The Scott County Chess club welcomes all persons of every ethnic background, color, creed, and national origin. We celebrate diversity as chess enriches the souls of all persons who participate and watch.
The game of chess is rich in history throughout history of cultures and civilizations around the world participating in this great game. We honor and salute them for their contributions.
While we cannot name and recognize all of them here, we can pay tribute to one corner of the ethnic spectrum in light of the United States observance of Black History Month each February.
In that spirit, the Scott County Chess Club recognizes African-Americans who contributed and those who still serve to keep the game going to future generations of humanity.
Please note: The information below was taken from multiple sources
so there may be some overlap and duplication.
The history of chess in Africa predates the appearance of chess in Europe by several centuries. The earliest record of a Black chess player was from about 1300 years ago. Sa’id bin Jubair was a Black Islamic jurist who is the first person in the world known to have specialized in blindfold chess. From his time until today, doubtless there were a great many Black chess players, but records are virtually non-existent until we reach the Black diaspora in the United States, some thousand years later.
Dr. James McCune Smith (1813) was the first Black American to hold a medical degree, which he earned in Scotland, not being permitted to study medicine in the United States. Smith was a passionate intellectual, a vocal and active abolitionist, a pioneer in modern medicine, and a great chess enthusiast. Regrettably, there seem to be no records of his games. In his most famous essay on chess, he promoted the game as a healthy form of entertainment, and also told of his encounter with one of the greatest chess players of all time.
Born into slavery in 1855, Theophilus Thompson is the earliest documented Black American chess expert. After being freed, he learned chess and wrote a book of chess puzzles called Chess Problems: Either to Play or Mate, which was published in 1873.
Jim Crow laws in the United States hindered chess progress for many Black Americans. In the 1950s, Black chess players were barred from the Southern Chess Association, the Chicago Chess Club, and the Georgia Open Chess Tournament. They were also prohibited from playing in the U.S. Open in 1954.
One bright spot during this time was the admittance of Archie Waters into the Marshall Chess Club in New York. Waters was a mentor to Bobby Fischer, and accompanied him to Reykjavik in his legendary World Championship match against Boris Spassky in 1972.
The fight against discrimination continued, and other Black chess players came to prominence, including Kenneth Clayton (winner of the 1963 U.S. Amateur Chess Championship), Frank Street Jr. (winner of the 1965 U.S. Amateur Chess Championship), Alan Williams (America’s first Black FIDE Master), and Baraka Shabazz (the first Black woman to earn an Expert rating in the USCF). Kangugi Karanja is regarded as the first Black chess prodigy, becoming a USCF Candidate Master at the age of ten. The accomplishments of these fine players build up to the contemporary Black masters of chess in America and elsewhere.
It wasn’t until 1999 that the world saw the first Black Grandmaster, Jamaican-American Maurice Ashley, but today titled Black players in Africa and throughout the diaspora are increasingly common. During Black History Month, we pay tribute to those who blazed the trail, and those who now walk the path, paving the way for future generations.
Dr. James McCune Smith
In Paul Morphy we find a person with truly diverse roots. On his father’s side, his heritage comprised Spanish, Irish and Portuguese. More significantly to this discussion, his mother was French Creole, likely with a Caribbean background. Strictly speaking, “Creole” can refer to a wide range of hereditary origins, but it is most commonly associated with Caribbean and/or African background.
So it is likely that Paul Morphy, the so-called Pride and Sorrow of Chess, one of the most celebrated chess players of all time, has some African heritage. Adding weight to this idea is the account that Dr. James McCune Smith wrote of his encounter with Morphy in 1857:
“And as we gazed at Morphy, with his fine, open countenance, brunette hue, marvelous delicacy of fibre, bright, clear eyes, and elongated submaxillary bone, a keen suspicion entered our ethnological department that we were not the only Carthaginian in the room. It might only be one drop, perhaps two, God only know how they got there but surely, beside the Tria mulattin who at present writes, there was also a Hekata-mulattin in that room!"
“Carthaginian” of course refers to a person from the ancient African city of Carthage, and by extension, any person with African heritage. Readers will recognize “mulattin” as related to “mulatto” or mixed-race, and Dr. Smith’s addition of “tria” and “hekata” refer to the fraction of “Blackness” he inferred from appearances.
We should stress, by the way, that Dr. Smith was a vocal opponent to the standard race theories of his day, and was a particular opponent of phrenology. Nonetheless, Smith makes his impression crystal clear, despite the common depictions of Morphy. There is nothing like the testimony of a witness who saw him in the flesh!
This is quite a claim for Black Americans, and all of the Black chess community, as Morphy is arguably the most ingenious chess mind to have ever lived. In this case, choosing between pride and sorrow, we are going to go with pride, many times over!
