Profiles / Rising S.T.E.M. Stars

The Young Masters

It’s not every day that you run into a national chess master. Meeting a teenage chess master is even less likely. But if you happen by the Marshall Chess Club in New York’s Greenwich Village, you may find yourself in the presence of a collection of masters. The beautiful, historic townhouse located at 23 West 10th Street is an important part of New York’s rich chess culture. World-class chess players find their way to the Marshall Chess Club to compete with players who are passionate about chess and whose strategies can amount to sublime genius. After all, it’s where Bobby Fischer played.
These days, a new generation of chess masters occupies the tables that line the walls of the Marshall Chess Club. And a handful of the National Masters who meet at the Marshall Chess Club are making history as the youngest African Americans to become certified Masters with the U.S Chess Federation.
Meet Justus Williams, Joshua Colas and James A. Black Jr. All three young men are a part of that chess culture and all three became National Masters before their thirteenth birthdays.
“Masters don’t happen every day, and African-American masters who are 12 never happen,” said Maurice Ashley in a recent article in the New York Times. Ashley, 45, is the only African-American to earn the top title of International Grand Master. “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.”
Young African American chess masters are not unheard of. Chess prodigy Kassa Korley, also of New York, is steadily moving toward becoming an International Master after earning his NM certification at the age of 15. Nigel Bryant has already reached “expert” level and is quickly closing in on his twin brother’s status as master. Jehron Bryant became a National Master at the age of 15.
Chess playing among youth in the African American community is not extremely common. But through programs like Chess in the Schools, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to improving academic performance and building self-esteem in inner city children, participants in Title 1 schools are encouraged to cultivate an appetite and passion for The Royal Game. The goal of the program is to develop their ability to think analytically and to engage in competitive endeavors while maintaining their sportsmanship. Through the Chess in the Schools program, kids are motivated to learn.
The young masters know each other and balance their roles as competitors and friends. Both Justus Williams and James A. Black Jr. participate in the Chess in the Schools program through Intermediate School 318 in South Williamsburg (Brooklyn), a school that is known for producing outstanding young chess players. Joshua Colas attends White Plains Middle School.
“The Geeks are the heroes,” James says of his experience at IS 318. “You get a lot of respect for playing chess. We’re basically the best junior high chess team in the country.”
Justus was the first of the three to earn the title of National Master in September 2010. At the time, he was the youngest African American to ever do so. Joshua followed quickly in December of 2010 and as Joshua was a few months younger than even Justus when he earned the rank of master, he then became the youngest African American to earn the NM rank. James was 12 when he earned his NM certification in July of 2011.

Justus Williams, 13, National Master, Junior Ranking 86/35580 (top .2%)

Justus confesses to being the most aggressive player of the three, preferring competition to practice. He attends IS 318 in part because of their outstanding partnership with the Chess in the Schools program. It took Justus four years to go from novice to master. Shawn Smith started coaching Justus when Justus was in the 3rd grade, reporting that he won the first six games in which he ever competed in 3rd grade. Recently, Justus won the blitz tournament at the 15th U.S. Chess School, earning him the right to play a recorded game against International Master Greg Shahade and Grand Master Gregory Kaidanov. He’s noted as being a strong student who works very hard.

Joshua Colas, 13, National Master, Junior Ranking 142/35580 (top .4%)

Joshua is said to be the most unpredictable player of the three young masters. Early on in his chess career, he found himself having a bit of trouble with his openings and took the initiative to study openings diligently. Today, he’s known to change up his openings during tournaments. A student at White Plans Middle School, Joshua spends hours a day on chess, but still finds time for the other things he likes like basketball, video games and music, serving as a cellist in the school orchestra. Joshua was only 7 years old when he entered his first chess tournament. In October 2008, the U.S Chess Federation ranked him #5 in the nation among 9-year old chess players. In October 2009, he was #3 in the nation among 10-year-olds. In October 2010, the U.S. Chess Federation ranked him #4 in the nation among 11-year-olds. In December 2010, Joshua became a certified Chess Master. Joshua is working to become a Grand Master before he graduates from high school.

James A. Black Jr., 12, National Master, Junior Ranking 74/35580 (top .2%)

James lives in Brooklyn Bed-Stuy and attends IS 318. For six hours a day, he studies chess. He wants to become a Grand Master by the age of 16. He admits to having moments where he would prefer to be a “regular kid” and go outside and play with the other kids in his neighborhood. Still, achieving the rank of National Master at such a young age has taught him that hard work does pay off. It was James’ father, James Sr., who first taught him the game of chess, and within weeks, James Jr. was repeatedly besting his father in the game. The floor of the family living room is crowded with trophies that couldn’t fit on the walls, where more trophies and metals are prominently displayed as reminders of James Jr.’s incredible success. James Jr. is said to be an engaging young master, as friendly as he is genius and without the hindrance of poor sportsmanship.

Jehron Bryant , 15, National Master, Junior Ranking 120(T) out of 35580 (.3%)

Jehron began learning the game of chess with his twin brother Nigel, on his father’s knee. It was Derrick Bryant who is credited with imparting into his two young sons the patience and skill to master the game at the age of four. Jehron attends VS Central High School in Long Island, New York. Jehron says that he got interested in chess because, “My dad had this cool-looking ninja set. My brother and I loved those pieces when were younger and every chance we got would try to play with them.” Like the other young masters, Jehron’s strategy is a daily routine which includes hours of studying the art and theory behind the game. He became a certified National Master in September 2011.

Kassa Korley, 16, National Master, Junior Ranking 29/35580 (top .08%)

“Your game talks; not your mouth.”
It’s the statement Kassa boldly makes and one which he is consistently able to back up when he plays. Kassa has been called a prodigy and watchers are hopeful that he and the other young masters can draw more young African Americans into the game. Poised, charming and well-spoken, Kassa sports a refreshing confidence that comes from hard work, commitment and passion. He is a superb strategist with a bit of youthful swag that engages both players and spectators alike. He is a member of Masters and Hustlers and his love of chess rivals his love for basketball just a bit. “He’s the future,” said International Master Jay Bonin. Kassa has not had a consistent coach, but has cultivated his skills by playing in public games around New York, learning from the “oldheads and hustlers.” The draw: The absolute beauty of the game.
Chess can be an expensive endeavor, with coaching session costing more than $100/hr. Earning the title of Master is an accomplishment that only 1% of chess players attain. There are ongoing tournaments at the state, national and international levels and participation in the events can become cost prohibitive. The families of the young masters either have to find sponsors or cover the expenses themselves. Chess funds have been set up for Justus Williams and Joshua Colas.