classmate’s desire at attending the prestigious school. He had attended camps prior to his enrollment, but gained an interest in the impact of aging. Jake spent two years in the AgeLab, researchers study the impact of aging on the mind and body. He even conducted an experiment where he wore a special “Age Gain Now Empathy System” suit simulating age-related functionality issues.
“Good grades and achievements are nice and all,” he says, “but I’m probably most proud of the work I’ve done to help other people.” (link)
After receiving his B.S. Mechanical Engineering, he accepting a job at Morgan Stanley as an investment analyst, but is now working for a small venture capital fund near Silicon Valley. He started up the JW Chess Academy sharing his passion with local youth. He is currently enjoying life on the west coast.
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York Education: B.A./B.A. (double major) Stanford University (2017) Peak Chess Rating: 2127 (USCF) 1957 (FIDE) Chess Accolades: Polgar All-Girls under-14, Polgar All-Girls under-16, All-Girls under-18 title, World Youth Championship – Caldas Novas, Brazil (2011), United Arab Emirates (2013) Activities: subject in movie, “Brooklyn Castle,” Starfish Scholar, Questbridge Scholar, Black Student Union (Stanford) Current Profession: Litigation Paralegal, Carr Maloney PC (Washington, DC) Last tournament: 2019-01-28 DMV LEAGUE S3R4 MAKEUP (VA)
The road to Stanford University would not be easy for Rochelle Ballantyne. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York as the oldest of four children of a single mother from Trinidad & Tobago. Then chess entered her life.
Eleven years ago (in 2002), I was like any other third grader, really active, really loud and really annoying, to my grandmother at least. Eleven years ago my grandmother found a way to keep me calm and to get my mind going: she taught me chess.
Rochelle won a $68,000 scholarship to attend University of Texas-Dallas and had to weigh her options. UTD was known for its chess culture and one of her goals was to become the first African-American female National Master. This is even stated in the movie, “Brooklyn Castle,” in a scene with Latisha Ballard, the mother of teammate Justus Williams.
Classic photo of Rochelle Ballantyne
Photo by Anthony Causi
Tragically, her grandmother passed away and it took a lot of determination for Rochelle to get over the loss. In her interviews, she reflects a lot on her grandmother and also her mother as her support system. While at Stanford, she became deeply immersed in social activism.
In a Chess Life interview last year with Melinda Matthews, she made the following revelations about the chess environment:
I think one of the most frustrating (frustrating might be the wrong word) things I realized as an African-American female chess player was the feeling that I didn’t belong. I was always the odd person out. Always asked whether or not I was lost. Chess is supposed to be a battle of intellect and my intellect always seemed to be diminished or erased because I am black and because I am a woman. Luckily, when I started playing chess I was too young to really process race and gender as a construct. I knew I was different but I didn’t care because I wanted to win. And that drive continues to carry me.
Rochelle graduated from Stanford University in 2017 and trekked back to the east coast with two degrees in hand. Having already done a stint with Kobre & Kim as a Litigation Assistant, she is now a paralegal in the Washington, DC area. The town has an abundance of lawyers, but hopefully she can find a niche in the legal field and still have time to seek her coveted goal of becoming a National Master. This is a very important goal, and very much within her realm.
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York Education: B.A. University of Chicago (2016), London School of Economics (study abroad) Peak Chess Rating: 2128 (USCF) 2035 (FIDE) Chess Accolades: World Youth representation – Batumi, Georgia (2006), Antala, Turkey (2009); Pan-Am Games – Cuenca, Ecuador (2006), University of Chicago Chess Team Pan-Am Intercollegiate Activities: White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs (summer 2013), Hillary Clinton for America (2015) Current Profession: Analyst, Federation Reserve Bank of New York Last tournament: 2016-08-14 CLEVELAND OPEN (OH)
Darrian Robinson at 2006 World Youth Championships in Batumi,Georgia.
Darrian was very cute and shy girl who peered at the chess board with intense focus. Very soft-spoken, she was able to assert herself and build her confidence at the famed IS-318, the school featured in the movie, “Brooklyn Castle.” While she was seen in the movie briefly, Darrian had already moved on to Packer Collegiate Institute. While considering universities, she stated that chess helped her to stand out.
