The Racial Gap for Titles Among American Chess Players

Jamaal Abdul-Alim, World Chess, December 15, 2015

After Emory Tate, Jr., an American international master, died in October during a chess tournament in California, one grandmaster described his death as a “devastating loss.”

Tate’s death at 57 was not only sad for those who knew him and admired his tactical skill and outsized personality, it left a major void among international titled black players from the United States.

Only four black Americans–including Tate–have become at least international masters, according to “Drum Majors of Chess,” a web-based wall of fame maintained on “The Chess Drum,” a website devoted to Black chess players throughout the world. Kassa Korley, who lives in New York, is one of the three, but on the Web site of the World Chess Federation, he is listed as playing for Denmark, where he has familial roots and dual citizenship.

Maurice Ashley–the chess commentator and impresario–is often cited as the first and only African-American grandmaster from the United States, though even he was born in Jamaica.

The only other titled black American player is Stephen Muhammad, an inactive international master from Georgia, who is also a Nation of Islam minister.

As the obstacles to playing chess appear to be low–players only need a board and pieces and do not need to be athletes–and the game is popular on the streets of many cities, the dearth of titled black players is puzzling on its surface. But, according to players and people involved in teaching chess, lack of money is one of the biggest barriers to blacks excelling in the world of tournament chess.

“Most of the people that play, they have disposable income,” said Ronald J. Jones, a black expert player and former Washington, D.C., champion. “They can afford to spend $300 for a tournament, $500 for a hotel, another $1000 for an airline ticket to another state.” {snip}

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Jerald Times, a master and chess coach at the elite Dalton School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, said, “I believe grandmaster is more an economic measurement than an intellectual one. The idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, yes, that can happen every once in a while. But for the most part, that kid (in the inner city) is not gonna take six hours of his life a day and study chess.”

Times noted that the lack of black grandmasters is a worldwide phenomenon. “The numbers are low,” he said. “Out of the 1500 grandmasters in the world, only three or four are black.”

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