African-American Boys Master the Game of Chess

Justus Williams, Joshua Colas and James Black Jr. want to become the best in the world.

Posted: 11/14/2011 09:31 AM EST
Filed Under education

From left: Justus Williams, James Black Jr., and Joshua Colas. (Photo: Derrick Bryant)

Although they say “things come in threes,” the teen trifecta of Black chess talent is one phenomenon that many hope will keep spreading beyond the trio of boys from the New York area.

Three African-American teens, Justus Williams, Joshua Colas and James Black Jr., have all attained the status of chess master before the age of 13. And for the uninitiated: the news is nothing short of amazing.

Chess masters don’t happen every day. Less than two percent of the 47,000 members of the United States Chess Federation have earned that title, and only 13 of them are under 14 years old. And what are the chances that among those 13, three would be African-American and from the same region of the country?

Nearly impossible says African-American grandmaster Maurice Ashley.

“Masters don’t happen every day, and African-American masters who are 12 never happen,” Ashley, 45, told the New York Times. “To have three young players do what they have done is something of an amazing curiosity. You normally wouldn’t get something like that in any city of any race.”

Ashley is no stranger to trailblazing himself. He is the only African-American to earn the esteemed title of grandmaster; the highest chess ranking possible.

The boys’ rise to master began last September with Justus, a native of the Bronx, New York, who became the youngest Black player to obtain the master rank at age 12. Next to earn the title was Joshua, of White Plains, New York, who became a master last December. Months later, in July, James — a Brooklyn resident — joined the boys as a master.

How they do it? Long hours studying the game with professional coaches who are grandmasters. Lessons can run up to $100 an hour and the boys have found that the decision to become a chess great has meant forgoing some of the more popular after-school activities for their love of the game.

Justus began playing chess after his mother challenged him to try something other than basketball, his favorite sport. Now, in addition to competing for his own titles, the teen is challenging others to “Dare to be Different” and try out non-traditional sports and activities, such as chess.

All of the boys have their sights set on one day becoming grandmasters and this week, will work on that goal as they play in the World Youth Chess Championship in Brazil. The boys are rivals, but in the end, they remain cordial colleagues who understand the rarity and importance of their titles.

“I think of Justus, me and Josh as pioneers for African-American kids who want to take up chess,” James told the Times.

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