Story Time History: Black Players Who Changed the Game
It’s not a debate or a matter of opinion: The annals of chess history are lined predominantly with men of European birth or descent. And though a walk through New York’s Union Square or Washington Square Park today might reveal a diverse tapestry of humans challenging each other to five-dollar games, the most visible chess players throughout history have been white.
So in honor of Black History Month, we’d like to tell you about a few Black players who inspire us every day. Some names you might know, some might be new, and this certainly isn’t a comprehensive list. But each one of these players changed the game in their own way, and their achievements will endure as long as chess is played.
Sa’id bin Jubair
In the early 8th century CE, a prominent judge of African descent named Sa’id bin Jubair stunned his contemporaries in what is now Kufa, Iraq, by becoming the first person in history to play chess blindfolded.
With his brazen innovation, Jubair (also known as Abu Muhhammad) started a trend that continued into modernity; a quick online search will yield hundreds of videos of chess experts playing without so much as a glance at the board.
Not only did he elevate the game of shatranj, as chess was once known in the Middle East, he was also a widely respected Islamic scholar, whose writings are studied and taught in the Sunni and Shi’a traditions to this day.
Born into slavery in Maryland and 1855, Theophilus Thompson is roundly regarded as the first Black chess expert in the United States (though the official title “Expert” wasn’t created until the 20th century).
Following his emancipation after the Civil War, Thompson worked as a domestic servant. In 1872 he crossed paths with John Hanshew, who ran The Maryland Chess Review. Hanshew loaned the youngster a chess set and Thompson, then only 17 years old, showed an immediate aptitude for the game.
Just one year later in 1873, Thompson wrote a critically acclaimed book of endgame puzzles and began touring the country to play in chess tournaments, sporting a fast, aggressive playing style that baffled his opponents and astounded spectators.
Unfortunately, we don’t know much more about Thompson’s life in the following years. Research only recently confirmed that he died of tuberculosis in 1881 at age 26. Today, Theophilus Thompson is remembered as the first Black chess player of note in the United States, a courageous, capacious thinker who defied unthinkable odds to let his genius speak through the game of chess.
Walter Harris took the American chess world by storm in 1959 when he placed fifth at the Junior US Open. After being denied accommodations at the hotel where the other competitors were staying because of his race, he persevered and entered the adult US Open a few days later where he performed admirably.
Harris fought hard against racism and segregation during his time on the professional chess circuit. When asked about his experience in a 1998 interview with Gregory Kearse, Harris said simply, “It was lonely when I came up.” Despite the immense hardships he faced, Walter Harris remained a buoyant presence, eventually becoming the first Black National Master in the United States before going on to become an accomplished physicist.
Without Harris’s sacrifice and bravery, the road to recognition and respect for Black players that came after him would have been even rockier. This Black History Month, we honor Walter Harris’s achievements and hope fervently for the day when players of every color, creed, gender identity, and nationality have an equal chance for greatness on the chessboard.
If you followed chess in the early 1980s, there’s no doubt you’ll recall the name Baraka Shabazz. As a 10-year-old girl in Anchorage, Alaska, Shabazz’s stepfather taught her and her sister how the pieces moved. Six weeks later she’d won three out of five games in her first tournament, setting her on a meteoric path to an Expert rating by the time she was 15.
The intervening years saw the family move from Alaska to California to Washington, D.C., as they sought out the best chess instruction they could find despite their limited financial resources. The mayor of Oakland, California, and singer Eartha Kitt even pitched in to fund her training.
As the first female American chess prodigy, Shabazz endured immense public pressure with a cool head and a sharp wit, consistently defying the bias and discrimination she faced as a Black woman in the white male-dominated world of chess. Sadly, after a poor showing at the 1983 Women’s National Championship, Shabazz stepped away from the game for good. Baraka, wherever you are now, we’re forever indebted to your courage, passion, and singular brilliance.
Grandmaster Maurice Ashley
Born in Jamaica and raised in Brooklyn, Maurice Ashley is the first African-American Grandmaster and one the chess world’s highest-profile and most respected players, coaches commentators, and innovators.
One of only four current Black GMs, Ashley led two teams from Harlem to national championship titles and was inducted into the US Chess Hall of Fame in 2016. He regularly travels the globe giving speeches, teaching chess, and contributing to charitable organizations such as Black Goes First, an effort to promote the game in underserved communities, backed by music icons Jay-Z, RZA, and Chaka Zulu.
Grandmaster Ashley’s charisma, sense of humor, and encyclopedic knowledge of the game make him one of chess’s most beloved and effective advocates, and his inclusion name on this list of Black players who changed the game is an indisputable no-brainer.
Rochelle Ballantyne and Jessica Hyatt
As a teenager, Rochelle Ballantyne became nationally recognized as a member of Intermediate School 318’s epic road to the national championship, chronicled in the award-winning 2012 documentary, Brooklyn Castle (see our blog from last month for more about this film).
By the time she graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, Ballantyne was one of the fastest-rising stars in American chess, and many believed she was destined to become the first Black female National Master. But Ballantyne’s success had also earned her a full scholarship to Stanford University, so she stepped away from chess for the better part of the next decade, pursuing her undergraduate diploma, followed by degrees in education policy from Columbia and law from NYU.
Meanwhile, Jessica Hyatt, a graduate of Success Academy’s sterling chess program, has bounded up through the ranks and is currently knocking on the same door Ballantyne approached nearly ten years ago: becoming the first Black female chess Master. Both of these women inspire legions of young girls around the world with their achievements and will always be remembered for their courage, integrity, and mastery of the game.
The success these players achieved in their own time reverberates through history, bestowing greater opportunity and equity on the generations that follow them. As a company, we at Story Time Chess will always strive to live up their example and do our part to encourage kids across the country and around the world to dive in and play.
This blog wouldn’t have been possible without the incredible research and writing of Daaim Shabazz at The Chess Drum. Please support him and his fantastically enlightening site, and take some time this Black History Month to learn even more about the many Black chess players who’ve changed the game.
[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section][et_pb_section fb_built="1" _builder_version="4.5.3" _module_preset="default"][et_pb_row _builder_version="4.5.3" _module_preset="default"][et_pb_column type="4_4" _builder_version="4.5.3" _module_preset="default"][et_pb_cta title="Have you checked out Story Time Chess?" button_url="https://storytimechess.com/storytime-chess-the-game/" button_text="Explore Chesslandia" _builder_version="4.5.3" _module_preset="default" background_color="#7755b2"][/et_pb_cta][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section]