The history of chess can be traced back nearly 1500 years, although its earliest origins are uncertain. The popularity of chess has, for the past two centuries, been closely tied to competition, usually in the form of two-player matches, for the title of world champion. The first major international event was a series of six matches held in 1834 between the leading French and British players, Louis-Charles de la Bourdonnais of Paris and Alexander McDonnell of London, which ended with Bourdonnais’s victory.
But only as of 2015, there are three grandmasters of African descent. Here’s more about some of these grandmasters and other famous Black chess players. They are pictured, left to right, in the photo gallery above in order of listing.
Maurice Ashley is a Jamaican-American chess grandmaster, author, and commentator. Ashley was born in St. Andrew, Jamaica. He attended Wolmer's Boys School in Jamaica, then moved to the United States when he was 12. In 1992, Ashley shared the United States Game/10 chess championship with Maxim Dlugy. In 1999, Ashley beat Adrian Negulescu to complete the requirements for the title of Grandmaster. This made him the first Black chess grandmaster.
In 2005, he wrote the book Chess for Success, relating his experiences and the positive aspects of chess. He was the main organizer for the 2005 HB Global Chess Challenge, with the biggest cash prize in history for an open chess tournament. Ashley has worked, and currently is working, as a chess commentator covering many events, including those of the Grand Chess Tour.
Kenneth Terence Solomon is a South African chess grandmaster and (International Chess Federation or World Chess Federation) FIDE Trainer. He took up chess at the age of 13, inspired by his elder brother's qualification for the Chess Olympiad in Manila in 1992. Within two years, Solomon was the South African under-16 champion. Solomon won the African Individual Chess Championship in Namibia in December 2014 and became a grandmaster, building on his previous excellent performances. “I continued to work on chess over the years until 2008 even when there were few opportunities,” said Solomon in an interview when asked what were the most important aspects in his chess development “It was important not to give up, to be patient, to bide my time, to learn from defeats and recover quickly."
Pontus Carlsson, born December 18, 1982, is a Swedish chess grandmaster. Pontus was taught chess by his adoptive father at the age of four and has represented Sweden in international competitions since he was a youth. His first international tournament of record was the under-10 European Championships in Rimavska Sobota. Carlsson's rise to the Grandmaster title was rather sudden as he earned the International Master title in 2005 and after earning four GM norms, he was awarded the title in 2007.
Recently, Carlsson has become one of the chess world's most prominent voices in support of the worldwide protests sparked by the May 25 2020 police killing of George Floyd.
Darrian Robinson is the highest-rated African American female chess player in the United States Chess Federation system. Robinson graduated from the University of Chicago in 2016 where she held a White House internship and studied at the London School of Economics. Her USCF rating is 2086 and she holds the title of "Candidate Master." Her chess career became notable in 2006, when she ranked 6th in USCF’s girls under 13 ranking and represented the United States in Batumi, Georgia, at the World Youth Chess Championship.
“Chess isn't about winning first place in tournaments. It's about beating individuals who are better than you,” said Robinson in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
February is “Black History Month” in the United States, so this February, I thought it would be appropriate to look at the history of chess players of African descent.
Perhaps the first documented case of a Black chess player was that of Sa’id bin Jubair (665-714), a Black player who excelled at blindfold chess in Kufa, in modern-day Iraq. He was the first known player who played chess without looking at the pieces.
In 1859, Dr. James Smith McCune (1813-1865), an African-American, was one of the first Black chess players of note and wrote several essays promoting chess as a healthy form of entertainment, published in Anglo-African Magazine. He characterized chess as an art that required work and continual practice. He was also the first African-American to earn a medical degree and to run a pharmacy in the United States.
In 1874, Theophilis A. Thompson (1855-1920?), an African-American and freed black slave, put together a book of chess problems called Chess Problems: Either to Play and Mate. It was published by Orestes Brownson Jr., the editor of the Dubuque Chess Journal.
In 1950, black chess players were barred from the 1950 Southern Chess Association, held in North Carolina.
In the 1950s, Archie Waters (1918-2001) became the first black member of the prestigious Marshall Chess Club in New York. He was good friends with Bobby Fischer.
In the early 1950s, Blacks were denied membership in the Chicago Chess Club.
In the 1950s, Blacks were barred from chess playing rooms in Louisiana and were barred from playing in the U.S. Open, held in New Orleans in 1954.
In 1955, Black were barred from playing in the Georgia Open chess tournament.
At the 1959 U.S. Open chess tournament in Omaha, Nebraska, blacks were not allowed to rent a room at the hotel (or other nearby hotels ) in which the chess tournament was held.
In 1963, Walter Harris, age 18, became the first black chess master in America. He won the junior championship of the Marshall Chess Club and was a member of the Manhattan Chess Club and Marshall Chess Club.
In 1963, Kenneth Clayton (1938- ), an African-American, won the 1963 Amateur Chess Championship. His picture appeared on the cover of the June, 1963 issue of Chess Life magazine.
