Friday, January 18, 2008

My background history in chess

Everyone falls into chess in a different way. Many people learn about the game from one of their parents or a sibling. I was first given a cheap plastic chess set when I was five. Like many youngsters I was fascinated with the figurines, which looked like various medieval soldiers in two armies. I played around with them a few times, but I had no one to play with, so the game did not grow on me. I don’t remember what happened to that set, but like many toys I imagine various pieces got lost and eventually my mother probably threw it away.

Chess did not reenter my life until junior high school, when a friend convinced me to visit the chess club to which he belonged. This time I felt a mysterious pull from chess. It did not come from the boards and pieces being used by various students. It came from some chess magazines which the teacher had placed on one table. I never had any idea someone would write a magazine about a game! When I flipped through some pages I saw game scores in a mysterious code that I could not quite understand, though I knew they must be showing what moves were being made. I saw for the first time the terms Grandmaster and Master, and I think it was the idea of an adult, professional world somehow revolving around the game of chess that immediately drew my deeper attention. I never knew it existed, but having learned that it did, I wanted to understand it. Unfortunately, I found that I would have to pay a dollar each time I wanted to visit the club, and since I grew up in a terribly poor family and could not afford this, I could not return anymore. Chess once more disappeared from my life, though this time a small part of it simmered in the back of my mind and wouldn’t go away.

As with so many teenagers, various other sports took center stage in my life. I was absolutely in love with soccer, and I was also a little league baseball pitcher. Chess came back into my life due to a strange twist of fate. In my junior year in high school I went out for the soccer team as I did each year. This year the professional soccer coach was gone for some reason, and an English teacher from the school was filling in as coach. He instituted a strange rule for the tryouts- each person had to put down the position for which he was trying out, and cuts would be made strictly based upon this position list. Naturally I signed up for left wing, which had been my position for ten years. Sadly, the coach’s son also signed up for left wing! He was a tall, gangly kid who was not very coordinated. Needless to say, I did not make the cut. I knew and liked this boy, but I resented the way I was wrongly cut from my beloved sport. Looking back on it now, though, I have to admit that it turned out for the best, as it led me back to chess! For the first time in high school I had nothing to do, so when one of my friends suggested I come to the chess club, I agreed to go.

This time I was hooked immediately. There were about 7 or 8 members of the club, and I discovered that I already knew three of them quite well. They were playing a very fast form of chess that they called ‘blitz’ and used strange two-faced clocks. I was mesmerized, and I knew right away that I wanted to become good at this new sport. Yes, I saw it as a sport right away, as opposed to the ‘game’ that I had always considered chess in the past. Even better, this sport was based around individual talent. I did not need to rely on a whole team to determine whether I would win or lose; it was all up to me. I did not even attempt to play during this first visit to the club, as I knew I could do nothing playing at such a fast speed.

I learned from my friends that there were chess competitions between schools. They told me there would be one in just two weeks. I came to every club meeting. Of course I was thrashed badly in my first games, as I knew next to nothing about how chess was played. A major advantage of being young with few responsibilities is that I could concentrate my attention almost entirely on chess in my free time. I took out books from the library and spent hours poring over them, and I quickly learned the basics. In the first tournament I even managed to win a game. Chess supplanted soccer in my life!

I had joined the chess club when the school year was already drawing to an end, so I got to play in only three tournaments that year. I was disappointed to get so excited over this new form of competition only to have it end so abruptly. Even worse, every other member of the club was graduating, so I was the only member left for the next year. I worried about whether there would even be a club the next year- would enough new members join to enable us to compete in the school tournaments?

I was driven by the knowledge that I would be the only semi-experienced member of the club next season, so all that summer I studied books and imagined to myself that I was becoming a stronger player.

In my senior year of high school I forced the creation of a new club. I made sure the school newspaper ran an ad for the chess club. The coach from last year was gone, so I badgered one of my teachers into agreeing to coach the team. The teacher actually knew nothing about chess, but at least she agreed to oversee our club meetings and drive us to the competitions. I installed myself as the leader of the club. We were one senior, and six freshmen….and our team was very bad! I really had improved over the summer, so even on first board I managed to do quite well, but the rest of the team had nothing but enthusiasm keeping them going. Nevertheless I was never so happy in my life. I was truly enjoying myself, and my only regret was that I had not gotten into chess earlier in my life.

Early Chess Development

During this last year of school I saw an advertisement for a different kind of chess tournament, one that was not for students. The ad was trying to get people to join the US Chess Federation (USCF) by signing up for a tournament, and it said I could have a free chess set if I paid the fees. I still did not own my own set, and I was also intrigued by the idea of a non-scholastic chess tournament, so I signed up. The tournament ended up getting cancelled, but the idea of playing in an adult tournament was too strong to ignore, so in January 1986 I signed up for the Tucson Open. There were three different sections in the tournament- an Open section where the strongest players would play, a Reserve section for players whose USCF ratings fell within a certain range below the stronger players, and a Booster section for the weakest or newest players. As I had no idea how I compared against these adult players, I joined the Booster section.

