Celebrating Black Excellence: An Interview With NM Jerald Times

Celebrating Black Excellence: An Interview With NM Jerald Times

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In this last article celebrating Black History Month, I was lucky enough to have an illuminating conversation with the legendary New York City coach NM Jerald Times. You can see the full interview below:

You can also see a few of the interview's highlights:

On learning chess growing up:

"Unlike today, where you have this incredible social network, you can play anybody in the world. At that time, you had to play someone in your community. I eventually moved back to Harlem, and I started playing chess players. But I really didn't have the resources to play top tournaments consistently and didn't have the resources for private lessons. 

So most of us were autodidact, meaning we were self-taught chess players, and most of our knowledge and experience came through books as opposed to computers and databases that we use today. 

It was really quite a different time, but there was a lot of passion for the game, and surprisingly several of us made chess masters even in that generation with limited resources. Today, there's going to be an explosion of talent worldwide, but definitely within the African-American community."

On having a trainer:

"Having a trainer accelerates your learning curve much faster. I eventually took some lessons only for about three months with GM Miron Sher, he was a tremendous trainer, and I do think that there's a certain type of heuristics or shortcuts that trainers give you so you won't get frustrated. Yes, you can be autodidact, you can even learn on your own, but it takes much longer, whereas having training traditionally, you go much faster."

On playing online vs. over the board:

"The most powerful thing of this generation is the social network, meaning that you can play at home, you can play anybody in the world, whereas as a player in Harlem or as a player in New York at the time, I had a limited pool of players, which I think is radically different from this generation. I definitely applaud this technology."

"I mentioned the social network, but the irony of playing in parks is that you did meet people. The trash-talking, the improvisational skills that you got from playing so many different players, and the whole nurturing within the community. A lot of the other players, they would get to see the chess masters play, and everyone would hover around. And there was a kind of vicarious learning that you achieved. 

I would be in the parks; I would watch grandmasters play. So you learn not only through your games, but you learn by observing the games. And that was something about the park setting. And then there was this beautiful exchange of information, this exchange of ideas, and you learn the secrets."

On chess:

"Chess is an information game, and at a certain point, if you don't have the information, irrespective of your talents, you're not going to flourish at the board."

On chess as an educational tool:

"Most of the time, chess was in the private sector. (...) It was [in] the more affluent schools, the white schools downtown. They knew the power of the game in terms of cognitive development. But it was not yet an inner city thing.

Once this money started pouring in, (...) we had an emerging star in GM Maurice Ashley, who eventually became a grandmaster. But more importantly, we saw these three black kids on the front page of the New York Times—and like, 'Hold up, chess is for black people?'

At that particular time, that was huge because now there was an emphasis and resources inside the inner city. Going in there initially, I did not really know the power of chess, but there was a 1993 study, (...) that showed a positive correlation between chess and reading skills. That's important because we always knew the relationship between chess and math skills, but one of the emphases of bringing chess inside of these schools is that it increased reading scores."

"You're a chess player; you know the power. You have to read books to become better. The focus skills that you need, the fact you can say that test-taking skills and chess skills are almost identical: It requires continued attention, it requires memory, it requires focus. So, a chess player who's playing tournaments for hours every weekend, and you put them on a two-hour SAT? Huge advantage for chess players, and they tend to outperform non-chess players in standardized testing."

On African-Americans becoming grandmasters:

"Inside the United States, there are some people on the brink. (...) I would consider Farai Mandizha of Zimbabwe on the brink, living here in New York. I would consider you on the brink of becoming a grandmaster. There's up-and-coming talent like FM James Canty, FM Joshua Colas. Any of you can make grandmaster. But the economics and the practicality of your everyday existence and making the grandmaster title don't always coincide.

If you give any of you the resources... If you give Farai, Kassa Korley, Joshua Colas, IM Justus Williams the resources, you guys are going to make grandmaster overnight. So I still think that the divide in the community. And by the way, Maurice, as talented as he was and as powerful as he was, he had a philanthropist behind him that allowed him to make grandmaster.

