PAL/Wynn Center brings tournament level chess to Bed-Stuy primary students
Renowned Grand Master Maurice Ashley Allies with Brooklyn DA To Train Young Minds
Bedford-Stuyvesant’s PAL/Wynn Center was the scene of bitter struggle on a recent Friday afternoon, with quarter neither sought nor given as third- and fourth-grade students squared off against one another under the tutelage of International Chess Grand Master Maurice Ashley. Long noted for sponsoring sports-themed afterschool programs, the Police Athletic League (PAL) and Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office expanded its range of PAL Smarts STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities with an after-school chess program.
“Our office supports many athletic programs,” Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez pointed out, “but not all of the kids are going to be athletes. This is also important in the sense that young people meet prosecutors not because they’re victims of a crime, or, God forbid, accused of a crime.
“It builds character, it builds intellect,” said instructor Maurice Ashley. “It teaches the kids resilience, patience — it’s a tool that transforms the kids forever.”
The tournament developed in stages, as Ashley and his assistant Peter Madsen carefully arranged each match up beforehand. The kids responded enthusiastically when their names were called, rushing to take the assigned position. Some shook hands before starting their game.
A quick perusal of the room revealed that the majority of players were female.
“Yeah,” Ashley laughed afterward. “I got lucky this time. I didn’t have to go out and recruit for the girls. They just showed up.”
Ashley was also quick to put rest the notion that girls and women are inferior chess players. “They just need encouragement to stick with it, and they’ll be more than a match for the boys,” he pointed out.
“Just wait till the end of the day!” PAL assistant Robin Hibbler laughed when asked if the girls seemed to have the right instincts to become chess masters. “They schooled me!”
A small group of parents clustered near one corner of the PAL game room. Bed-Stuy resident Gilbert White was on hand to watch his son, third-grader Chase, compete: “It’s a great program,” White said. “I knew the game — the moves — sure, but I never really knew how to teach it to him, not the way they do here.”
Asked if Chase had been doing better in school since taking on chess, White nodded: “Certainly. His grades have improved since this started.”
As if the excitement of a discovered check wasn’t quite enough, midway through the tournament a brace of retired NBA players, Felipe Lopez and Erick Barkley, appeared, to the delight of all.
“You’re all leaders,” Lopez told the kids. “I can say that because you’re here, learning, and not home watching TV or playing video games. You could be looking on the web for shoes … But no one can ever take away from you what you learned. No one can ever take away your education.”
“You know what to do,” Ashley announced as the kids settled in for the final set of matches. “You know the routine; you know the right attitude. I want you to have the best game possible — so stay focused!”
The first African-American International Chess Grand Master, Ashley honed his game in city parks playing blitz chess against hustlers who made their living delivering checkmate to the unwary. In Ashley’s universe, the game is clearly without bounds — in addition to teaching inner-city kids, Ashley is co-organizer of the Millionaire Chess Open, the highest-stakes chess match in history; he has taught chess in Ferguson, Belize and Cape Town; and he has been a commentator on international chess championships, the US Chess Open and Gary Kasparov’s match with IBM’s Deep Blue. His next stop will be in Rwanda to help with the Genocide Memorial in Kigali.
Did any of the current group remind Ashley of a younger version of him, of that moment when chess set the neurons in his mind ablaze with an inextinguishable light?
“Oh yes,” Ashley smiled. “I’ve got one or two right here.”
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