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Maurice Ashley: Chessmen At Work

Mar 27, 2013
Originally published on January 2, 2014 2:19 pm

Maurice Ashley may be a professional chess player, but he approaches the game like a spy. By carefully studying his competitiors' habits — from their previously played games to their favorite moves – he has taken down enough chess champions to earn the title of International Grandmaster, the first African-American player in history to do so. He's also a three-time national championship chess coach, the author of two books, and the designer of the app "Learn Chess! with Maurice Ashley."

Ashley sat down with Ophira Eisenberg on the Ask Me Another stage and admitted that despite his success, he still considers himself the least accomplished member of his family, as his sister is a world champion boxer and his brother is a world champion kickboxer. But Ashley holds his own in any arena — like the aggressive chess matches in Brooklyn, NY, where he trades the silent calm of the international tournament scene for trash talking and soul music. He also explains how the rise of technology has changed the game, and what it feels like to lose to a 12-year-old prodigy.

Maurice Ashley may be a chess genius, but how will he fare in an Ask Me Another Challenge? For this game, we'll ask him about some of the more human quirks of famous chess masters, from Emanuel Lasker's failed pigeon-breeding hobby to Bobby Fischer's paranoid delusions.

About Maurice Ashley

Maurice Ashley lives his passion. Through his love for chess, he not only made history as the first African-American International Grandmaster in the annals of the game, but he has managed to translate his love to others as a three-time national championship coach, two-time author, iPhone app producer, puzzle inventor, DVD creator, ESPN commentator and motivational speaker.

Maurice has traveled the world as an ardent spokesperson of the character-building effects of the game, going from the rough and tough streets of Kingston, Jamaica and Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up, to the crime-ridden neighborhoods of Detroit, the townships of Cape Town, South Africa and the poverty-stricken jungles of Belize, Central America. His book, Chess for Success, (Broadway Books, 2005) crystallizes his vision for the character-building effect of chess, particularly for at-risk youth, and he continuously spreads his message of living one's dream to universities, businesses, chess clubs and non-profit organizations around the globe.

Maurice's app, "Learn Chess! with Maurice Ashley," has been sold in over 30 countries, and he has received multiple community service awards from city governments, universities, and community groups for his work. Maurice is a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center and was recently appointed a Fellow of the Media Lab at MIT.

In the video below, Ashley delivers a talk about his favorite strategy — working backwards to solve problems — at TEDYouth 2012.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


You're listening to NRP and WNYC's hour of puzzles, word games, and trivia - ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm your host Ophira Eisenberg and joining me for our Really Hard Edition is our puzzle editor Art Chung. One of your jobs as our puzzle editor, Art Chung, is when we have our VIPs on - our Very Important Puzzlers - you have to devise a game that is tailored just for them.

ART CHUNG: That's right.

EISENBERG: So what are some of the things that you think about when creating these games?

CHUNG: Well, sometimes we ask them if they have some quirky interest or hobby thats obscure that, you know, we didn't know about. Like they fly fishing.


CHUNG: And that worked out really well.


EISENBERG: Dan Kennedy, everybody.


EISENBERG: Of the many things you gave us to base your quiz on, we were most intrigued about your claim to know about salmon and fresh water bass and the terrestrial and aquatic insects that trout eat to survive. So we tried to write a quiz, of course, that made fresh water bass and trout interesting. Turns out, that isn't possible.


EISENBERG: We couldn't do it. So your quiz is titled Questions Not Really About Fish.

CHUNG: Yes. Yes.

Sometimes they have a very specific profession and we can write a really difficult quiz that they can answer but no one else can.

EISENBERG: So it's basically a one-person game. They are the only person on Earth who can do this puzzle.

CHUNG: For example, when we had chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley on the show we asked him about a very obscure chess master from the 1900s.

EISENBERG: Yes. Which we also found out they all are insane.

CHUNG: I wouldn't say insane. They all were a little focused.

EISENBERG: You're very nice. Puzzle editors are very nice that way. In this next game too is our guest musician Julian Velard.


EISENBERG: Hello, Julian.

JULIAN VELARD: Hello, Ophira. I like this guy.


VELARD: Yeah, I want to take him.

EISENBERG: No, he's cool. He's cool.

VELARD: So let's take him down.

EISENBERG: He's a killer.

MAURICE ASHLEY: I like you too, man.

VELARD: All right, all right, leave it for after. Let's listen.

EISENBERG: Now, Maurice, chess players are often seen as these incredible geniuses with the processing power of a computer and the creativity of an artist. But they're only human, right? Many stories of the greatest chess players in history revolve around their more human quirks.

So in this game, we're going to explore the lighter side of chess history. Today, you're going to be playing for Christopher Vehon from Phoenix, Arizona. So here's how it works. If you get three questions right, you and Christopher win a prize.


EISENBERG: All right, let's see how you do.

ASHLEY: How many questions do I get?

EISENBERG: Nineteen.

ASHLEY: Nineteen, good.

EISENBERG: No, no, no.

ASHLEY: Whew, I needed that. Good.



ASHLEY: What kind of game?

EISENBERG: Let's see what goes on here.

