Justus, Joshua and James: 3 Black Chess Players Achieve Master Ranking at Age 12


There are some 77,000 members of the United States Chess Federation and fewer than 2 percent of them are excellent enough players to be called “masters.”

Of those masters, just 13 of them are under the age of 14.

Of those 13, three are African American boys from the New York City area — Justus Williams, Joshua Colas and James Black, Jr. — each achieved master status at age 12.

“Masters don’t happen every day, and African American masters who are 12 never happen,” said Maurice Ashley, the only black chess master to earn the top title of grandmaster. “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.”

Maurice Ashley, World’s First Black Chess Grandmaster

Ashley, now 45, became a master at age 20 and a grandmaster at 34.

The Chess Federation uses a rating system to measure ability based on the results of matches won in officially sanctioned events. A player reaching a rating of 2,200 qualifies for master.

Justus was the first of the three boys to get to 2,200, making him the youngest black player ever to obtain the master rank. Not long after Justus achieved that rare honor, Joshua replaced him in the record books by achieving master ranking while still a few months younger than Justus was. James, now 13, became a master at age 12 in July, 2011.

Although they are competitors, the boys are also friends who recognize that others see them as role models.

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

All three of the boys have set their sights on becoming grandmasters by the time they graduate from high school, a feat only a few dozen players in the world have achieved.

One of my all time favorite movies is “Searching for Bobby Fisher,” about a young chess wiz. This scene stands as one of my top ten favorite scenes ever. You have to see the whole movie for the “trick or treat” reference to have its full impact, but you gotta love the suspense this director was able to create in a game that could be a boring spectator sport for the uninitiated:

“You’ve lost, you just don’t know it.” Ahhh, I LOVE this movie. That scene makes my eyes water every time.

Please share this if you believe the story of these three young black chess players who are friends and rivals in a world where they are considered a “curiosity” would make an awesome movie.

By Kathleen Cross for rollingout.com

(Originally published 11/2012)


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