A Brief History of Chess in the Black Diaspora

We’ve written earlier about the history of chess in Africa, which predates the appearance of chess in Europe by several centuries. The earliest record of a Black chess player was from about 1300 years ago. Sa’id bin Jubair was a Black Islamic jurist who is the first person in the world known to have specialized in blindfold chess.

From his time until today, doubtless there were a great many Black chess players, but records are virtually non-existent until we reach the Black diaspora in the United States, some thousand years later.

Dr. James McCune Smith

Dr. James McCune Smith (1813 was the first Black American to hold a medical degree, which he earned in Scotland, not being permitted to study medicine in the United States. Smith was a passionate intellectual, a vocal and active abolitionist, a pioneer in modern medicine, and a great chess enthusiast. Regrettably, there seem to be no records of his games. In his most famous essay on chess, he promoted the game as a healthy form of entertainment, and also told of his encounter with one of the greatest chess players of all time.

Born into slavery in 1855, Theophilus Thompson is the earliest documented Black American chess expert. After being freed, he learned chess and wrote a book of chess puzzles called Chess Problems: Either to Play or Mate, which was published in 1873.

Theophilus Thompson

Jim Crow laws in the United States hindered chess progress for many Black Americans. In the 1950s, Black chess players were barred from the Southern Chess Association, the Chicago Chess Club, and the Georgia Open Chess Tournament. They were also prohibited from playing in the U.S. Open in 1954.

One bright spot during this time was the admittance of Archie Waters into the Marshall Chess Club in New York. Waters was a mentor to Bobby Fischer, and accompanied him to Reykjavik in his legendary World Championship match against Boris Spassky in 1972.

The fight against discrimination continued, and other Black chess players came to prominence, including Kenneth Clayton (winner of the 1963 U.S. Amateur Chess Championship), Frank Street Jr. (winner of the 1965 U.S. Amateur Chess Championship), Alan Williams (America’s first Black FIDE Master), and Baraka Shabazz (the first Black woman to earn an Expert rating in the USCF). Kangugi Karanja is regarded as the first Black chess prodigy, becoming a USCF Candidate Master at the age of ten. The accomplishments of these fine players build up to the contemporary Black masters of chess in America and elsewhere.

Maurice Ashley

It wasn’t until 1999 that the world saw the first Black Grandmaster, Jamaican-American Maurice Ashley, but today titled Black players in Africa and throughout the diaspora are increasingly common. During Black History Month, we pay tribute to those who blazed the trail, and those who now walk the path, paving the way for future generations.

Though photos and descriptions may not seem very convincing, the study of genetics involves understanding both genotype and phenotype. The former refers to DNA and genes. The latter is the physical form that we see represented. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that appearances can be deceiving when it comes to determining ancestry.

Paul Morphy, the Pride and Sorrow of Chess

In Paul Morphy we find a person with truly diverse roots. On his father’s side, his heritage comprised Spanish, Irish and Portuguese. More significantly to this discussion, his mother was French Creole, likely with a Caribbean background. Strictly speaking, “Creole” can refer to a wide range of hereditary origins, but it is most commonly associated with Caribbean and/or African background.

So it is likely that Paul Morphy, the so-called Pride and Sorrow of Chess, one of the most celebrated chess players of all time, has some African heritage. Adding weight to this idea is the account that James McCune Smith wrote of his encounter with Morphy in 1857:

“And as we gazed at Morphy, with his fine, open countenance, brunette hue, marvelous delicacy of fibre, bright, clear eyes, and elongated submaxillary bone, a keen suspicion entered our ethnological department that we were not the only Carthaginian in the room. It might only be one drop, perhaps two, God only know how they got there but surely, beside the Tria mulattin who at present writes, there was also a Hekata-mulattin in that room!”

“Carthaginian” of course refers to a person from the ancient African city of Carthage, and by extension, any person with African heritage. Readers will recognize “mulattin” as related to “mulatto” or mixed-race, and Dr. Smith’s addition of “tria” and “hekata” refer to the fraction of “Blackness” he inferred from appearances. (We should stress, by the way, that Dr. Smith was a vocal opponent to the standard race theories of his day, and was a particular opponent of phrenology.) Nonetheless, Smith makes his impression crystal clear, despite the common depictions of Morphy. There is nothing like the testimony of a witness who saw him in the flesh!

This is quite a claim for Black Americans, and all of the Black chess community, as Morphy is arguably the most ingenious chess mind to have ever lived. In this case, choosing between pride and sorrow, we are going to go with Pride, many times over!

Here is Morphy’s most famous game of chess, the Opera Game.

This article is part of a series of pieces exploring chess in the context of Black History Month. Click on Black History Month to learn more about Black chess players, the African history of chess, and other issues relating to chess and race.

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