Good Morning Obots!
The history of African-americans succeeding in the world of Chess is vast and rich.
Born April 21, 1855 in Frederick, Maryland, Theophilus Thompson is identified in various sources as being the first Black chess player of note.
As a domestic servant, he managed to learn chess from John K. Hanshew, the publisher of The Maryland Chess Review in 1872. Mr. Hanshew loaned the 17-year old a chessboard and several chess problems to solve. Not only did he solve those ones assigned, but began composing his own which he later contributed to The Dubuque Chess Journal.
Shortly thereafter, his phenomenal talent brought him immediate attention and praise. He then accepted an invitation to Chicago to compete in a tournament, and while records of the tournament are not known, it was said that he scored a respectable result.
In 1873, Mr. Thompson composed a book of endgame positions titled, Chess Problems: Either to Play and Mate. This book was highly-regarded by his chess-playing peers. Following is an excerpt from a review which appeared in the July 1874 issue of City of London Chess Magazine. “We have been very much pleased indeed with the composition in this book, and consider that they display real genius, both of a conceptive and constructive order. . . . We consider Mr. Thompson a composer of great merit and of rare promise.”
His chess-playing career was short as he disappeared almost as abruptly as he arrived. Rumors have said that he may have fallen prey to a racial lynching at a young age, but his disappearance remains a mystery.
The US Chess Center in Washington D.C. hosts the Theophilus Thompson Chess Club in his honor on Saturday afternoons.
In 1993, Maurice Ashley became the first African-American to be awarded the coveted title of International Master.
Born March 6, 1966 in St. Andrew, Jamaica, Maurice’s family moved to Brooklyn when he was 12 and he took up the game of chess after learning the moves from his brother. After being thrashed his initial game against a friend, he went to the library and was inspired by a book on former American World Champion, Paul Morphy. At that moment, he fell in love. Despite the fact that he couldn’t make his high school team at Brooklyn Tech, he began to play in local tournaments. Later he sharpened his game by playing a contingent of Black masters in the Black Bear Chess Club. Maurice’s progress was rapid as he earned the rank of National Master in 1986, eclipsed the 2400 barrier (peaked at 2606!) and later earned the rank of International Master in 1993. After taking a break from his successful coaching career, he earned his last GM norm at the Manhattan Invitation in March 1999 becoming the first U.S. player of African descent to earn the coveted title.
Maurice has been a constant subject in national and international media appearing on countless programs, and in addition, has achieved worldwide fame in the chess world by serving as commentator in the Kasparov-Short and Kasparov-Deep Blue matches. He also has one of the best instructional CD-ROM programs on the market entitled, “Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess.” The interactive format combined with Ashley’s trademark exciting sports analogies makes learning chess both easy and entertaining.
One of the most feared players in the U.S., Emory Tate has built a reputation over the years as a swashbuckling tactician who will try to slash you to bits as brilliantly as possible… and he doesn’t disappoint.
Born on the west side of Chicago, but spending formative years in Indiana, (USA) Emory Tate Jr. was taught the game of chess by his father Emory Sr. Indiana is a fairly active chess state, but in the early days of stardom, Tate spent a lot of time in the Chicago area creating a buzz with his hyperactive play. If one observes closely, it is easy to get a glimpse of his brilliant mind.
Tate’s reputation received a boost while he served in the Air Force and was 5-time Armed Forces Champion. His travels have given him the opportunity to make a foray into European chess. Of course, Tate has some comfort in these environments since he is fluent in Russian and has decent command of other languages.
Kangugi “K. K.” Karanja (born November 23, 1973) is a chess player regarded as the first African-American chess prodigy. He became a US Chess Federation Candidate Master at the age of 10, the youngest African-American to do so.
In 1985 at the age of 11, he won the National Elementary Chess Championship with a perfect 7-0 score (seven wins and no losses), becoming the first African-American to win a national scholastic title and the second African-American to win a national chess championship (Frank Street, Jr. was the first, winning the 1965 US Amateur Championship).
In 1985, Karanja also received the Laura Aspis Prize, granted annually to the top USCF-rated player under the age of 13. Karanja qualified as the United States representative for the 1986 World Under-14 Chess Championship in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 1987, Karanja was selected to the inaugural All-America Chess Team, which recognizes the top 0.1-0.2 percent of chess players age 18 years and younger. He was the first African-American to make the team, with only three having qualified since: Shearwood McClelland III in 1995, Justus Williams in 2010 and Josh Colas in 2010. Karanja also qualified for the 1987 U.S. Cadet Championship where only the top eight players under age 16 are invited to compete.
In 1988, Karanja was selected to participate in a simultaneous exhibition held by Grandmaster and World Champion Garry Kasparov in New York, during Kasparov’s first visit to America. Of the 59 players to compete against Kasparov, only Karanja and fellow prodigy Josh Waitzkin held Kasparov to draws (the other 57 players lost).
In 1989, at the age of 15 years and 7 months, Karanja became a chess master, becoming the second youngest African-American at the time to achieve that feat behind Howard Daniels (15 years, 4 months). He subsequently attended Carleton College.
Karanja retired from tournament play in 1990 with a rating of 2193. Karanja has written one book on chess and while living in Kenya was active in promoting chess.
Below, Grandmaster Maurice Ashley in D.C. to promote chess for children.