Black Chess Players Make Moves To Improve The Game

The game of chess is experiencing a renaissance in the United States. The 2018 World Chess Championship featured Brooklyn native Fabiano Caruana, the first American to compete for the title since Bobby Fischer in 1972. The US’ leading chess organization has also seen record increases in participation. “We’re approaching a membership of 100,000 — a number which we’ve never hit before,” said Carol Meyer, executive director of the US Chess Federation.

With chess more accessible through online play and school programs, this spike in popularity may not come as much of a surprise. However, chess has a complicated legacy of classism and racism, and there’s a question of whether the game has increased in participation among the Black community. In New York City, where there is a rich cross-section of Black history and chess, conscious efforts are being made to promote diversity in the game. “New York is really the chess capital of the US,” said Jones Murphy, a Black chess expert based in Brooklyn.

One of the earliest Black American chess players was from New York. Dr. James McCune Smith was born enslaved in Manhattan in 1813 and became the first Black doctor in the nation after receiving a medical degree in Scotland. In addition to working with Frederick Douglass on abolitionist causes, Smith was an avid chess player who wrote passionately about the game. However, it was nearly a century after Smith’s death before Black players became visible in the American chess world.

“In the 1950s, the first players of the Black community began to make an impression,” said Daaim Shabazz, a chess historian and Florida A&M University professor. “Walter Harris became the first Black player to earn the National Master title in 1959.”

A Harlem native, Harris became a chess master at age 17, despite the discrimination prevalent in both the chess world and the US. “The US Chess Federation has a history of racism and segregation,” said Murphy. “Black players were heavily excluded from tournaments and couldn’t get titles.”

Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, tournaments were held at segregated venues and excluded Black players. If they were able to participate, Black chess players were often unable to find a hotel in the area where they could stay. This meant traveling long distances for tournaments and not getting as much rest as white players.

Forty years after Harris’ victory, another Black player received the highest chess title of grandmaster. This achievement belongs to Maurice Ashley, who was born in Jamaica but grew up in Brooklyn. He was inducted into the US Chess Hall of Fame in 2016.

Lingering racism created the long road to crowning a Black grandmaster.

“There’s this kind of conservatism that chess should be a closed sport, a kind of fear of diversity increasing,” said Murphy. “To become a grandmaster, you have to beat other grandmasters and Blacks weren’t getting invited at all.” There have been no other American Black grandmasters since Ashley. “If Ashley remains as the only grandmaster that our community has produced in 20 years, then it raises more questions than answers,” said Shabazz.

In New York, there are serious efforts underway to ensure that chess is accessible to people of all backgrounds. Chess is part of the public school curriculum; programs like Chess in the Schools have brought the game to 48 campuses. Justus Williams, one of today’s prominent young Black chess players, learned to play at his Bronx elementary school. Williams now attends Webster University in St. Louis on a full scholarship. Webster has the top-ranked college chess team in the country.

In addition to education programs, there are chess clubs all over New York. The Marshall Chess Club, the second-oldest in the country, is located in Greenwich Village. Every Friday, the Queens Chess Club in Jamaica, Queens hosts tournaments sponsored by the US Chess Federation.

Harlem’s St. Nicholas Chess & Backgammon Club has a national reputation as a haven for elite Black chess players. Founded in 2001, the club sprung from chess games played in nearby St. Nicholas Park and operates out of two converted stores that once sold groceries and plumbing supplies. Players can opt to pay a $75 monthly membership or a $7 daily rate to play. However, the club isn’t safe from gentrification and rising rent — the club’s rent has skyrocketed to $4,500 a month.

After adding expenses like utilities and WiFi, it costs $6,000 a month to keep the club going. “We don’t generate enough money from chess players to even cover the base costs,” said Al Pertilla, the club’s manager and a founding member of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party.

As many Black businesses disappearing in the neighborhood, Pertilla hopes that St. Nicholas doesn’t go the same way. “It would mean another Black institution went under,” said Pertilla. “And that’s not something we want.”

Despite these challenges, private donations sustain the club, many of which help fund youth programs. St. Nicholas organizes children’s chess tournaments on Saturdays, offers lessons, and also teaches chess to young people who have had contact with the criminal justice system. The club has teamed up with Friends of Island Academy, an alternative high school on Rikers Island, which also houses New York City’s infamous jail.

“For us, chess is a life science,” said Pertilla. “Just acquire the skills that you need to become an adequate chess player and those skills will empower and enable you to make better decisions in everything that you do.” With these opportunities in place, the club hopes to cultivate the next generation of chess players and perhaps produce the next Black grandmaster.

About the Author

Hannah Miller is a journalism student at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. She is based in New York City.