I think being the highest-rated African-American female chess player in the U.S. has helped me stand out from the crowd. It’s something most people don’t have under their belts. It helped me get into college. I remember the person who read my application to the University of Chicago came up to me during the meet-and-greet for incoming first-year students, and he remembered me immediately and that I played chess competitively. (link)
Darrian Robinson Photo by University of Chicago
Indeed. That article was one of many featured here on The Chess Drum and Darrian has always shown her appreciation for the exposure on The Chess Drum. She was also interviewed while at U. of Chicago where she weighed in on the Chicago vs. New York pizza debate!
During her chess development, her mother Cenceria Edwards was seen accompanying her to chess tournaments. As any chess parent would know, investing in a child’s activities doesn’t come cheap, but it is apparent that such time and effort are well worth it. It is amazing that Attorney Edwards kept her own goal of a judgeship in focus and now serves in New York City Civil Court. Darrian plans to attend graduate school, but has not decided on whether to attend law school or opt for the vaulted Ph.D. degree.
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois Education: B.A. Morehouse College (2012), M.B.A. Harvard University (2019) Peak Chess Rating: 2215 (USCF) 2220 (FIDE) Chess Accolades: National Master (2012), 2-time state champion (Whitney Young Magnet H.S.), beat GM Jaan Ehlvest Activities: Phi Beta Kappa (honor society) Current Profession: Investment Banker, full-time MBA student at Harvard University Last tournament: 2011-04-06 JUSTIN OPEN (GA)
12-year old Kayin Barclay on “B” section’s top board at 2003 Chicago Open. Photo by Daaim Shabazz.
Kayin is a very unassuming young man. However, he had confidence that belied his humble demeanor. The first time I encountered him was at the 2003 Chicago Open when, as a 12-year old, he scored 6/7 in the “B” section. The early days saw coaching from legendary coachTom Fineberg and session with local Expert Sam Ford.
Now married to the former Lauren Crim, Kayin worked on Wall Street at Barclays Bank as an investment banker for two years, then after a stint with RLF Equity he joined the Harvard Business School in Boston. Kayin told The Chess Drum that he will graduate from Harvard B-School in May 2019 and move to Dallas to work for a private equity firm called Insight Equity. He also gives some sage advice on how to approach chess.
“First of all, they must ask themselves if it is truly worth it. The time that I have invested in chess is probably equal to a college degree (in no way am I downplaying its worth). When I was intensively studying, I studied everyday about 5-6 hours. If you want to be a good player, you have to put in the time, learn how to study, and study the correct material. A coach is helpful but you have to go beyond what a coach does. Finally, I would say play as much as you can, there is no amount of studying that you can do that can help you react to that position that you have gotten in a random blitz game.”
Hometown: Milford, New Hampshire Education: B.A. Villanova University (2013), M.A. Villanova (2014), MPhil Middle Eastern Studies, University of Oxford (2016) Peak Chess Rating: 1790 (USCF) Chess Accolades: Massachusetts Junior High co-champ, U.S. Open “C” champion Activities: Phi Beta Kappa (honor society), Rhodes Scholar, Villanova varsity women’s basketball, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (Upsilon Tau Chapter), Truman Scholar, Rangel Scholar, Gates Millennium Scholar Current Profession: Head of Partner Operations & Integrations, Wave Mobile Remittance Last tournament: 2006-09-04 66TH NEW ENGLAND OPEN (MA)
Jessica Wamala Photo by Villanova University
Jessica Wamala graduated from Villanova University in May 2013 with majors in Political Science, Arab and Islamic studies, and Global Interdisciplinary Studies. A year later, she earned her M.A. in Political Science & Government and earned the coveted Rhodes Scholarship to study at University of Oxford. Jessica interned at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade and at the State Department office of Near Eastern Affairs. She also served in the Peace Corps in Taza Province, Morocco.
Jessica has an older brother Jacob Wamala who was also a chess standout. Below she gives precious advice on how to navigate the collegiate experience and juggling activities.
