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African-American Chess Masters Making Move to Next Level

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim


From left, James Black Jr., Joshua Colas and Justus Williams are chess masters from New York and headed to Webster University on full or partial scholarships to join its top-ranked chess team.

From left, James Black Jr., Joshua Colas and Justus Williams are chess masters from New York and headed to Webster University on full or partial scholarships to join its top-ranked chess team.

Several years ago, Joshua Colas, Justus Williams and James Black Jr. all made history and headlines when they became the youngest African-American chess players to attain the rank of master—a feat they all achieved before the age of 13.

“Masters of the Game and Leaders By Example,” proclaimed a 2011 article about the trio that appeared in The New York Times.

Since then, all three have progressed in lockstep fashion to the top of the American chess scene. For instance, as of this month, Colas, Williams and Black—who all hail from the New York City area—were ranked as the 4th, 9th and 17th top chess players, respectively, in the age 17 category in the United States, according to online records maintained by the United States Chess Federation.

This month, all three players discovered that staying at the top of their game has paid off in a major way.

In an exclusive interview with Diverse, the three high school seniors revealed that next fall they are all headed to Webster University—home of the No. 1 ranked collegiate chess team in the United States—on full or partial scholarships.

The move is one that is “cause for celebration on many levels,” said Daaim Shabazz, associate professor of international business at Florida A&M University and editor of The Chess Drum, a website devoted to highlight chess within the African Diaspora.

“Their pending admissions open a new chapter in the history of chess as it relates to the African Diaspora and provides a path for their evolution, not only as aspiring Grandmasters but as mature men with a purpose in life,” Shabazz told Diverse. “To have an opportunity to earn a scholarship, enjoy the college experience and also pursue chess ambitions is a fortuitous position to be in.”

Indeed, during a recent visit to Washington, D.C., where they gave a simultaneous exhibition—an event in which they all played multiple players at once—the three young chess masters expounded on the opportunities that await them as incoming freshmen at Webster University, located in St. Louis, Mo., which is regarded as the National Chess Capital.

“Financially, our parents are very happy they don’t have to pay $70,000 just for us to go to school,” said Colas, who plans to study computer science. “Instead, I get to go to college for free because of a God-given talent. To get that opportunity is something that I can’t miss out on.”

Colas, who was the first of the three to commit to Webster, said it’s an added bonus being able to go to Webster with his longtime compadres in chess.

“To go to school together it’s a big encouragement since we all grew up playing chess together at a young age and going to tournaments and making good friends with each other,” Colas said. “To go to college with each other (is) something I look forward to.”

Colas and Williams said they both received full scholarships.

Williams—who turned down a full scholarship he won to UMBC, another collegiate chess powerhouse—said the chess scholarship shows that there are more ways for African-American students who lack the finances to pay for higher education to get a full ride to college beyond more traditional sports. Williams said he plans to major in communications and has an interest in activism.

“It doesn’t have to be basketball or music. That’s not the only way that us Black people can find a way out to make something better of ourselves,” Williams said. “We don’t have to automatically go to one of those fields. Chess is just another way to succeed. It doesn’t have to be chess but there’s other ways to succeed in fields that can offer the things that chess offers.”

Black, who said he is being admitted to Webster on a partial scholarship, said he is looking forward to a “new chapter in life and to be able to continue to play chess is just amazing.”

“Education is still first. It got us into college, which is great,” Black said of chess.

“So basically, it’s one more step, then we’re off to our actual careers and things,” said Black, who said he is undecided on a major. “It’s definitely a big help.”

Susan Polgar, head of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence at Webster University and coach of the school’s championship team, said she met Colas, Williams and Black several years ago through connections in New York City, where she used to live.

“It is not uncommon for friends to go to the same university but this is a very special case,” Polgar said. “I believe these three young men are talented. I hope to be able to get the most out of them so they can reach their fullest potentials.”

Polgar said her hope is that Colas, Williams and Black will all become International Masters and Grandmasters, which are the next highest ranks after master.

Although the three will be attending Webster, Polgar said that does not guarantee them a spot on the A-Team.

“I do not recruit particular players for the championship team,” Polgar said. “Everyone has to compete to earn one of the top four to six spots each year.”

That won’t be an easy feat or something that necessarily happens freshman year. Polgar said the average chess rating of Webster’s top five players next year will be around 2730, which is a high rating, even for grandmasters.

The average rating of the next five players is expected to be around 2520, Polgar said, and the next group’s average is expected to be around 2410.

Colas is rated as 2478. Williams is rated as 2408, and Black is rated as 2272.

“So as you can see, they will have plenty of training partners and opportunity to improve,” Polgar said.

Shabazz, of The Chess Drum, said he expects nothing less.

“St. Louis has become a catalyst for chess excellence, and Webster University will provide all three with opportunities to succeed while they support each other personally, socially and academically,” Shabazz said.

Shabazz assigned even greater significance to the trio’s decision to matriculate together at Webster.

“This development will certainly have global implications and be the subject of a lot of media attention throughout the chess world,” Shabazz said. “The African Diaspora may see that such an academic model (with chess as a component) can provide a self-affirming environment and the idea that three of these young men are from New York and have known each other since childhood increases the chances of their success.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim — the 2013 Chess Journalist of the Year — can be reached at dcwriter360@yahoo.com or you can follow him @dcwriter360.