Sunday, May 11, 2008

Off the Board

I had no intention of letting a month go by without posting but I could have predicted it. I’ve been on the road for work three of the last four weeks which left me with little free time to post, let alone play any chess! What I was able to do this past month was read (in airplanes, in airport terminals, hotel rooms, etc.) and I’ve read some really interesting books about chess during that time that have me taking a more introspective look at this game I love.

During my travels I read “King’s Gambit” by Paul Hoffman, perhaps the best book about chess I’ve ever read. I happened upon a review of this book online about a month ago which peaked my curiosity and in shopping around for some birthday books for my wife I stumbled across it and bought it on the spot. All throughout the book I found myself relating to it on many different levels so there was a natural inclination for me to want to enjoy it. Note the subtitle of his book is “A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game” and the author talks throughout about his strange, confusing relationship with his father who introduced him to the game as a young boy. He comes to some honest and revealing conclusions about his father and their relationship which makes for great reading, but this is NOT the aspect of the book I’m referring to when I say I could relate! More so, he’s roughly my age (I’m a few years younger), he started playing chess when he was young, stopped playing and then took the game up again as an adult much as I have done (although I never played competitively as a kid). He use to live here in Chicago and that’s where he started playing tournament chess again, about 8 years ago, playing a few local tournaments at the now defunct Chicago Chess Club, a venue I use to attend regularly back in the 90’s. And while he has had the great fortune to have dined with Kasparov, chat up GM Nigel Short, interview wacky FIDE President Ilyumzhinov and received parting gifts from Gadhafi and I have not, our paths do cross, in a very liberal sense, occasionally. Sure these are anecdotal but hey, I like to share!

For instance, while he was reporting on the World Chess Championships in Tripoli, Libya, he met and played in a simul against former Women’s Chess Champion Antoaneta Stefanova. Well, I’ve met her too, although I’d bet dollars to doughnuts she doesn’t remember me from Adam! We both played in the Mid-America Class Championships here in Chicago in 1997 (we both scored 3.5/5 as well, although she played in the Masters section and I in the B class, but hey!). This was one of those weekend swiss tourneys where a group of us would book a hotel room or two and all pile in to set up camp for the weekend in the suburban hotel and create a wondrous chessic biosphere for a few days. The late night parties in these smoke-filled rooms were just part of the whole experience, chess performance over the board be damned (who needed sleep anyway?). One night, after the late round had finished and we were all up in the rooms drinking, analyzing and probably acting well below our respective ages, there was a knock at the door and in walked Antoaneta and two other women (players that weekend too perhaps, but I cannot remember their names). They had either heard the ruckus and/or had been urged to join us by either Albert Chow or Emory Tate, the highest rated in our little biosphere and therefore the ringleaders. I’m sure the sight of us and our disheveled surroundings did little to convince them to “hang out” for very long as I don’t recall they stayed longer than a beer, but for a while that night I got to share a cramped hotel room with the future Women’s World Chess Champion!

Another “loose” connection is Lembit Oll, the Estonian Grandmaster who committed suicide by jumping out of a 4th story window in 1999 (the similarities between this and the demise of Luzhin in Nabokov’s “The Defense” are startling). Hoffman writes about him during his interview with GM Nigel Short. Oll came to Chicago to play in the 1995 Chicago Open, staying with Albert Chow. I gave Albert and Lembit rides to and from the tournament that year. I remember him being very quite during these trips, something I accounted to his slim grasp of English. I fell into the typical chess pecking order and didn’t say much to him since it was “an honor” for me to even have a Grandmaster in my presence, let alone in my backseat. Reading about his suicide a few years later was chilling and sad.

Hoffman also writes about Jennifer Shahade, one of the top female players in the country and also former U.S. Women’s Chess Champion. While I’ve played in tournaments with Jennifer, I’ve never met or played against her. I certainly remember seeing her as a teenager at these events and recall her apparent ease with the pressure of playing. So, granted, this is a super loose “connection” with Hoffman’s book but I did just receive an e-mail from Jennifer last week! That’s right; she’s running the Fantasy Chess website for the upcoming U.S. Championships next week and was reminding everyone to pick their teams. Naturally, being the Fantasy geek that I am, I promptly went to the site and signed up.