The tournament was very exciting. There were three different rooms, one for each section. I was drawn to the Open section, fascinated by the interesting looking Masters and their deep, serious looking concentration. Whenever I could, I would wander into the Open section room just to watch. I did quite well in the Booster section, too, with six wins, one draw, and one loss (I played two extra ‘rating’ games). I had even been easily winning the one game I lost, being up a rook, but I managed to blunder the game away.

I entered every tournament I could after this. After winning first place in my second tourney, I decided that Booster sections were too easy, so I moved up to playing in Reserve sections.

I also joined two new chess clubs outside of school. In one of these clubs one day, I overheard the strongest Tucson master, Ken Larsen, speaking excitedly about a young eight year old kid, saying that he thought he was a prodigy who could one day be a Grandmaster. His name was Tal Shaked, a quiet, serious young boy, with an aura about him. I could tell right away that Ken was right, there was something special about this boy. I could not say why I felt this, but nonetheless that is exactly what I felt!

In the first round of my next tournament who should I face but Tal Shaked. I was excited at this opportunity. I focused and played as hard as I could, and we reached an endgame where I was up two pawns and was clearly winning. In fact, I thought the game was ‘over’ and that I could play anything and still win. I learned a harsh lesson when a quick pawn capture on my part allowed a trick where Tal could force a passed pawn that would queen before mine. I lost. As crushed as I felt at this turn of events, the lesson I learned from this game was one of the strongest of the many chess lessons I learned in my life, and I never again took any ‘won’ game for granted.

As I entered college I had to cut back on the amount of chess I could play. Instead of ten or twelve tournaments per year, I could play in only four or five. I measured my advances by my USCF rating, which started out at 1509 (Class C) but quickly moved up to the 1900's (Class A) in just a couple of years. My chess growth roughly paralleled Tal’s, though he still had that aura of special-ness about him. We played each other several times in tourneys, usually drawing, though I managed one nice win. Though this period of chess in Tucson drew to a close in 1993, I took great pleasure in watching from afar as Tal rapidly improved, first winning various US championships, then the World Junior Championship, gaining the Grandmaster title just has Ken Larsen had predicted.

Playing in Russia

Playing against Grandmaster Nigel Short

When I graduated from college, I had to move to Russia in order to begin working at the US embassy. It was chess that led me to my career in the Foreign Service. One cannot read chess literature and fail to notice the dominance of Soviet chess players, and in many of the tourneys in which I participated I got to see Russian Grandmasters playing on the top boards. I knew that I wanted to visit Russia somehow, so I switched my major from engineering to Russian Studies, and when the opportunity came, I signed up to work at the embassy in Moscow.

I have to say that my mother was not so sure I was making the right decisions with my life at that point! Just as I was about to fly to Moscow, members of the Russian Parliament led a coup attempt against President Yeltsin. CNN showed tanks firing on the Russian Parliament building, right across the street from the US embassy, and also showed massive gunfire as an attack was made on a television station. Two weeks later I was in Moscow and could see the blackened and burned Parliament building looming over the embassy compound. The first thing they told me at the embassy was to be aware of possible sniper attacks.

As I settled into the exciting life of living and working in a huge, vibrant, rapidly changing foreign city, my mind, of course, turned to chess. I discovered that the main chess club was within easy walking distance from the embassy, so I paid a visit. I learned the schedules of various chess competitions at the club. There were blitz and rapid tourneys each weekend, and there were real tournaments starting each month and played at two games per week. They were round-robin tourneys, rather than the Swiss style tournaments most common in America. This means that I had to compete against players of about my own playing strength, and I had to play each player in the tourney. In Swiss tournaments there are a set number of rounds, and one rarely plays against players of ones own strength, instead typically playing against players much higher and lower in rating.

My initial chess ‘career’ in America was dominated by learning the openings and playing almost solely for tactical considerations. In Russia everything changed. Despite the fact that I nearly always outplayed my opponents in the openings, I started out losing quite a few games. The Russian players tended to be quite strong at strategy, whereas the average American player concentrated much more on tactics. In game after game I would get an opening advantage only to watch it disappear as my Russian opponents continuously found ways of outplaying me in the middle-game. Over time I learned and adjusted my game, and I began to compete evenly against my Russian opponents.

Playing against future World Champion Vladimir Kramnik

I had many amazing chess experiences in Russia. The British embassy in Moscow began to hold annual charity chess events, and they invited diplomats from all the embassies to send their best players to participate. Due to this good fortune, I got to play exhibition games against several World Champions - current, past, and future. First I played a game in which GMs Vladimir Kramnik, only 18 at the time but a future World Champion, and Nigel Short alternated moves in games against nearly 20 opponents. The following year I got to play an exhibition game against World Champ Garry Kasparov. The year after that, I played former World Champion Anatoly Karpov. Few experiences can rival these for an amateur player!