“The one thing that you have to understand is that you’re going to have to make sacrifices. And I did make sacrifices. While I did go out, there were nights where my friends went out, but I had to study for a test and then the next day I had to be on the road for basketball; so [making] sacrifices and maintaining a priority, and then maintaining that every time you wake up. When you are practicing, you can’t do your homework. When you’re doing your homework, you can’t be having fun; and when you are having fun, you can’t be sleeping. You have to understand how to take care of your body, take care of your mind, take care of your health.” (link)
Hometown: Teaneck, New Jersey Education: B.A. Harvard College (2000), M.D. Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons (2004) Peak Chess Rating: 2311 (USCF), 2210 (FIDE) Chess Accolades: National Master (1994), All-American, 3-time National H.S. Champion, U.S. Junior Open Champion (1997), 2-time New Jersey State Champion, 12 state titles, beat GM Bu Xianghzi Activities: National Scholar Chessplayer Award (USCF), National Institute of Health, Neurological Institute of New York (fellow), Cleveland Clinic Foundation Lerner Research Institute, Cleveland, OH (fellow), University of Minnesota Medical School, Minneapolis, MN (fellow), Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR (fellow) Current Profession:Clinical Research Assistant (oncologist), Department of Radiation Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Oregon (resume) Last tournament: 2012-08-18 BCF Grand Prix 12 (MA)
Dr. Shearwood McClelland III Photo by OHSU
Dr. Shearwood “Woody” McClelland III had an outstanding scholastic chess career and was one of the trailblazers in the African-American community winning multiple national and state championship. For a time, he had only trailed Howard Daniels and KK Karanja in terms of the age record for youngest African-American master. That record has been broken several times since, but it is clear that chess gave Woody a platform for excellence.
As far as chess is concerned, Woody last played tournament chess in 2012, but perhaps has little time these days. He has been party to over 130 research papers and is extremely active as a conference presenter and consultant. It goes without saying that chess has certainly yielded tremendous benefits to Dr. McClelland.
Chess has been said to have many qualities. Often misunderstood as a game only for the high-browed intelligentsia, it has many redeeming qualities that attract adherents of all demographics. Chess has been the subject of many studies and is often called a sport, game, and even a science. It is undeniable that chess players derive benefit from playing the royal game and there are many examples confirming what the studies have already found.
Sometimes we look back in time and wonder how certain players of note are doing both in chess and in life. We may peruse the rating chart to see whether they have been active. When The Chess Drum was launched in 2001, one of the objectives was to highlight young Black players worldwide. This to provide exposure, build confidence and to index their accomplishments in the digital world for documentation. Many have used these online stories with great effect, but in ways unrelated to chess.
The paucity of Black players in top-level chess has been a question raised for decades. Frankly, chess requires significant amount time and financial resources. The average Black family has neither generational wealth accumulated nor significant amounts of disposable income to dedicate to an activity (especially after college) that will not lead to income generation. Thus, there is a huge ‘opportunity cost’ in spending the time and resources in chess unless there is a residual benefit. If it is not feasible to spend inordinate amounts of time studying and playing chess, are there other routes for talented players?
What is common in the current generation of players is that chess is being used as a stepping stone for success in other areas. Chess still has a tremendous amount of “cachet” and draws attention on college and job applications. It also sharpens the mind to handle the rigors of academic and professional subjects. This seems to be the way many young stars are approaching chess. Attrition is still very, very high, but when we check on former scholastic stars, many are thriving and engaged in successful careers. At some point, a talented young player has to make a tough decision and decide what role chess will play in their lives.
Below are a few players who received some notoriety on The Chess Drum and links to a profile describing what they are doing now. Enjoy!
Nigeria has long been one of Africa’s most heralded chess countries with an ambitious goal of producing the next generation of chess masters. Having already produced a number of International Masters, the country has recently launched a fundraising campaign to produce the first Grandmaster in history. There is a wealth of talent in Africa’s most populous nation of 190 million.
While Nigeria remains a place of immense potential and intellectual capital, it is still striving to realize its true potential. For this reason, there is a very large Nigerian Diaspora seeking opportunities abroad. Many migrants have a variety of reasons, but all seem to be looking for better opportunities. The latest of these examples was presented in the New York Times, going viral.
Kayode Adewumi and wife Oluwayoyin left Nigeria to seek a better life for their two sons, Austin and Tanitoluwa. Unfortunately, they have been living in a homeless shelter since arriving in New York in 2017. This story may not have come to light if it were not for their youngest son, affectionately called “Tani.”
The story that went viral!
