Black chess players

by Bill Wall


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).