ASHEBORO — Black and white pieces fly across a checkered landscape as the clock ticks ominously. His brain is racing and his heart is pumping. Each breath is quick and shallow as his eyes scan the board.
It’s been more than three hours and William Morrison is one game away from achieving international chess master status.
A crowd of whispering spectators has gathered around him, watching his every move. It’s rare to see an African American who has advanced to the upper echelons of the chess elite, especially in a sport traditionally dominated by Russians, Ukranians, Chinese and Israelis.
Morrison watches his opponent with a hawkish gaze and scrawls on a pad containing an ever-growing jumble of letters and numbers, a running list of every move made in the game.
Another hour goes by, chess pieces shuffle — and Morrison pounds the clock one last time.
Morrison breathes a sigh of relief as he stands up and shakes his opponent’s hand amid cheers. After nine exhausting games over the course of five days, Morrison beat all the expert-level players at the World Open in Philadelphia.
While Morrison grew up playing chess on the benches of New York City’s Washington Square Park, his mother was born and raised in North Carolina.
Willie Gladden, a friend of Morrison’s mother, convinced Morrison to be part of a unique event at Asheboro’s Public Works Building this week. On Thursday at 6 p.m., kids of all ages can play each other and get some practice. The top 20 contestants will end up playing Morrison at the ChessMaster Event on Friday at 8 p.m. in the same location.
Morrison will play 20 separate games at once, going from board to board across the room as fast as he can. It may seem impossible to keep track of that many games, but for Morrison and many other top chess players, the moves on a chessboard are like second nature.
However, reaching that point took blood, sweat, and tears. Well, more like books, sweat, and tears.
When he was a kid, the hardest part about moving was lugging his boxes of chess books. He studied everything he could get his hands on. Morrison recalls pawing through more than 500 books about chess over the course of his adolescence.
His regular vernacular includes phrases like Sicilian Defence, Fianchetto and Ruy Lopez. Chess players are historians of sorts, tracing the steps of other players from centuries ago. In the cardinal game that made Morrison a chess master, his opponent opened with the Sicilian Defence, which was first scrawled onto a manuscript by an Italian chess player in 1594.
William’s father taught him chess when he was 6 years old, and Morrison was competing in tournaments by the time he finished elementary school. At the time, Morrison points out, chess wasn’t a big part of Black culture. Even today, there are only about 50 Black chess masters in the United States.
One of the reasons is this: Chess tournaments are expensive. Paying for flights, hotels and fees for competitions can quickly add up — especially for a young chess player with limited means. Morrison had the opportunity to play in Canada and Europe, but he remembers the big financial burden of traveling. He tried to stay as local as possible.
Chess player and journalist Daaim Shabazz has pointed out that people of African descent are often questioned for their intelligence. He once was asked whether Africans were intelligent enough to be grandmasters.
Shabazz suggests that more Black mentors, role models and tournament organizers could change the racial landscape of chess.
Despite Shabazz’s concerns, Morrison is optimistic about a shift he observed in the chess world in the past few years.
Morrison noticed a huge push to teach chess in schools all over the country. In his hometown of New York City, a program called Chess in the Schools has taught half a million students in 48 schools.
Morrison, once known as “The Exterminator” to competitors, now teaches children how to play chess in Baltimore.
There are 65 schools in Baltimore that participate in chess programs, many of which are in the inner city and reaching minority populations.