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Grandmaster Maurice Ashley comes to Baltimore, playing chess - and teacher

The Baltimore Sun

Nearly every chess move made by 10-year-old Derrick Lifsey Jr. was nitpicked, dissected and frankly assessed by his opponent as being wrong.

When the match was over and international grandmaster Maurice Ashley mercifully put Lifsey in checkmate, one of the world's leading chess players offered words of comfort like a father after a good spanking - which in essence is what he gave Derrick.

"I was tough, I know," Ashley told the Glenmount Elementary/Middle School student. "But you're going to be better for it."

Ashley, 41, is betting on it. Watching kids grow at chess is his life's passion, and yesterday he gathered a group of about two dozen students ages 10 to 15 for a simultaneous chess match at the Enoch Pratt central library. Ashley came to Baltimore to take part in a fundraiser last night in Hunt Valley, sponsored by the Carson Scholars Fund, which was founded in 1994 by neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

About two weeks ago, Ashley agreed to play students from some of the area's chess clubs before the gala. The kids and about 30 observers from Baltimore's chess community flooded the library's main hall, asking for autographs, posing for pictures and picking Ashley's brain.

"He's really conscious and feels the need to give back to our people," said Turk Powell, 68, a Baltimore resident and avid chess player. "He's been blessed with a gift. And it's about sharing your blessing."

Ashley considers chess more sport than game and says he is looking to do for it what Tiger Woods did for golf - show a minority face can reach the top in a predominantly white arena.

"When the kids see me walk in, they say, 'Here's a brother who looks like me and who is at the pinnacle of his field. I can do that, too.' And when I see chess captivates their eyes as they're trying to solve these complicated problems, that's the most beautiful picture for our people to see," Ashley said.

Ashley was introduced to chess at age 9 in Jamaica. He moved with his family to the United States four years later and began playing chess seriously shortly afterward, taking early lumps in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, N.Y.

At 14, Ashley said he was badly beaten in a match with a friend while living in his Brownsville neighborhood, defeated so easily that he rushed to the library to learn some of the game's finer points.

After reading a 19th-century book by one of the United States' first widely known players, Ashley says he became obsessed with the game.

Raised by a single mother in one of Brooklyn's most notorious neighborhoods, Ashley said chess kept him in the house throughout his teen years when those around him were seduced by the streets.

"On a Friday night, while other people were out partying, I was nerdy enough to be chilling with my friends playing chess all night," Ashley said.

Ashley graduated from City College of New York with a degree in writing and English in 1993, got married that year and has since made his money playing and teaching chess.

He has called matches as a live chess commentator for ESPN and recently signed a deal with HBO to make a movie about a Harlem middle school team he led to three national championships.

In March 1999, Ashley was awarded the game's highest title, grandmaster. Around the world, about 900 others hold that rank, given by the International Chess Federation to players who amass a set number of points in games played over a seven-year period.

Being the first and only black grandmaster is not lost on Ashley.

"We do a lot of things. We're ballers, we're entertainers, but we're not getting the kind of credit we deserve as intellectuals," he said. "We have neurosurgeons, astrophysicists, engineers. The stuff that pays is the stuff that uses your mind. That's my contribution to the world: to be a smaller piece of that greater argument."

Ashley preached this to the kids at the library in a short speech before beating every one of them at the same time over the course of an hour.

Kayla Johnson, however, was able to capture Ashley's queen, the most powerful piece on the board. The Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School sixth-grader outlasted all the other kids and a couple of adults who crept into the game. At times, she forced Ashley to pause, put his hands to his head and contemplate his next move.

Kayla, 11, has been the citywide champion for her grade level the past three years, her mother said.

Before putting Kayla in checkmate as the crowd gathered around the board, Ashley, much as he had done for Derrick, offered encouragement.

"You played a great game. I'd love to see you keep playing 'cause you've got talent," he said.

Later, when asked how tough of a match it really was, Ashley added, "She was powerful from the moment she sat down. In a few years, we might be seeing the first black female grandmaster."

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