ASHLEY: All right.

EISENBERG: Emanuel Lasker, do you know him?

ASHLEY: We've played once or twice.

EISENBERG: OK. So he's not only a chess champion but a world class bridge player and mathematician, who was good friends with Albert Einstein. But he wasn't an Einstein at everything. At one point, he became interested in breeding championship pigeons for the Berlin Poultry Show. After months of failing to get his pigeons to mate, he realized his fairly obvious mistake. What happened, Maurice?


ASHLEY: He was breeding roosters?

EISENBERG: I think that's a good idea that he didn't even know they were pigeons.

ASHLEY: The hell? Emanuel - by the way, I didn't play him once or twice since he's been dead for over 60 years.

EISENBERG: No, I know, obviously, if he was friends with Einstein. Yeah, he bought a bunch of - no, he definitely was sure they were pigeons. And he bought all these pigeons. He clearly didn't check one important thing. And then he put them all together and he was like, oh, they're going to breed, and something happened.

ASHLEY: Well, like I said, the rooster thing, they were probably the same gender.

EISENBERG: You are correct. They were all male, exactly.


EISENBERG: I see what you're doing there. That was very smart. Written in the 1980s during the height of the Cold War, the musical "Chess" features a bad boy American, a defecting Russian, a love triangle and spies. The same plot as "White Knights," by the way.

In the musical's most famous song, the main character extols the seedy virtues of the Asian city hosting the world chess championship. Julian, let's have a little of that song.


VELARD: Something, something and the world's your oyster. The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free. You'll find a god in every golden cloister and if you're lucky, then the god's a she. I can feel an angel sliding up to me.

ASHLEY: I should know this song.

EISENBERG: Maurice, do you know this song?

ASHLEY: I know the song, except I don't know the city.


ASHLEY: But I want to say - no - I want to say Bangkok.



EISENBERG: You want to say right, "One Night in Bangkok." The best song from that musical.

ASHLEY: Yeah, you know, no chess player went to see that musical.


EISENBERG: What do you mean no chess players went to the see the musical "Chess"? It was a hit. One of the greatest champions of the 1920s and 30s, this grandmaster was born in Riga, then part of the Russian empire. He was known for his many eccentricities, including wearing bed clothes to tournaments and insisting in restaurants that he was intentionally being served portions that were smaller than everybody else's. The answer is not my dad.


EISENBERG: Who was he?

ASHLEY: The first answer that popped in my head, but I can't believe you guys would choose this guy, but I'm just going to say because it's the first one. I have another answer. I'm trying to pick between two.


ASHLEY: So I'm going to say Bogoljubov.


ASHLEY: I really meant to say...

EISENBERG: Who was the other one you were thinking of?

ASHLEY: Nimzowitsch.

EISENBERG: Ah! Nimzowitsch is correct.

ASHLEY: That's right.


EISENBERG: Nailed it. At a 1925 tournament, Aron Nimzowitsch found himself losing a match to Friedrich Saemisch. Incensed, he stood up on the table and shouted what phrase that I'm sure you have thought to yourself from time to time.

ASHLEY: I have no idea. I resign.

EISENBERG: You resign on that one. You know what, I'm not sure but I would love to do this. Anyone out there?


EISENBERG: Wrong. All right, cheater. I like that. They're a cheater.


ASHLEY: I'd be really upset if somebody else got the answer.

EISENBERG: He said, just why must I lose to this idiot?



ASHLEY: Yeah, yeah, I've heard that many times.

EISENBERG: Has that ever rolled through your head at all?

ASHLEY: It ain't just Nimzowitsch. I've heard that many times.

EISENBERG: With the exception of why must I lose to this idiot, which I know you are just too nice to ever think, you got them all right. So...


ASHLEY: I'm going to practice that one, though.

EISENBERG: So not only do you get a prize, but also Christopher Vehon, congratulations, you have won. You've both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes, your very own to have. Well done.

ASHLEY: Thank you.

EISENBERG: Thank you so much, Maurice Ashley.

ASHLEY: Thank you.


EISENBERG: Julian, what are you going to play for us?

VELARD: I'm going to play a song that I think is what Maurice is going to do after this game. He's going to take the money and run. Take his Rubik's Cube and run. That's the name of the song.


VELARD: (singing) I didn't used to be this way. I was a good kid back in the day. Safe to say things have changed. Yeah, I remember when I brushed my teeth every night. I held my pretty little girlfriend tight. I never let the bedbugs bite. But that was so long ago and now I've lived long enough to know. You take the money and run. Don't wait till the deal is done. Well, I'm telling you son, take the money and run.

(singing) Step out the back, shoot like a bullet from a gun. Boy, don't be dumb. You take the mo-mo-mo-money and run.


EISENBERG: Julian Velard.

VELARD: Thank you.


EISENBERG: Are you the one writing us emails about how easy our games are? Well, then we want to meet you. To be a contestant on a future show, reach out to us on Twitter or Facebook at npraskmeanother or send us an old fashioned email at askmeanother@npr.org. In exchange, we'll send you a little quiz and see if you've got what it takes to make it to our ASK ME ONE MORE final round.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.