‘Defeat makes so much clear’: chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley on the power of losing

<span>Maurice Ashley speaks after his induction into the US Chess Hall of Fame in 2016. </span><span>Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/.DLQvpzsid6U8m30jbBk_w–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/1ee4af18216d221a20 00678e57f748bf” data-src =”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/.DLQvpzsid6U8m30jbBk_w–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/1ee4af18216d221a20006 78e57f748bf”/><button class=

Maurice Ashley speaks after his induction into the US Chess Hall of Fame in 2016. Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP

How about this advice as aspiring college and high school speakers advise the next generation? Embrace defeat.

This doesn’t mean that you should play to lose, but that if and when you lose, you should try to learn from the experience in the hope that it improves in the future. This approach has been adopted by NBA greats past and present, from Kobe Bryant to Giannis Antetokounmpo – as well as American chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley, who writes about it in his new book Move by Move: Life Lessons On and Off the Chessboard.

“If you win, that’s kind of the point,” Ashley says. “You’ve done things you know… the skills you’ve developed over the years. It’s the losses you really remember – the things you didn’t know.”

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Ashley gave his first-ever speech in April at Western Governors University, hosted by the University of Cincinnati.

“I love taking lessons from chess and applying them to your life,” says Ashley. “That kind of wisdom can benefit anyone, especially young people who are about to make their way into the world.”

One chapter of the book has a title that many graduates may not want to hear: “Losing (Because You Shall To lose).”

As Ashley explains in the book, losing is inevitable even for the biggest competitors. What makes a difference is how someone responds. Ashley cites Bryant and Antetokounmpo, as well as fellow chess grandmaster Irina Krush, as examples of people who have embraced the opportunity to learn from defeat.

“Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know,” says Ashley. “Defeats and losses clarify so much, or have the potential to do so. Embrace it. Don’t try to run away from it.”

In the book, Ashley shares other counterintuitive observations while debunking the myths about elite chess players: they don’t have superhuman memories that allow them to see several moves ahead. How could they? After just four opening moves, almost 300 billion positions are possible. As for that supposedly irresistible momentum during a game that’s going well, it’s actually something to be wary of because it creates false confidence. Even the title of grandmaster itself is coming under scrutiny. Ashley compares it to being an advanced beginner in this 1,500-year-old activity.

In 1999, Ashley became the first black American chess grandmaster. He is a member of the US Chess Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 2016. He is amazed that two of his brothers and sisters, both former world champions, are in the international halls of fame in their own sport: boxer Alicia Ashley and kickboxer Devon. Ashley.

“The three of us unexpectedly rose from these very humble beginnings to eventually reach the pinnacle of our profession,” he says, discussing his early childhood in Jamaica and his teenage years in New York City. “We had great examples, great role models. I think the tough background we grew up in has had a big influence on the people we’ve become, the competitive people we’ve become and the success we’ve found here.”

In Ashley’s case, grandmastership came after a failed attempt last year. Once again some out-of-the-box advice helped – this time from another grandmaster, Alexander Shabalov, in a moment Ashley compares the Karate Kid-style counselor to his own Mr. Miyagi.

“To get anywhere and achieve any goal, you have to already be able to achieve that goal,” says Ashley. “You have to put your whole soul into practice – doing the exercise, training every day, eating right… It’s the same for every goal, every achievement. You have to be able to achieve the goal before you actually try to achieve it.”

When asked if he has ever encountered racism in chess, he answers: “I have. I think racism is racism – whatever sport you play, things will happen,” including “painful incidents” he has experienced.

However, Ashley adds, “I think chess players understand one thing: checkmate. When people quickly realized that I was a serious student of the game, they had to hunker down, roll up their sleeves and fight to the bitter end.

The book emphasizes respect for the opponent, although it recognizes that this is a rare quality in all aspects of society, from chess to politics to everyday life. Ashley calls the great Magnus Carlsen someone who could decipher his opponents. He mentions how the Norwegian’s understanding of his rival Ian Nepomniachtchi helped Carlsen win a world-record 136-move showdown in a 2021 World Cup match in Dubai.

“Understanding what’s going on in the minds of others is a superpower worth cultivating every day,” Ashley writes.

In the book, Ashley also delves into formative experiences that stemmed from childhood adversities.

His mother emigrated from Jamaica to the US in 1968, when Ashley was two years old. He and his siblings were cared for by their grandmother, and the family was not reunited in the US for another ten years. His parents separated, an event that Ashley later discussed individually with his parents. Each of those conversations proved painful but helpful. Ashley himself had become a parent when he talked to his mother about the divorce, and he gained a new understanding of sacrificing himself for a child. He also discovered that playing cards and dominoes growing up with his father had been a good training ground for chess.

The book is also a tribute to New York City as a melting pot of chess, especially in the pre-internet era.

“New York is a fantastic place to learn chess,” says Ashley. “There is robust parkland,” from Washington Square Park to St Nicholas Park and Fulton Park.

Ashley reminisces about taking up the game as a teenager at Brooklyn Tech and testing his skills at Prospect Park and City College. He believes that chess venues in the city are comparable to New York’s legendary Rucker Park, which helped develop the talents of basketball stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

If you’ve noticed a slew of basketball references, there’s a reason for it.

“It’s my favorite sport,” says Ashley, who brings a chess player’s vision to the game. “When I watch basketball, I see chess pieces on the basketball floor. They all have different roles, different strengths and weaknesses.”

The book’s introduction notes that Luka Dončić of the Dallas Mavericks, now playing in the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, honed his basketball skills in part by playing hours of chess. (The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown is also a chess enthusiast, and Chess.com promoted a challenge involving both players timed for the finals.) And Ashley mentions Antetokounmpo’s viral comments during last season’s playoffs about embracing the defeat to then top-seeded Milwaukee. Bucks dropped out in the first round.

“No matter what happens, other people have a say in whether you win or not,” Ashley summarized Antetokounmpo’s message. “Get up, do the work and push harder so you can get better. Those are fantastic words.”

Reflecting on that video prompted Ashley to share a few more life lessons: strive for slow but steady progress and remember the unlikely identity of your greatest opponent.

“One game at a time, one step at a time, growth step by step. Keep getting up every day, be better than yesterday,” he says. “The only person you are fighting is yourself.”

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