Maurice Ashley knows chess, and he enthusiastically shares that knowledge with kids who want to learn. Inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame, and the first Black person to earn the title of Grandmaster by the International Chess Federation, Ashley first gained exposure to the game in his native Jamaica, where as a little boy he watched his older brother play chess with friends.
He started to get serious about chess when he moved to the Bronx as an adolescent. Now an accomplished player and commentator at celebrated chess events, Ashley also spent several years teaching chess to children, mainly those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Recently, Ashley shared with Education Week his insights into the game of chess as it relates to children: why they find it so addictive, how it builds lasting skills, and ways that educators can effectively introduce it into their schools.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you explain the recent surge of interest in chess among kids?
Chess is much more than a fad. It’s been around for 1,500 years and it continues to stimulate the next generation. It’s been around this long because it’s a fun game. It’s not monolithic, like checkers.
There are all these different pieces in chess. You’ve got bishops, queens, kings, pawns, rooks. There’s a variety of things you can do with a diverse army to overcome your opponent. The strategic thinking chess requires stimulates kids.
How does chess stimulate kids intellectually in ways that traditional classroom learning sometimes fails to do?
Oftentimes, what happens in the classroom involves passing information from teacher to students, who are receptacles [of this information]. When you’re playing chess, it’s about trying to overcome someone else’s best ideas with your best ideas. You don’t really get that in school. Frankly, a lot of the stuff we learn in school we never look at again as adults. But the ideas you learn from chess, you immediately get to apply in a real setting.
What are some of the top skills that chess can help strengthen in players?
Chess is a discipline masked as a game. It improves critical thinking skills, concentration, focus. Students of the game also learn to win and lose with grace. For me, it’s been incredibly useful in how I navigate my professional and personal life.
Talk about your experience teaching kids from disadvantaged communities how to play chess.
I started coaching chess in 1989 to school-aged kids in places including Harlem and the Bronx. Many of these students went on to attend Ivy League schools and other select universities. I sometimes hear from my former students who are 30 or 40 years old who tell me: The chess skills you taught me back in middle school have impacted me as an adult.
Chess is universally liked. It crosses all boundaries: religion, race, ethnicities, genders. Royals, common folks, athletes, musicians play it. Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx, Major League baseball player Trayce Thompson, NBA player Jaylen Brown all play chess.
How smart do you have to be to play chess?
Chess doesn’t require exceptional ability. Five-year-olds can learn how to play chess. Some adults have this misconception that chess is only for “elite” kids. In fact, it’s just a game; that’s the beauty of it. It’s a game structured so that you can’t help but think about your plans, and what the other person’s plans are. That’s the great debate that takes place on the board.
Have you taught chess to kids with learning differences?
Some of the best young chess players are the ones diagnosed with [attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder], autism, and the like. Sometimes the ones you would most think could not do it are the ones who are the best at it. We’ve seen chess work wonders for these kids. Maybe because chess is so concrete, and there’s a specific goal to achieve for players.
Some teachers complain that chess is distracting students during class time. What’s your response to this?
Chess can be distracting. If a teacher is upset that students are distracted by chess, maybe there’s something wrong with what’s happening in that classroom. If teachers can bottle that interest, they can use it to accelerate learning in their own space. Chess can be such an amazing motivator.
What are your suggestions on how schools can effectively implement chess playing at school?
Chess can be a part of the curriculum, or played after school; there are principals who have bought into the magic of chess. The challenge with chess is getting a great coach. You want to find someone who speaks the language of the kids. It doesn’t have to be a grandmaster like myself. It just needs to be a particularly passionate educator. Often, the kids’ teachers will learn alongside them. It’s pretty easy for teachers to pick up chess.
What are some good resources for beginning chess players?
Nowadays, there are a lot of websites that give instructions. Depending on the age of the child, there are more adult sites like chess.com. For younger kids, 12 and under, there’s LIchess.org. These sites have been around for years, they’ve been vetted, they offer free lessons, a system of teaching chess, and the ability for kids to play chess against other kids from all over the world.
What sort of time commitment do kids need to learn the game?
Ideally, kids who are learning chess should play twice a week for at least 45 minutes. Once a week is really not enough; kids are likely to forget the rules they learn. For a lot of kids, lunch is the main time they play chess at school.
In one of the schools where I taught, we offered chess before school. You’d be surprised how many kids showed up.
Other advice for educators who want to turn kids on to chess?
Don’t try to force it down the kids’ throats, like medicine. They’ll get it once they get hooked. Also, creating tournaments for the kids will cement it for those with a competitive side. Where I taught, chess was always the carrot for kids needing to do their schoolwork, or to get to school on time.
It’s just a wonderful game for kids.