In 1965, Frank Street, Jr., an African-American, won the 1965 U.S. Amateur Championship and became the second Black to earn the master title in America.
In 1965, Ray Charles (1930-2004), who lost his vision when he was a child, learned chess after a stint in substance abuse rehab. It helped him kick the habit. He became an avid chess player and appeared on the cover of Chess Life and Review in 2002.
In 1967, Ken Clayton became the third Black to earn the master title in America.
In 1970, Alan Williams became America’s first black FIDE master.
Emory Tate, Jr. (1958- ), an African-American, served in the U.S. Air Force and won the U.S. Armed Forces Championship five times. He became an International Master in 2006.
In 1982, Baraka Shabazz became the first black female to have an expert’s rating by the USCF.
In 1984, Kangugi “K.K.” Karanja (1973- ) became the a USCF expert (rated over 2000) at the age of 10, the youngest African-American to do so. He is regarded as the first African-American chess prodigy. In 1985 at the age of 11, he won the National Elementary Chess Championship with a perfect 7-0, becoming the first African-American to win a national scholastic title and the second African-American to win a national chess championship (Frank Street, Jr. was the first, winning the 1965 US Amateur Championship).
In 1992, National Master Elvin Wilson, an African-American, won the Texas Armed Forces Championship (I took 2nd) and the Air Force Championship (his only loss was to me; we drew the following year). He won the Armed Forces Championship in 1993 and 1998.
In 1993, Maurice Ashley (1966- ) became the first African-American to be awarded the International Master title. In 1963 he also won the Marshall Chess Club Championship in New York.
In 1999, Maurice Ashley, born in Jamaica, became the first and only African-American to awarded the Grandmaster title. He I snow active in different areas of chess promotion, especially promoting chess with children. In 1991, he coached a team of black kids from Harlem that won the 1991 National Junior High School Championships.
In 2002, Maurice Ashley became the first African-American to qualify for the US Chess Championship.
In 2005, Maurice Ashley wrote Chess for Success, which I contributed a chapter on famous people who play chess, including several prominent black celebrities.
In 2005, Tuduetso Sabure (1982- ) of Botswana became the first black woman grandmaster when she won the African Women’s Championship.
In 2007, Pontus Carlsson (1982- ), A Black player from Sweden, was awarded the Grandmaster title. He was born in Cali, Columbia. When he was one year old, his entire family died and he was subsequently adopted by a Swedish couple. His adopted father was the former president of the Swedish chess federation who taught him how to play chess. He was the second Black to become a grandmaster.
In 2007, Amon Simutowe (1982- ), a Black player from Zambia, was awarded the Grandmaster title. He took 2nd place in the 2000 World Junior Chess Championships in Armenia (won by Lazaro Bruzon of Cuba). He was named Zambia’s “Sportsman of the Year” in 2001. In 2009, he won the South African Open. He was the third Black to become a grandmaster.
In 2010, Justus Williams, age 12, set the record of the youngest black chess player ever to reach the level of chess master. Prior to this record, Kassa Korley, age 15, was the youngest black chess player to reach the level of chess master. In 2013, he won the US Junior Open
As of 2015, there are three Grandmasters of African descent. They are Maurice Ashley of the United States, Pontus Carlsson of Sweden and Amon Simutowe of Zambia.
As of 2015, there are about 50 black chess masters in the United States.
Famous Black celebrities who have played or play chess include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaun Alexander, LaVar Arrington, Barry Bonds, Kobe Bryant, Jim Brown, Maurice Carter, Wilt Chamberlain, Ray Charles, Lester Conner, Bill Cosby, Fats Domino, Laurence Fishburne, Jamie Foxx, Dizzie Gillespie, GZA, Priest Holmes, Magic Johnson, Lennox Lewis, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Chris Rock, Bill Russell, RZA, Barry Sanders, Will Smith, Wesley Snipes, Latrell Sprewell, and Tiger Woods.
Black chess masters include Greg Acholonu (SM), Pedro Aderito (IM), Maurice Ashley (GM), Steve Booth (NM), Ron Buckmeyer (SM), Pontus Carlsson (GM), Ken Clayton (NM), Joshua Colas (NM), Charles Covington (NM), Barry Davis (NM), Morris Giles (FM), Charles Green (NM), Robert Gwaze (IM), Walter Harris (NM), Walu Kobese (IM), Kassa Korley (NM), Irvin Middleton (FM), Vincnet Moore (NM), William Morrison (SM), Tony Randolf (NM), Norm Rogers (FM), Ron Simpson (SM), Amon Simutowe (GM), Kenny Solomon (IM), Frank Street (NM), Andre Surgeon (NM), Emory Tate (IM), George Umezinwa (NM), Glenn Umstead (NM), Justus Williams (NM), and Elvin Wilson (NM).