Chess sets are inexpensive and the game is popular on the streets of some major American cities. So why aren’t there more black American titled players?

After Emory Tate, Jr., an American international master, died in October during a chess tournament in California, one grandmaster described his death as a “devastating loss.”

Tate’s death at 57 was not only sad for those who knew him and admired his tactical skill and outsized personality, it left a major void among international titled black players from the United States.

Only four black Americans— including Tate — have become at least international masters, according to “Drum Majors of Chess,” a web-based wall of fame maintained on “The Chess Drum,” a website devoted to Black chess players throughout the world. Kassa Korley, who lives in New York, is one of the three, but on the Web site of the World Chess Federation, he is listed as playing for Denmark, where he has familial roots and dual citizenship.

Maurice Ashley —- the chess commentator and impresario — is often cited as the first and only  African-American grandmaster from the United States, though even he was born in Jamaica.

The only other titled black American player is Stephen Muhammad, an inactive international master from Georgia, who is also a Nation of Islam minister.

As the obstacles to playing chess appear to be low – players only need a board and pieces and do not need to be athletes — and the game is popular on the streets of many cities, the dearth of titled black players is puzzling on its surface. But, according to players and people involved in teaching chess, lack of money is one of the biggest barriers to blacks excelling in the world of tournament chess.

“Most of the people that play, they have disposable income,” said Ronald J. Jones, a black expert player and former Washington, D.C., champion. “They can afford to spend $300 for a tournament, $500 for a hotel, another $1000 for an airline ticket to another state.”  Jones, who frequents Dupont Circle, a well-known place to find a street game in Washington, added, “That’s why we play in the park.”

“I believe grandmaster is more an economic measurement than an intellectual one,” said Jerald Times, a chess coach and master.

Indeed, though not immediately obvious, chess seems to attract more affluent people. In 2012, a survey by YouGov, the polling and research firm, concluded, “Although chess has very low barriers to entry and is played across the socioeconomic spectrum, in the U.S., 78 percent of regular chess players are university graduates and among households with incomes over $120,000, 21 percent are regular chess players.”

Blacks are less likely to find themselves in those typically intertwined socioeconomic statuses of being higher educated and in a higher income bracket than their white counterparts in the United States.

For example, from 1990 to 2014, the percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who had attained a bachelor’s or higher degree increased from 26 to 41 percent for whites, but only went from 13 to 22 percent for blacks, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

One recent analysis — titled “The Racial Wealth Gap” — found that “in 2011 the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings, compared to just $7,113 for the median Black household.” And the income gap between blacks and whites remains very high, according to statistics of the Pew Research Center.  

The lack of financial resources is an even more important in another respect: hiring elite coaches, who can charge upwards of one hundred dollars an hour.

Jerald Times, a master and chess coach at the elite Dalton School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, said, “I believe grandmaster is more an economic measurement than an intellectual one. The idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, yes, that can happen every once in a while. But for the most part, that kid (in the inner city) is not gonna take six hours of his life a day and study chess.”

Times noted that the lack of black grandmasters is a worldwide phenomenon. “The numbers are low,” he said. “Out of the 1500 grandmasters in the world, only three or four are black.”

Ashley was a bit fortunate — he had the financial support of Daniel Rose, a real estate developer for whom Ashley worked. With Rose’s backing, Ashley took time off from his main job to study and play.

“Eighteen months later, he was a grandmaster,” according to a New York Daily News article.

Chess programs for inner-city kids are usually more interested in keeping themout of trouble than making them expert players.

Having the time needed to practice and study, particularly for players who are not home-schooled, is another impediment.

Joshua Colas, 17, who became the youngest African-American master when he was 12, has struggled to get further. Asked what stands between his son and the international master title, his father, Guy Colas, said school is the main obstacle.

“Unlike most of the other top juniors who are home schooled, Josh has to find time during school to play in open tournaments where he can get norms,” Colas said. “Occasionally, he gets the opportunity to play against top grandmasters but it’s not enough.”

(Indeed, Awonder Liang, a 12-year-old Wisconsin boy who has home-schooled since he was very young, just became the youngest ever international master in the United States.)

Many young blacks of lesser economic means are introduced to chess through community-based programs. But those programs are usually more interested in keeping kids out of trouble than making them expert players, said Leteef Street, owner and operator of the Delaware Valley Chess Company in Greater Philadelphia.

“They want to keep getting more and more kids off the street, which is a good thing, but they do not necessarily care to make sure these programs they are starting are of quality,” Street said.

One exception is Bravo Zulu Chess, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization that, among other things, trains students — mostly African-American — to compete in chess tournaments. Its founder Shaka Greene, is trying to get his students on the track to becoming masters.

“My goal is to have a program that has master level players and those players eventually supplant me as the lead instructors,” Greene said.

His students include 13-year-old Zahir Muhammad who is currently trying to get his rating to 1700 – a level three classes below master – because that is a prerequisite that Greene has for taking his students to the 2016 National K-12 Championships next December.

Zahir said, “As I get older I want to become at least a master in a few years and after that just keep on going.”

Zahir’s father, Rory Muhammad, a diversity and inclusion administrator at The George Washington University, who taught Zahir how to play, said it is up to Zahir how far he goes with chess. But if Zahir wants to try to become a master and then ultimately an international master, he will support him.

“If he self-selects that, I’ll put the resources in place to make that happen,” Muhammad said.


Jamaal Abdul-Alin is a Washington, D.C.,-based freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including Education Week, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and US News & World Report. He studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin and was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. He has a home page and he can be followed on Twitter (@dcwriter360)