Tanitoluwa which means “who is like God,” has become somewhat an icon for his recent chess accomplishments. Since arriving in New York, he has worked assiduously on his chess game and recently won the New York Primary Championship with an undefeated score. He adds to his collection of trophies which give an interesting decor to a homeless shelter. A student at P.S. 116, Tani has received chess tutoring from local master Shawn Martinez.
“He is so driven. He does 10 times more chess puzzle than the average kid. He just wants to be better.”
~Shawn Martinez, Tani’s coach
Martinez, who earned his own 15-minutes of fame as part of the Edward Murrow High School powerhouse, beams about Tani. “I wanted to reach out about a student of mine who has risen the ranks in scholastic chess despite his everyday challenges.” Challenges… indeed. Living in a homeless shelter is certainly not ideal for an immigrant family, let alone for two growing boys. However, Tani and his family is receiving support from the local chess community.
Adia Onyango, a pillar of the chess community in New York, excitedly posted the following stats.
Tanitoluwa Adewumi has hit the chess scene and he is an undeniable talent. Are we looking at the making of a grandmaster? Within one year this 8 year old went from 105 to 1587! If he makes similar gains within the next year he can be an A-player or EXPERT by next year.
Tani broke 1000 within 5 months. This alone is not unheard of. However, within another 2 months he was over 1200 and another 4 he was over 1400! Now we are at a year from his first tournament and he is at 1587. In the last year he has played 47 tournaments and in all but 7 events his rating increased!
While it is much too early to discuss breaking any records for the Grandmaster title, Martinez told The Chess Drum, “I believe in him tremendously!!” In fact, the chess community and supporters have more than doubled tripled the $50,000 goal set up by Russell Makofsky, who oversees the P.S. 116 chess program.
While scholastic is seeing a boon in the U.S., there are many youngsters in a sea of talent. The youngest master in the U.S. is 9 years, two months, 17 days (Abhimanyu “Abhi” Mishra), and the youngest Grandmaster earned the title at 12 years and 7 months (Sergey Karjakin). The current youngest Grandmaster is also earned the title in his 12th year, so Tani will have to work hard to reach these milestones.
Tanitoluwa Adewumi playing brother with parents looking on. Photo by Russell Makovsky (Facebook)
Tani states that he desires to be the youngest Grandmaster ever, but of course chess development doesn’t come without sacrifices and work ethic. Martinez noted in a New York Times interview, “He is so driven. He does 10 times more chess puzzle than the average kid. He just wants to be better.” There will be many challenges, but Tani has a lot of time. Perhaps he just needs the chance.
FM Joshua Colas Photo by Webster University (Paul Truong)
Joshua Colas is making his rounds. The native New Yorker is studying in the “Show-Me State” of Missouri and is now going to take his talents to the “Sunshine State” of Florida for spring break. The Webster University collegiate is going to be participating in a weekend of events hosted by the National Scholastic Chess Foundation (NSCF) in Sunrise, Florida. Robert McClellan has collaborated with legendary coach Sunil Weeramantry to develop scholastic programs in Broward County. He describes the events…
Over a few months, Sunil and I met with various entities across the County trying to determine a different approach to community chess. We developed a series of full-day workshops which we call Demystifying Chess and presented the first one in October 2014 with a grant from the Sunrise Police Dept that was then matched by Broward Education Foundation. Both organizations have been our partners ever since and we have now had over 500 teachers, sheriffs deputies and other professionals who work with children complete at least one full-day training. A little over two years ago we began direct instruction in the community by forming The Sunrise Center for Excellence in Chess.
Josh, a former All-American and six-time national champion, earned his National Masters title before the age of 13 and is currently trying to complete the requirements for the International Master’s title. He has taken his talents to south Florida to interact with a variety of scholastic programs developed by the Sunrise Chess Center of Excellence (www.sunrisechesscenter.org).
On Thursday Josh will be having dinner and then playing chess with some of the children in a mentor program we developed. Then Friday he will visit with young people in a detention center where we offer chess every week. In the afternoon, he will speak at an assembly and then play chess at Bair Middle School in Sunrise. And then Saturday, he will join us for Open Play which we have every Saturday morning at the Sunrise Civic Center.
Josh playing with Quinton Tanksley. Photo courtesy of NSCF.
Josh has many a number of appearances and as one going into his last year at Webster is a perfect role model for students, especially those who are struggling with self-esteem issues and mired in at-risk situations.