"Kassa, you're a basketball player as well. They did a study recently on basketball players. There's this conception that these basketball players rise from the inner cities and become these NBA athletes. When they found out, actually, they are from the middle class. I mean, they usually have a mother and a father around.

There are economic support structures, they can afford some of the training camps. So even in sports, it is the same thing. There is no divide between that innercity and the African-American talent in basketball, except that in basketball, we have the superstructures to support their development all the way through, whereas, in chess, we do not have those superstructures to support the development of up-and-coming talent.

So your point is well taken. Maybe FM Tani Adewumi and FM Brewington Hardaway should be in more than normal classes. These prodigies are able to evolve at an early age. They can make GM, let's say, before the age of 18, before it becomes conflicting as an adult when you have peripheral responsibilities that do not allow you to achieve these norms as quickly as possible."

On his coaching career and its impact:

"We really want to show that inner-city children could win nationals. That's what that was, the symbolism of the Raging Rooks. David MacEnulty's Knights of the South Bronx—again, inner-city school winning the national championship. We can pass the torch to 318 inner-city children winning national championships, and so forth. It was not just enough to teach inner-city children. We wanted to produce masters, we wanted to produce national champions. And now the push is to produce grandmasters. The evolution is quite significant."

On coaching:

"A good coach will correct your moves, and a great coach will correct your thinking. Part of the magic of coaching is holding a mirror up to a child so they can see their own thinking. Sometimes you made the move because you were overconfident, you were dismissive of your opponent. This kind of self-analysis, self-awareness, is part of the cognitive process, and it helps to accelerate the learning curve as players. Many games are lost because you didn't know the 14th move of the Ruy Lopez, or because you couldn't execute a rook and pawn endgame. Yes, of course, these are technical things that you need to win chess games. But games are also lost because of lack of self-knowledge."

"There are some laws of winning positions and some laws of losing positions that I think are true. The number one law of a [winning] position, irrespective of the player, is if the position is winning, the position should win. Young people sometimes think, 'because I'm playing a higher-rated player, I should lose this game.' No, I want you to know that the position wins, not the player. 

Another law in the winning position is that if the opponent makes a mistake in the winning position, meaning they don't play the best move, you win the position even faster. 

And finally, the third law of the winning position is that even if the position is winning, but you fail to act upon it, you respond to your chances for victory.

Why are these laws important? Because you're making people responsible, irrespective of the player. It is about your strengths, and recognizing what you're capable of in a particular position. 

And there's only one law of the losing position, which is that I can lose to the world champion ten times in a row as long as I'm learning from each loss. That means the world champion cannot beat me the same way. We say wisdom is not the absence of error. Wisdom is the absence of the same error. 

Wanting to make young people responsible. Yes, if you lost the game, we do have to make adjustments. In terms of the results and their relationship to results, that was significant in the process of them becoming chess players."

On fostering new talent within the African-American community:

"I think it's also about cultural values. I mean, if we see the power of developing chess players, we'll spend more time, investment, and resources. But definitely, yes. Number one, we need more philanthropists to identify the talent, nurture the talent, and push it. And number two we need more chess in the schools, superstructures that can develop the talent."

On how he would approach chess as a player today:

"Today, there are computer skill sets. Number one, we have analyzing engines. Before, we used human analysis, so that's much faster. Number two, we have databases by which we can learn about openings, and where to go. What are the key plans? We can begin to identify the plans. And number three, we have the internet. You're going to see a broad level of styles in the game. 

That's radical that we can do these things. If I went back, these are the tools that I would use. I would definitely be more of an aggressive player, as we see from Alphazero; Steinitz said it right: 'The attacking player always wins.'

But a person is who they are; you still have to be true to your nature. Ultimately, you have to find yourself. Part of the journey of a chess player is finding themselves. Along with that honest assessment of what your style is as a player and using these digital advantages, this is what I would do if I came back as a player."

Previous Black History Month articles:

IM Kassa Korley

Half Danish half American International Master currently residing in New York! Chess isn't a full time gig for me, but I do keep a youtube channel:

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