He came to Washington this week to square off against 30 young chess players simultaneously on 30 chessboards in an exhibition organized by the District-based U.S. Chess Center.
“It’s great to see these kids who think they have a chance,” he said before heading in to face anxious students in school uniforms lined up in front of checkered boards. More and more kids do, he said. “I don’t give them any games, though. They have to beat me.”
Thirty-seven percent of U.S Chess Federation members are younger than 13, reflecting the strong interest of the elementary school set.
“Like a lot of sports, it’s a younger man’s game,” said Chuck Lovingood, who oversees national tournaments for the Tennessee-based federation. “You run a little faster when you are young and you probably calculate a little faster.”
Children — unburdened by grown-up responsibilities — have an added advantage, he said: the ability to empty their minds and achieve “total concentration on the game.”
Bobby Fischer in 1958 became the youngest grandmaster ever at 15 before going on to win the world championship against a Soviet player in the most-watched match in history. Now 12-year-olds have claimed the title.
Younger chess players these days are aided by Internet programs that enable them to practice obsessively and access hundreds of years of recorded strategies in minutes.
The popularity is also fueled by organizations in big cities across the country dedicated to introducing the game to a larger and more diverse group of children.
The U.S. Chess Center in downtown Washington opened 19 years ago with a goal of moving chess beyond the after-school clubs popular with science nerds and philosophy buffs and into classrooms where everyone can play.
It has sent chess teachers into public schools and offered weekend classes and tournaments, training tens of thousands of students.
Research is spotty on how chess affects academic performance, but advocates say the game teaches problem-solving and thinking skills.
Vicki Bullock, a teacher at Cleveland Elementary in Northwest Washington, said that in the decade that her fourth-grade students have received free chess lessons, she has been impressed at how the game helps even the antsiest, chattiest students settle down and focus.
“They need patience to learn,” she said. “Some things take a minute. This takes a minute,” she said, as she watched three of her former students square off Tuesday against the grandmaster.
As Ashley circled the rows of chessboards, exchanging moves with one student at a time, the hushed crowd could hear only the tap of chess pieces. The children stared into their boards, foreheads creased, chins cupped in hands, fingers pressed against temples.
Ashley called it the “magical power” of chess “to expand the mind” and silence a room. “One wrong move and you are dead,” he said.
Ashley, 45, did not start playing chess until he was 14, two years after his family moved to New York from Jamaica (he would eventually gain U.S. citizenship). He was introduced to the game by a friend from Brooklyn Tech High School and impressed by how hard it was.
He wasn’t good enough to make his high school team, he said, so he played guys hustling in parks and barbershops and joined a group of African American chess players known as the Black Bears.
Every day, he pored over library books and magazines filled with strategies. As he got older, he rose in the rankings until finally becoming a grandmaster at age 33. The title, just a step below world champion, is held by about 1,100 players internationally and 45 in the United States.
Along the way, he started coaching students and promoting the intellectual benefits of the game through books and speeches.
Ashley was a volunteer coach in the early 1990s and helped a Harlem team known as the Raging Rooks reach the national championships.
The New York-based Chess-in-the-Schools program, which grew out of such efforts, sends instructors into 50 public schools, and has a waiting list of 100 more. Over two decades, it has taught chess to 500,000 children, including many high-ranking players.
For some children, the introduction to chess allows them to try out a new identity.
“Chess has ‘smart’ brand association. People just believe that people who play chess are smart,” said Wendi Fischer, unrelated to Bobby Fischer. Known as the “chess lady,” she has produced a series of training videos being used in 65 school systems to coach teachers in a chess curriculum mapped to state academic standards.
Arjinae Jones, a fifth-grader at Cleveland Elementary, said that when she first encountered chess at school, she thought it would be like checkers. “But it’s more interesting,” she said. “It’s serious.”
She says she usually wins when she plays with her friends — but playing “Mr. International Grandmaster Ashley” was different.
She had made only about 12 moves when she heard him say “checkmate,” and her eyes widened.
Minutes later, she was still replaying the moves, and recounting what she would have done differently. “I didn’t see it coming,” she said.