When we think of the word ‘determination,’ one person’s face automatically pops into our minds: Kassa Martei Korley. A current student at Duke University, Kassa is also a National Master and FIDE Master in chess. What exactly blows our minds? Kassa became National Master at just 15-years-old. With intense focus, daily practice, and serious determination, Kassa committed himself to learning, understanding, and mastering chess – without the help of a coach. What’s more impressive is that he did this while also committing himself to being well-rounded by balancing chess with school, basketball, friends, family, and studying abroad in Denmark. Despite being incredibly busy working to fulfill his dreams, Kassa is thoughtful, kind, and generous, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce you to our definition of ‘determined:’ Kassa Martei Korley.
Name: Kassa Martei Korley
Education: Duke University, Danish Institute for Study Abroad
How do you define seizing your youth?
I think it’s important to have certain passions and to pursue them. As crazy as that sounds, I think what happens – especially in the United States – is that we have a cycle of education starting when we are pretty young and sometimes it is tough to fully pursue what you want to do because you’re worried about the next step and the next stage. Stressing about getting into a good high school and then getting into a good college – it’s like “When do you stop and have time for yourself?” So I think seizing your youth would be about putting in the time to pursue things you really enjoy.
How did you figure out what your passions were?
When I was five years old, that was a big year for me because chess and basketball came together. I was introduced to both of those games when I was that age. I guess I could say that when I was young my dad would always push me to do what I wanted to do and not be afraid. I can distinctly remember on some weekends going with him and playing both chess and basketball with some older kids at the park. I was scared and tentative about doing anything but he forced me to go out there and play with kids who were older than me. Once I got over the initial hesitance, I found my passions.
You are also a talented athlete. Do the two converge and how so?
I could say that they’re pretty different and they converge only in a tiny way. I’m not going to say that basketball and chess were made for each other, and that being really good at chess helps me on the basketball court, because it doesn’t. I really enjoy both of them and I think that when you’re playing basketball, a lot of it is about being athletic. But I was always a point guard or shooting guard, and when you’re playing that position you have to think about what the defense is going to do and think a little bit ahead about how you will react to whatever you see in front of you.
Has basketball helped you at all with chess or vice versa?
I think working with basketball and seeing different patterns helps with the chess side. And on the flip side, when you’re playing chess and you’re playing really long games – they can last from 3-6 hours long – you do need to have that physical stamina at the board so that you’re not making silly mistakes in the last hour and a half of the game because you’ve been thinking and working at the board for that long.
How do you deal with failure?
A lot of times – at least for me – I hate to lose so there’s a brief period where you question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Sometimes I question why I’ve been playing this long. It’s a crazy thing to say because a body of work has nothing to do with just one game, but sometimes you go to that extreme. And then you pull yourself back and think, “What did I learn from this?”
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned from competing?
My grandma would take me to most of my chess tournaments, and especially at the national tournaments she always had an emphasis on “win, lose, or draw, you always learn something.” It’s something I really took to heart because whenever you lose, or it’s not perfect, it’s all about analyzing what you did right or what you did wrong, and thinking about how you can become better.
Where do you see yourself after you graduate?
I’m excited to graduate because then I’ll have the chance to make the push towards becoming Grandmaster (GM). I feel like I need to set time aside for myself to pursue that dream and make it a reality. I have to do it. Some people find out much later in life what they’re trying to do – what their purpose is – but my purpose is to be a GM.
What does succeeding in chess mean to you?
I feel like I have a responsibility to “make it” so that I can come back to my community – I’m from Harlem – and show kids that they can do this and to show it’s possible. Because most people would say that my journey wouldn’t have even been possible, and I think achieving GM could build a lot of momentum for kids, especially African American kids, who perhaps didn’t think they had that opportunity. But they can look at my story and see a path to follow and say “Maybe I can become a GM.” It’s not even about me anymore, to be honest.
What was it like to become a National Master at the tender age of 15?
It’s interesting because it was a big achievement but it’s not like there aren’t some other national masters floating around the states – there are a decent amount. But for me it was the perspective of being the youngest black master ever. And more than anything it shed light on how underrepresented African Americans were in the game of chess. And since then it’s gotten a lot better. But to get back to your question, dealing with the success – I think because nothing ever came easy for me, there are certain circumstances for me that make my story unique. I’ve never had a coach, ever. I don’t think anyone else has gotten to my strength without having a coach.
That must have meant putting in even more time than you otherwise would have with a coach?
That’s right. I had a healthy obsession with chess where I really, really wanted to get better. So it was about “How do I get better?” It was a lot of playing in public parks, honing my skills. I couldn’t then and I still can’t travel to play chess the way I would like to. I started more locally, played and followed all the top games of the strongest players in the world. So I knew all of their games and styles really well and from there it was about looking at their games and seeing patterns and things I liked and then implementing them in my own game.
Although you’ve never had a coach yourself, you sometimes act as a coach for younger players. What would you say to younger people who want to pursue something in the same way you’ve pursued chess?
Chess is where I got my self-confidence, as crazy as that sounds. If you put in the time and do the work that nobody else is doing, then you’re going to become good at it even if you’re not initially good at it. It’s funny because I haven’t found other endeavors where I could truly say I’ve worked as hard at or have been as successful at. But that’s exactly it – if you are really interested in something and work hard at it, you can take it as far as you want to go.
What advice would you give your 15-year old self?
I probably would have told myself that the journey is going to be more important than the destination. Because I’m still not anywhere near where I want to be with chess. It’s frustrating that I’m not a GM yet. When I was 13 I said “I’ll be a GM when I’m 15” and then when I was 15 I said “I’ll be a GM when I’m 20” and now I’m saying I’ll be a GM before I’m 25. And I’m confident that I will be able to become a GM, but still, nothing is guaranteed and sometimes things don’t work out the way you expect them to, and that’s an important perspective. So the journey will take a little bit of time, but you’ll get there.
What do you wish you had known before starting college?
I think I would have told myself to explore more and to try more things than I have. And I don’t mean to sound pessimistic at all, but I look back on the first two years and think that I probably haven’t done as much with my university’s resources afforded to me there. Anything I haven’t been able to do before college I should have tried to do while in college, simply because you’re in a space with a lot of resources and can explore that space.
What made you decide to study abroad?
I knew I was going to study abroad actually because I was intent on keeping my Danish citizenship, and I needed to stay here for a period of time to do that. So it meant I knew I was going to study specifically in Copenhagen.
What has been the main drawback and main takeaway from your experience in Denmark?
I’ve really enjoyed the time here, it has flown and I think it’s been the most fun I’ve had so far during my college career. You’re meeting a lot of different people from different universities, but you also get a little bit of international flavor. Also you step back and people seem like they are happier and more relaxed. I guess I’ve gotten a fresh perspective on life and I appreciate that. And I guess drawback… I think I would have liked to meet more Danish people by now, people I could call up and hangout with. I would definitely recommend studying abroad if you can afford to do it and if you have the chance to, you absolutely should. You lose perspective when you’re in college and a lot of things pass you by when you’re in that atmosphere, but you lose that global perspective that can be really valuable to you.