This Gorgeous Ad Takes You Into the Brilliant Mind of the World’s First Black Chess Grandmaster

Cognac brand tells the story of how Maurice Ashley pushed the limits of his mind to make history

Droga5 ad depicts chess as a thrilling and intense intellectual martial art. Hennessy

Maurice Ashley, a Jamaican American, made history in 1999 by becoming the world’s first Black chess grandmaster—a coveted title that takes years of intense practice and tremendous intellect to attain.

In its latest creative from Droga5, Hennessy profiles Ashley and his remarkable skill as part of the cognac brand’s wider “What’s Your Wild Rabbit?” campaign, which has been running since 2011 and spotlights great, daring and record-breaking characters from history, exploring what drives success.

At the center of the campaign, titled “Maurice Ashley and the Black Bear School,” is a beautifully crafted five-minute film, narrated by hip-hop star Nas. It tells the story of how Ashley fell in love with chess as a young man in Brooklyn (staying inside to study chess, he says in the film, as bullets were flying outside) to become the first Black grandmaster in more than 1,000 years of competitive chess.

It shows how Ashley learned his skill among other gifted Black men at a local chess club, called the Black Bear School—a now “largely forgotten” part of New York City Black history, according to Droga5.

The film was directed by Daniel Wolfe, who also made Hennessy’s acclaimed 2016 spot “The Piccards.” Details from the period, including characters and their clothes, were “meticulously” recreated using archive photographs and interviews with surviving members. The film also features original 1990s graffiti in the background, and parts of the film were shot on cameras from the decade.

Music plays a prominent role in the campaign’s narrative as well, with a decided mixtape vibe.

“The soundtrack touches not only on the hip-hop of the era, but also the jazz and soul records the older members of the Black Bear School used to play during matches, before crescendoing in an extract from Mozart’s ‘Requiem,’ a key element of the soundtrack to Amadeus, the study of the development of the mind of another genius and Maurice’s favorite movie,” said Alexander Nowak, Droga5’s global head of art.

Chess as a thrilling intellectual martial art

The creative depicts chess as a thrilling and intense martial art requiring mental and intellectual greatness, where Ashley pushes the limits of his mind’s potential and is locked in a competition with himself to “Never Stop. Never Settle,” Hennessy’s brand mantra. His patience, the film shows, is not a virtue but a “weapon.”

“The challenge with chess is that with all these pieces, the possibilities are incredibly complex,” Ashley says in the film. “There are more possibilities in chess than atoms in the observable universe.”

The campaign also has a series of short 15-second edits, all of which put a spotlight on “Black intellect and brilliance.” It will run on TV, digital and social channels.

“The next installment of the ‘Wild Rabbit’ campaign comes at a time of momentous social significance, and the relevance of Ashley’s story—his mental agility, intellectual integrity and ability to harness intellect to move the game forward—provides inspiration to all the thinkers, visionaries and doers who continue to propel a more inclusive future,” said Giles Woodyer, senior vice president of Hennessy U.S.

Ashley added: “Chess teaches the importance of strategic thinking and pushes the limits of intellect—not just in the game, but in life. It’s impossible to speak to the joy and deep sense of satisfaction that achieving the Grandmaster title gave me, and to be recognized for that accomplishment as part of Hennessy’s ‘Wild Rabbit’ campaign is both exciting and humbling.”

@saramayspary Sara Spary is a freelance journalist based in London. She's been a reporter for eight years, covering advertising and consumer brands.