Ferguson And The Chess Game of Life

Chess is more than just a game – it’s life.


As a young man growing up in Brooklyn, chess was a positive outlet for me. My neighborhood had its share of drugs, gangs and violence, things that could have easily deterred me. Instead, I fell in love with chess, and it was all I wanted to do.

Playing chess kept me focused. It kept me determined. I played countless games against older and wiser players and I lost – a lot. I used to lose my lunch money like crazy. But as I continued to practice, my persistence brought success. I became a national master at the age of 20 and the first African-American international grand master at the age of 33.

Through my involvement with chess, I’ve seen how it changes lives for the better. I’ve seen it in the students I’ve taught and coached in inner city schools in Harlem, Brooklyn, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. They discovered their potential and took the skills learned through chess – critical thinking, concentration, focus, problem-solving and tenacity – and went on to graduate from top universities and obtain great jobs.

Recently, I met a group of students at Walnut Grove Elementary School in Ferguson who for the first time ever, have an opportunity to participate in a new chess after school program this fall. The program is a partnership between Ascension, the nation’s largest non-profit health care system, and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis to bring chess programs into every elementary and middle school in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, all free to students.

We’ve seen so much civil unrest and discontent in Ferguson since the death of Michael Brown a year ago. It often seems like all hope is lost. But it didn’t surprise me how eager and excited the kids at Walnut Grove were to learn chess. I saw a different side of the story not shown on the news. I saw a neighborhood with families and kids who want to succeed, and schools that want to help kids do their best, even with limited resources. The monolithic idea of a community in crisis is at odds with the desire of people thriving to make the best out of their situation, and kids who want nothing more than to grow up and excel.

Chess will be a welcome addition in Ferguson and provide a much-needed enrichment and positive experience in the lives of youth. It’s an effective and unique way to bring people together, and instill some hope and opportunity into a community. Kids in Ferguson will learn a lot from chess – things that can also help other young people as well as adults – to better navigate life.

There are Many Ways to Solve a Problem

I heard a school teacher once say that in class, her chess kids always had more ideas than the kids who didn’t play chess. This is attributed to the fact that chess helps you develop your own problem-solving style and technique, and it equips you with many problem-solving tools that help you approach things differently, as well as see others’ perspectives. There may be five good moves, but you have to weigh all of your options and pick the best one. It’s about putting all available options on the table. When brainstorming with peers or colleagues, never marry one idea. Instead, come primed to look at an endless supply of ideas, recommendations and solutions before seeking the single most attractive one.

It’s Not about Winning Quickly, It’s About Winning

Chess disciplines the mind to not simply jump into making a move too quickly. In our fast-paced world we are often seduced by the idea that speed matters all the time. Effectiveness comes first and foremost. Even the best chess players in the world do not expect to win quickly. In life, many of us jump into situations and make rash decisions, only to suffer the consequences later. The saying, “Rome was not built in a day,” remains truer than ever. Anything worth doing takes time. Remember that it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.

Other People’s Views Matter More Than Yours

In chess, it’s important to see your opponent’s checkmate even more so than your own. If a boxer misses a chance to knockout the other fighter, there will probably be another chance. However, if he doesn’t see a haymaker coming, then it’s likely that he’ll be sucking canvas. In life, it’s critical to consider how other people think and view things. In business, the service to your customers comes first. In relationships, the desire to be right at all costs will only result in lots of arguments. Not respecting other people’s viewpoints is more responsible for wars, bullying and governmental shutdowns than anything else. Whether trying to win a game or trying to better navigate the world, the view of the other person should be considered first and foremost.

Patience, Concentration and Focus are Survival Skills

Chess is a game that has more moves and possibilities than atoms in the observable universe. In a match it’s important to slow down and control the process. It’s hard to solve complex problems quickly. Strategizing requires patience, concentration and focus. The weight of one really bad move can be costly. Cultivating patience as a skill helps you defer gratification, so that you don’t fall into a trap and end up being checkmated.

There are Consequences and Rewards

In chess, there are consequences to every single move you make. The loop of decision-making does not stop as your opponent is constantly testing you, moment-to-moment, looking to see if you will make a fatal error. One bad decision will be punished severely while good ones keep you in the game. The frequency of important decisions do not happen as often in life, but when a critical moment arises, thinking about the consequences is often a guide as to whether the decision is a good one. It takes guts and integrity to not try to cut corners. Developing a character of consequence is one of the most valuable traits anyone can have.

Self-Retrospection + Criticism = Resilience

You win some and you lose some. However, there’s something special about losing a brain game such as chess. Like instant replay, chess games can be recorded, allowing the players to go back and study where mistakes were made. It’s fascinating to watch an 8 year-old look at the choices she made, and think about how she could have done better for next time. That kind of introspection and reflection is invaluable at such a young age. A lot of people go through life without ever truly analyzing their behavior patterns, only hearing advice as reproach, and rarely considering how to engage in perpetual improvement. Yet, we all make mistakes all the time, some larger than others. The key is to seek out ways to root out the pattern of errors and, of course, to recognize them in the first place.

As the late chess grand master Bobby Fischer would say, chess is life.

Maurice Ashley headshot MC

Maurice Ashley, the first African-American Chess Grandmaster, is a coach, author, commentator, app designer, puzzle inventor and motivational speaker. Recently a Joint Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman’s Institute and MIT’s Media Lab, he can often be found passing on nuggets of chess and life wisdom to schools, universities and businesses around the country.