Playing against World Champion Gary Kasparov

In 1994 I met GM Sergey Kudrin at the embassy. He is an American who was born in Russia. I was curious to see him there so I began a conversation with him. He was very nice, and he mentioned that the next Chess Olympiad was going to take place in Moscow in December. He invited me to visit him and the rest of the American team.

A few weeks later the Olympiad began. I took the metro train to the playing site, a large, dingy hotel near the huge television tower in Moscow. There were hundreds of people wandering around in several vast halls, so it took me some time to find a familiar face. I ran into the US team captain, John Donaldson. He turned out to be one of the nicest chess players I ever met, along with another member of the US team, Joel Benjamin. John got me a Players Pass so I could go into the restricted areas and watch all the games and see all the famous players. When they weren’t busy, John or Joel would sometimes walk with me, talking about professional chess, analyzing games, or watching interesting competitors. Although I was not playing, I never felt so close to the heart of chess. I was in chess heaven!

All good things must end, and in 1997 I reached the end of my tour of duty in Russia. I had gotten married to a wonderful Russian school teacher in 1996, and in the fall of 1997 she was pregnant with our first child. So we decided to move back to America instead of taking one of the offers I had to go to either Croatia or Byelorussia.

Playing against former World Champion Anatoly Karpov

Back to America

I did not get to return to chess right away upon returning to America. We were expecting a baby, and I had no job! We moved to Phoenix, where the job prospects were better than in Tucson, and I got lucky and landed a terrific job with a major computer consulting company, Compuware Corporation. I was never treated better in my life by any company, but it was hard work, especially after our son was born. It was two years before I could consider returning to chess again.

The only chess readily available in Phoenix at that time was at a place called the Chess Emporium. Sadly, there was no serious chess available, only ‘Action Chess’, where the games take place with only 30 minutes per player for the whole game. This kind of chess is quite fun, but I have trouble taking it seriously and I am not nearly as successful at it as I am at classical chess. In fact I did so poorly that my rating plummeted all the way from the mid-1900's (where it had been since I left the US in 1993) down to the 1700's! I decided to stop playing Action chess.

A good friend from Tucson told me he was going to a major tournament in Los Angeles called the Continental Open. This tournament cured all my chess ailments! I started off with three wins in a row then drew the next two. I was easily winning the next game, which would have put me within reach of 1st place and a large sum of money (at least for an amateur chess player), but I made a terrible mistake and nearly lost, though I managed to hold a draw. I won the last round and won around $500, which is the most I ever won at chess. More importantly, for me, I wiped away all the rating losses from the Action chess events.

I followed this terrific tournament with several more classical chess events, culminating in my most successful chess period in 2001, when I won ten games in a row and tied for 1st place in the US Amateur West Championship.

Back to the Foreign Service

Despite loving my job, I found life in America to be ultimately unsatisfying after the excitement of having lived in Russia for four years. Something was missing. So, I applied for the Foreign Service and was accepted in 2001. I had to give up chess again for awhile, since I had to go through some intense training for nearly a year, and then I had to move to Zagreb, Croatia. The tragic events of September 11 occurred as we were driving to Washington DC to begin my training. Our hotel overlooked the wreckage of the Pentagon, grimly paralleling my last start in the Foreign Service.

After finally settling down to life in the charming town of Zagreb, Croatia, I again began thinking of chess. I was out of luck, though, as each club I tracked down in Zagreb was closed down. There was one club that people told me still operated, but each time I visited it the doors were locked. I had to look elsewhere for chess.

On the internet I learned of a FIDE (the World Chess Federation) tournament taking place in nearby Hungary in March 2003. It was called the Budapest Spring Chess Festival. I was excited at the prospect of competing for the first time in a FIDE event, and I secretly dreamed of gaining a FIDE rating, though this would be a difficult task. Nevertheless, I managed to have a great start to the tournament, and despite falling very ill in the middle, I performed well enough to earn an official FIDE rating of 2108 (Expert level). I was actually a bit disappointed in the result, given my great start and some of the winning positions I had at the end. I could very easily have earned a Master rating!

Sadly, I had to go back into chess hibernation after this event for nearly five years. I did not get any more chances to play while we were in Zagreb, and in 2004 we moved to Beijing, China to work at the embassy there. Despite the fact that China has several top Grandmasters, there are so far no chess tournaments available in which foreigners can participate. I have scanned the internet trying to find good tournaments somewhere in Asia, but they are rare and I usually hear about them only after they have occurred. So, I played no chess during my three years in Beijing.

In August of 2007 we moved to Iceland, and I was excited at the prospect of getting to play chess again, though I feared I would be very rusty. Icelanders love chess. I won't go into detail here about my experiences here in Iceland, because I intend to do so in later posts. I have indeed shown rust in the two events in which I have played, but I have also shown a glimmer of regaining my previous playing strength, and I am enjoying getting to think about chess all the time again.

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