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Maurice Ashley Interview

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Chess Master Maurice Ashley: Controlled Chaos

By Adisa "The Bishop of Hip-Hop" Banjoko


O ne of the beautiful things about chess, martial arts, and Hip-Hop is that at its highest levels, race does seem to fall away. You only see the raw courage, and art in motion. International Grand Master Maurice Ashley embodies these three things, and he plays as well as when he speaks. He is the first Black grand master and is also a product of the Hip-Hop generation. In this interview, Maurice discusses how he began his journey as a chess player. He tells of how he clashed with GZA and Will Smith on the 64 and squares, and who would come out ahead in his opinion. The mysteries of chessboxin’ are revealed in this interview between the Bishop and the King. Check

AllHipHop.com: So, what does it take to become a grand master in chess? What do you have to do?

Maurice Ashley: You have to get a performance record of 2600 in 25 games. Now, what does that mean? You have to play in different international tournaments. There are various masters and international grand masters there. You have to perform at a certain level against that crowd. There is a specific kind of rating in chess. The best players are usually ranked over 2600. Garry Kasparov was the highest rated player of all times and he was rated at 2851 at his peak. But 2600 is the top 100 players in the world.

In order to become a grand master, you have to perform at that level of ability not once, but generally speaking, three times. Because most tournaments are nine rounds each. You have to do it in three tournaments. You literally play like one of the best in order to be given the title. If you can do that three times, you are given the title.

AllHipHop.com: Who was your last match against for you to get the title and how nervous were you?

Maurice Ashley: The gentleman was a guy from Romania, Adrian Negulescu. He was an international master. That game I was incredibly nervous. I went into the game, and in the middle of the game, everything changed. Around move 14 I realized, “It’s all good. I just need to settle in and play.” I was able to play very calmly, very coolly and just play.

For that kind of important game, you wouldn’t think hat I could be calm throughout. It just so happened that I was very calm. My opponent did not know that game would give me the title. He just thought it was a regular chess game. But my friends knew, and a couple of people around me knew. So, after the game, he was like, “Why are you so happy”? I was like, “I just got my title.” He said, “Oh, wow.” He was cool about the game. Chess players are real sportsmen. It was a good game… he treated it with respect.

AllHipHop.com: Few people see the relationship between Hip-Hop and chess. When did you start seeing it?

Maurice Ashley: Well I’m old enough to be at the beginning of Hip-Hop. I came [to the United States from Jamaica] in 1978. Hip-Hop didn’t start until Sugar Hill [Records] blew up. That was about 1980, maybe ’79. I was of course a Bob Marley fan first. I grew up where Reggae was playin’ on the streets everyday. That kinda music was a part of my life on a regular basis. When I came here, Reggae wasn’t what it is now. It was a Jamaican phenomenon. It wasn’t what it is now, with Sean Paul and crew got things to where they are today.

Chess and Hip-Hop definitely have elements that intertwined. One of those things is creativity. The greatest chess players are creative. Of course there are some calculations that have to be made. There is skill involved, much like there is skill involved Hip-Hop. But it is not the mathematical that separate the greatest players, it’s the creativity. It’s the ability to change with the environment. Having the ability to deal with any situation hat confront you no matter what the danger - to be able to over come. To stay cool under all pressure. That’s the real mark of a champion in chess.

AllHipHop.com: I know that you have mentored the GZA and Will Smith from time to time on chess strategies…

Maurice Ashley: VIBE was doing an article on the connection between chess and Hip-Hop. So, they linked us together. In the end, they only explored the Hip-Hop side, and just did the article with GZA. But we found out we had to do a photo shoot together. We finally ended up meeting. We hung out at a chess club in Brooklyn, and I showed them some stuff.

AllHipHop.com: What did you think of GZA’s game and what have you helped him develop?

Maurice Ashley: Well, I was very surprised by his game. Considering he has never played a tournament in his life, he plays like a tournament player. The problem he has is he does not have the long foundation one needs to avoid certain categories of mistakes. I was stunned to hear that he had not read many chess books. What happened was, he just played.

Through practice he developed a lot of ideas on his own. When Wu-Tang fights, they get down. Their strength is mathematical- tactical. It’s like street fighting. But street fighting does not work against a polished boxer. There are tremendous limits, and they will show up . As the game goes on, sooner or later you are going to make a mistake.

AllHipHop.com: Tell me about Will Smith…

Maurice Ashley: I was blessed to meet him. He saw me when I was first getting attention for being the first African American grand master, back in 1999. He reached out as did other stars, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Cosby… I met quite a few people, because they understood the significance of a brother making it in that kind of field.

I met with [Will] briefly at a studio. But I could only stay a few minutes because I had my young four-year-old daughter with me.

I did not hook up with him again until the next year. His wife’s assistant called me and said that his wife wanted to surprise him on Valentine’s Day. She wanted to give him a lesson with a grand master and asked could I come.

When came in the room he was like, “Whoa, what’s going on?” She was like, “Happy Valentines Day.” We played for like three hours. He has a very good game. He had been playing a while, and he reads. I would think that he would do better against GZA if they rumbled because his game has less holes in it.

AllHipHop.com: Like that?

Maurice Ashley: Will’s game has a little bit more polish to it. You gotta be careful with Will.

AllHipHop.com: In the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, there is the theme of balancing the street hustler’s chess style [played by Lawrence Fishbourne] and his classical chess teacher [played by Ben Kingsley]. What are the strengths and weakness of both kind of players?

Maurice Ashley: I think it goes back to the same concepts I mentioned earlier. The classically trained player knows the history, knows that which has occurred in the past, knows what is proven. Because you can always draw on the classics to draw on a problem as you face it. The classics are tremendously important and provide the foundation of what it is you need to be successful.

However, something the classical player might lack, is that spontaneity. That innovative style. The ability to handle chaos. Because chaos has no rules.

AllHipHop.com: It has sublime rules.

Maurice Ashley: Well you have chaos theory and the butterfly effect and all that stuff…It’s not an easily quantifiable set of rules that you can say “Well, stuff hits the fan this is what you do.” [Laughs] The classically trained player might get confused in those situations, while the street player knows all about those situations. Knows all about life getting wild. Sometimes you don’t have money to pay the rent. You might have to go to Mikey D’s to get that next meal, or hustle up to get a drink.

AllHipHop.com: In the chess movie Fresh, which features Samuel L. Jackson, there is a scene where Jackson’s character sits in a trailer with his son. He has photos of all these various chess greats. Bruce Pandolfini, Bobby Fischer, and others. He starts talking about as good as a lot of these guys might be that with a chess clock- they cannot hang. That the pressure of a timed game proves the toughness of the mind. How does a clock change the nature of the game?

Maurice Ashley: Control becomes a real issue. Some people think lightening quick and can control a game all the way through - even at the five-minute mark. But it’s almost impossible to do. Many more situations occur that force you to relay on intuition than calculation. That kind of intuition does change the game dramatically. People who are more used to thinking fast on their feet play better clock chess, or what’s known as “speed chess” than they will over the board- which is a slower version. You can have a player who will crunch you with no clock who will have trouble against you on the clock. Because that person cannot check your ideas with a thorough search. A lot of street players when they get into tournaments, they have failed. They sometimes don’t do well, because they don’t have the dedication. They don’t have the patience for sitting at the boards for a long period of time.

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:iagree: Thanks for sharing

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