My name is Jeffrey Ashton. I have been teaching chess in Houston since 2003. I opened Panda Chess Academy a few years later. Before I moved to Houston, I was coaching chess in Dallas.
I was born and raised in Ann Arbor Michigan (home of the University of Michigan). I learned how to play chess in 4th grade. I got serious about chess in 7th grade. I received the title of "Master" after my 70th tournament, Junior year in High School.
The University of Texas at Dallas offered me a full-ride chess scholarship, so I moved to Richardson, Texas. I estimate that about 10 people before me have received scholarships for playing chess (in the United States). Looking back at it, my chess scholarship was amazing. They paid for everything a college student needs. But the unique thing: whenever I wanted to go to a chess tournament, they would pay for my airfare, hotel, and food. University of Maryland in Baltimore County and University of Texas at Dallas were the only two chess schools at the time. Since then, more schools started giving out chess scholarships. To get a chess scholarship, you need excellent grades while being good at chess. When I got my scholarship, I wouldn't say my high school grades were excellent, but I was pretty good at chess compared to most applicants. Now it's more competitive.
I played really well for UTD. I tried really hard, because for the first time in my life, I was playing chess for a team. Chess is usually played on an individual level. I think I won my first 10 games in a row, and Dr. Tim Redman (professor at UTD, former USCF president, and the guy who started their chess scholarship program) gave me a cool nickname of Iron Man. Years later, Disney and Marvel made a movie about me.
During my Freshman year, I helped our team win the Pan-Am Championship. But the real highlight of my college career, was sophomore year. I helped our team win the first FINAL FOUR OF CHESS. I won all of my games. The Final Four teams were University of Texas at Dallas, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Harvard, and Stanford.
After graduating from University of Texas at Dallas with a degree in Psychology, I was offered opportunities to coach chess in some schools in Houston. Three schools got together and asked me to move to Houston (T.H. Rogers, West University Elementary School, and Annunciation Orthodox Academy, and then very shortly after, I got recruited by Village School). I coached chess full time in Houston for a few years, and then I opened up the Panda Chess Academy at the location we are still in now (but we expanded/moved to larger offices twice). I wanted to create a full-time chess academy and club for scholastic players only. Shortly after moving to Houston, I visited a local chess club called "The Houston Chess Club," which was a fine place, but not great for young kids. The first time visiting, a local character was drinking an adult beverage while playing a kid, on a Sunday morning. I believe he had his drink in a paper bag. Before this, I don't know if I've ever seen this kind of thing before outside of Washington Square Park in New York. As a high schooler and college student, I did a lot of traveling for chess, and I never saw or heard of a chess club for kids only. So opening Panda Chess Academy was something different. From a business perspective, why say no to adults? Most chess clubs had mainly adult members. Luckily, scholastic chess grew, and I had to move to larger locations twice. By the way, almost every person I talked to told me it was a bad idea to open Panda Chess Academy. But I opened it anyway. It was a little scary, and their advice was on the back of my mind for years. Business started off very slow, and on top of that, I was greeted by a big hurricane that wiped out our first location for a while. My whole plan was to offer a very consistent and efficient chess tournament experience, and never stop running tournaments, even if no one comes.
I've been a Master for over 20 years now. This is barely over half of my life. I never lost interest in chess, and I never even considered taking a break from it. I see myself as a very good and talented (I know it sounds odd to use the word talent for someone my age) chess player, who is taking a break from tournaments.
If I ever "retire," I will still teach chess.
I do enjoy other things. I really like to read, follow sports, and lift weights (lately I've been doing indoor rowing, and trying to kayak a few times a year - I'm not like super passionate about this hobby, but it's just something to do). As a kid/teenager, I loved to play and watch sports (basketball, baseball, football, and a little tennis). My mom made me do Tae Kwon Do (she is Korean) and play piano. I did Tae Kwon Do and Piano from about Kindergarten until senior year in high school, but my passion was in chess. In high school I tried to join the wrestling team (I don't remember why), and while participating in what was basically a "Royal Rumble," I broke my collar bone. I am kind of grateful that my wrestling career ended so early so I could focus on chess.
One thing that is great about chess: People are very supportive of chess (and it feels like I'm just playing a fun game). I never got in trouble for playing too much chess. I got to travel to different states and countries for chess tournaments. I made a lot of friends all around the world that I still keep in touch with. When I was in high school, I got a $3500 check for winning a chess tournament. I remember buying a Sony CD Player, and then realizing I still had a lot of money left over to put in savings. I still talk to my old coaches regularly (I had great coaches!). I think the thing that really drew me to chess, was the independence a chess player gets. No one around me knows much about chess, so they kind of let me do my own thing, which is nice for a young person.
As I write this, some of my students (since moving to Houston) are graduating college working and getting married. Every year, some old students come to visit me. I get a little nervous about these visits (I'm kind of shy). But I am so happy to have caring students. Or maybe I'm happy because I think they miss chess and they want to get back into it. One of the first questions I ask these visiting students, kind of jokingly, is "did your parents make you visit me?" They always say no, but I'm not sure. I do think that no one who has ever loved chess really quits chess. The great thing about chess is you can stop playing for 4 years (because you are busy STUDYING in college) then come back and pick up where you left off. Almost always, this "rusty" player is actually better at chess now, because they are older and wiser (life experience, brain development, increased attention span, maturity, etc).
I really appreciate all of the students and parents that I have met over the years. I really appreciate new parents who are learning about chess. There is one thing that I dislike. There is one thing that I don't know if I will ever get over. It is the feeling that I am coming off as arrogant or disrespectful to a parent who wants to talk to me, when I'm really actually busy. Plus, I'm naturally a little shy talking to parents, because I have never grown to be comfortable talking about the business part of chess. Also, when I'm around the parent, I'm usually at a chess tournament, where I need to whisper, the communication extra tough. So I have missed a lot of chances to have great conversations with great people over the years, and then I worry about offending a parent. Chess parents are really nice to me, and they don't share negative criticism, but I imagine that someone might have assumed I'm arrogant, and I can pretty much guarantee that a percentage of them think I'm a weirdo! I don't know if this helps, but I am pretty good about answering emails that seek chess advice. Feel free to email me: email@example.com.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I am married to an optometrist, Edna Chang Ashton, and we recently welcomed baby Jeffrey David Ashton, born March 12, 2019 (note to self, I should fact check this, date because what kind of father isn't sure about his son's birthday?). Updated 6/21/2019