Watching a chess match doesn’t typically have the heart pounding excitement of turning in to a football game or show such as “The Amazing Race,” but thanks in part to the success of the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” and the infectious enthusiasm of chess’s top broadcaster, Maurice Ashley, spectators have not only been tuning in to the game… they’re on the edge of their seats.
After taking a year long hiatus for Covid, The Sinquefield Cup returned with a vengeance and today, commenced in a nail-biting finish with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave being crowned the 2021 champion. This first two time winner earned a whopping $90,000 in prize money, as well as a $50,000 bonus for finishing second in the overall Grand Chess Tour.
Jamaican-born, Ashley, who is the sport’s first Black Grandmaster, was front and center for all the action. He chatted with us about the competition, his unique career, and how covid has changed the game.
Q&A With Chess Grandmaster, Maurice Ashley
“2021 saw the return of over the board chess. Organizers have taken the regular precautions … It’s an inconvenience for the players, but they more than anyone want to be able to play chess in person once again, so they accept that this is a new reality we are living in.”Maurice Ashley, Chess Grandmaster
Q: How did you get started reporting on chess games?
A: I started commentating in the early 90s when Intel sponsored a four-city chess tour with the top players that took place in London, Paris, Moscow and New York. Since then, I’ve been able to call US championship tournaments, world championship matches and now the Grand Chess Tour with the best players on the planet competing for well over a million dollars in prize money. I would never have guessed that chess commentary would have become my career.
Q: How is calling chess both similar and different to that of other sports?
A: Like any major sport, chess games are full of action, tension, amazing moves and crazy mistakes. As commentators, we try to get inside the minds of the players to guess at what they may be thinking about and how they may be feeling with all that pressure on them to not make a single mistake. One of the big differences between chess and regular sports is that we announcers discuss many of the possible moves that don’t happen just as intensely as we discuss the moves that eventually do. Also, with access to sophisticated software programs, we can see whether the players are following the top AI recommendations or if they’re branching out on their own.
Q: What has been one of the most exciting moments of the tournament?
A: The most exciting moment of the Sinquefield Cup was a wild game between Hungary’s Richard Rapport and Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. The player’s went straight for each other’s throats and kept racheting up the tension instead of playing moves that would have steered the game into a peaceful draw. At one moment, Richard barely made a move with only 1 second left on his clock to avoid losing the game on time! The hair-raising struggle continued throughout until Shakhriyar landed a brilliant haymaker and won the game in style. Everyone watching knew we had witnessed a fight for the ages.
Q: How did Covid affect chess last year and what precautions are being taken at the tournament currently?
A: Covid drove chess online last year where the game really took off in a huge way since so many new fans came to the game because they were stuck indoors looking for something new and interesting to do. A whole new series of online tournaments popped up with the top players competing for huge prizes from the comfort of their own homes. However, in-person chess suffered greatly as all the major tournaments had to push pause, but with what seemed like somewhat of a turn in the pandemic, 2021 saw the return of over the board chess. Organizers have taken the regular precautions of testing players, checking temperatures, requiring masks, seeking proof of vaccinations and the like. It’s an inconvenience for the players, but they more than anyone want to be able to play chess in person once again, so they accept that this is a new reality we are living in.
Q: Tell us about mentoring Will Smith.
A: I met Will in 2000 when his wife Jada wanted him to have the gift of a chess lesson for Valentine’s Day. Imagine that! We had a nice time, and we’ve kept in touch over the years. He’s incredibly bright, learns quickly and plays a pretty aggressive game. He’s as cool as he seems to be on screen. The funniest thing about him is how much he loves bragging about how he schools other actors like Jamie Foxx at chess. He’s got the ego of a Grandmaster, that’s for sure!
For more on the tour check out www.grandchesstour.org