Black Prominence in Contemporary Chess

Leaders in the Black chess community worldwide, from Theophilus Thompson to Phiona Mutesi, have paved the way for true development and recognition in the chess world. As a result, this culminated in producing the first Black grandmasters, with many more to come. There are so many that are worthy of review here, but we will focus on only a very few distinguished contemporary figures.

In 1999, Maurice Ashley (featured at top) had the distinction of becoming the first Black chess grandmaster. He describes chess as a vehicle for life skills development, particularly in the domain of decision making and consequences. In this topic he succinctly states: “If you make a judgment error in chess you get checkmated, but in life the consequence is much worse!”. He brings our attention to how we can practice these vital life skills through chess where the consequences are merely bruised egos instead of learning the ‘hard way’ in ‘real Life’. Indeed, he would know how to apply such struggles as he negotiated the tough Brooklyn neighbourhood obstacles he grew up in only to excel prominently in his field today. From TED Talks to sponsoring and promoting chess in inner city areas to battling chess grandmasters, in the Black community of chess he is a triumph and a cause of great pride. When reflecting on his title, “African continent GMs do exist; but, according to the system of racial classification, I am the first Black GM in history…it matters, and doesn’t matter, all at the same time.”

Pontus Carlsson, photo by Przemysław Jahr.

After tragically becoming an orphan at the age of one, Pontus Carlsson was adopted by a Swedish couple and was raised in Sweden. This sharp mind has learned six languages from Chinese to Spanish, and is working on Russian because of chess literature. In the 16th European Chess Team Championship (2007) he scored a performance rating of 2686 despite strong opponents. It was this year that he achieved GM status, but it is noteworthy that he went from his International Master title to GM status in just three years!

Amon Simutowe, a Zambian GM is the third Black GM, and the first from Sub-Saharan Africa. He holds a Masters degree from Oxford. In 2009 he won the South African Open but his GM title was earned in 2007 at the Euwe Stimulus tournament in the Netherlands. 

Kenny Solomon, By Stefan64 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Kenny Solomon is a South African grandmaster. Born in 1979, he came to chess quite late in life, learning the game at the age of thirteen. Nevertheless, he became the South African under-sixteen champion within two years, and went on to earn his grandmaster title in 2014 by winning the African Chess Championship.

Due to space and time considerations, we can not go into more here for now, but the authors feel compelled to draw your attention to the up and coming Tanitoluwa Adewumi – his amazing story is inspirational and if any of the above masters have intrigued you, you will be delighted by the young man’s meteoric performance and future plans.

In conclusion

Chess has come a long way, and so has the recognition of African heritage in the chess world. We have seen such an amazing array of historical lines crisscrossing the globe, from the very young to the more mature, from very humble beginnings to more established ones, there is no denying the rich tapestry of Black players and historical figures in chess. Today we see a world where slowly we are looking beyond ethnicity and gender and creed, and the universal game of chess is a beautiful vehicle for this hopeful message.

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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