William Morrison, international chess master, plays with the children of Asheboro
Black and white pieces fly over a checkered landscape as the clock spins ominously. His brain is racing and his heart is beating. Each breath is quick and shallow as his eyes roam the painting. It’s been over 3 hours and William Morrison is one game away from becoming an international chess master.
A crowd of whispering spectators gathered around him, watching his every move. It is rare to see an African American who has reached the upper echelons of the chess elite, especially in a sport traditionally dominated by Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese and Israelis.
Jumper at f3 … Nf3. Morrison looks at his opponent with a belligerent gaze and scribbles the code on a notepad containing an ever-growing jumble of letters and numbers, a running list of every move made in the game.
Another hour passes, the chess pieces swirl, and Morrison rings the clock one last time.
“Checkmate.” Morrison breathes a sigh of relief as he stands up and shakes his opponent’s hand amid the cheers. After 9 grueling games over 5 days, Morrison beat all expert level players at the World Open in Philadelphia.
A family affair in Asheboro and a chance to give back
While Morrison grew up playing chess on the benches in Washington Square Park in New York City, his mother was born and raised in North Carolina.
For a while she dated an NFL Philadelphia Eagles player. Russel E. Murphy, which has driven football in Asheboro, Burlington and other parts of the Triad region for decades. Murphy was also known to be the strongest man in the world in his age and weight class.
Coach Murphy died of cancer in 2005, but his legacy of empowerment in the historically black community of East Asheboro remains strong.
On a field dedicated to Coach Murphy, football players and cheerleaders organize their training during the summer. The children of East Asheboro are also trained for the SAT at Coach Murphy Camps, a non-profit organization dedicated in his honor.
Now students will have the chance to play chess with internationally renowned chess master William Morrison.
Read more: Murphy Football Camp: “It was something special”
Willie Gladden, a friend of Morrison’s mother and organizer at Coach Murphy Camps, convinced Morrison to attend a chess challenge spanning two days in mid-June. The first will be a qualifying event, where children of all ages can compete and practice. It will take place on Thursday, June 17 at 6:00 p.m. at the Public Works Building in Asheboro. The top 20 competitors will end up playing Morrison at the ChessMaster event on Friday June 17th at 8:00 PM at the same location.
Morrison will be playing 20 separate games at a time, moving from board to board across the room as fast as he can. It may seem impossible to keep up with so many games, but for Morrison and many other leading chess players, movements on a chess board are like second nature.
However, reaching this point took blood, sweat and tears. Well rather books, sweat and tears.
Nearly 1,000 Chess Books: Morrison’s Journey to Chess
When he was a kid, the hardest part to move from place to place was lugging around his boxes of chess books. He studied everything he could get his hands on. Morrison remembers going between 500 and 1,000 pounds of chess as a teenager.
Its regular vernacular includes phrases like Sicilian Defense, Fianchetto, and Ruy Lopez. Chess players are like historians, retracing the footsteps of other players centuries ago. In the cardinal game that made Morrison a master of chess, his opponent opened with the Sicilian Defense, which was first scribbled on a manuscript by an Italian chess player in 1594.
William’s father taught him chess when he was only six, and Morrison was competing in tournaments by the time he finished elementary school. Back then, Morrison points out, chess was not an integral part of black culture. Even today, there are only about 50 black chess masters throughout the United States.
One of the reasons is quite simple: Chess tournaments are expensive. Paying for flights, hotels and competition fees can add up quickly, especially for a young chess player with limited means. Morrison had the opportunity to play in Canada and Europe, but he remembers the great financial burden of traveling. He tried to stay as local as possible and compete in as many New York City as he could.
On his website The chess drum, chess player and journalist Daaim Shabazz also points out that people of African descent are often questioned for their intelligence. A Latin American once asked him point blank if Africans were smart enough to be great masters.
Shabazz suggests that more black mentors, black role models and black tournament organizers could change the racial landscape of chess. It comes back to the legendary Black bear chess school, a network of black chess players who gathered in Brooklyn for chess rumbles.
Despite Shabazz’s concerns, Morrison is optimistic about a change he’s seen in the chess world over the past few years.
From Player to Teacher: Morrison’s Quest to Find the Next Generation of Chess Players
Morrison noticed a huge push to teach chess in schools across the country. In her hometown of New York, a program called Failures in schools taught half a million students in 48 schools.
Morrison, once known as “The Exterminator” by other chess players, now teaches children how to play chess in Baltimore. There are 65 schools in Baltimore that participate in chess programs, many of which are downtown and reach minority populations, Morrison notes. Baltimore Children’s Chess League boasts that 800 students from 40 Baltimore City public schools participate in their programs each year.
In Asheboro, there is an active chess group with around 450 followers on their Facebook page. In addition to inspiring the children of East Asheboro, Morrison also hopes to spot chess players who show potential.
There are only three grand black chess masters, one from Brooklyn, another from Sweden and another from Zambia. Who knows, the next one might be from Asheboro.
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Michelle Shen is an economics and data reporter for The Courier Tribune. Feel free to reach out to her with story tips on Twitter (michelle_shen10), Instagram (pretty_photos_by_michelle OR michelle_shen10) or by email ([email protected]).