Hoffman also writes about playing GM Yasser Seirawan in a simul in Las Vegas. I’ve shared a beverage with the kindly GM after rounds at a Chicago Open (or was it the U.S. Masters?) and completely concur with Hoffman’s description of Seirawan as “the perfect gentleman grandmaster, a man who played hard yet remained civil”. Traits I strive to emulate.

There are other loose connections in Hoffman’s book, even looser than the one’s I’ve noted. While reading the book I thought these links were more substantive and profound but now re-reading them they seem slim, at best, so forgive my indulgence. Having a beer with a GM is a BIG DEAL for a patzer like me! Reading about people I’ve merely bumped into at tournaments seems to make the writing much more real to me and I enjoyed every page of the book. What really got to me was Hoffman’s writing about the “obsession” with chess and the knife edge a person can dance along with it: either making it a glorious intellectual challenge or a fatal personal tragedy. Chess can be a very personal endeavor and your play can reveal something about yourself that might not otherwise be apparent. The winning and losing seems to shine a brighter light on this and how much importance you put on it can determine which edge of the knife you dance on.

Another book I read during my business travels was “Game of Kings” by Michael Weinreb. In it he follows the members of the Edward R. Murrow High School (of Brooklyn, NY) chess team through an entire season. An interesting read, shedding light not only on the different personalities of the junior players but also on the school system, the “Chess-in-the-Schools” program, and how playing on the chess team can be the most important thing in some of these kids lives, whether they realize it or not. These kids get a fantastic opportunity to study and excel at chess, receive top-flight training and get chaperoned to scholastic tournaments all over the country! No such apparatus existed when I was their age. My elementary school had a “chess club” for awhile (thinking back this was probably during the “Fischer” boom) and that’s when I first learned to play. Although the teacher in charge taught us the “Giuoco Piano” as our first opening, which is Italian for “quiet game”. Yawn, boring chess. Soon Dungeons and Dragons took over for me! At any rate, at the end of “Game of Kings” the chess team just kind of dissolves after some graduate, some drop-out, and some move to the easy money of online poker. As in “King’s Gambit”, where the author questions why he plays this game and notes that some of the best and brightest American players since Fischer have opted out of chess for other, more lucrative endeavors, Weinreb asks if this chess thing even has a purpose: “So what’s the purpose, really? What possible reason could there be to keep playing this excruciating and exacting and infuriating game, when the only financial rewards to be gained are at exclusive tournaments in faraway places, when no one in your country could give a damn about it, when spelling bees and hot-dog eating competitions get nationwide television exposure but chess tournaments never do?” It hurts to read things like this about the game I love but it’s true. Some guy who can shove 40 hot dogs down his throat gets on ESPN and the fact the U.S. Chess Championships are taking place next week in Tulsa gets completely passed over? They will be using their brains in Tulsa but that effort does not seem to get rewarded in this country. I have asked myself “Why am I doing this?” in the past, usually after a heart-breaking loss, but also after a particularly well-played game. Perhaps I played some inspired chess and want to share my “art” with friends, family, whomever. If they do not know how to play, the “artistry” will be lost on them.

And for piling on, I happened to read an article on the USCF’s Chess Life Online website this weekend by GM Jesse Kraai of New Mexico called Tulsa Fight Club, about who is and who is not playing in the U.S. Championships this week. The “who is not” playing is his focus on those great American players of the last decade or so who have moved away from professional chess so they could make an actual living. Being a chess professional in the U.S. is a tough row to hoe and many leave so they can do things like eat and sleep under a roof. A great article, but all of this has been some tough reading about my little “weekend hobby”. It puts it all into perspective sure and it’s sad as well. Chess gets no props, as they say, in this 21st century!

For me, I will keep plugging along. The last time I won money at a chess tournament I played chess for 8 hours and won $55. The last time I played poker I played for 2 hours (and drank beer throughout!) and won $130. But the ROI, that psychological or spiritual or intellectual return-on-investment from playing chess was far greater than miraculously flopping a set, something I had no involvement in (i.e. luck). Beating an Expert over the board, however, did more for me as a person, since I felt enriched by it, more confident from it and parlayed THAT experience into other aspects of my life. A pay-it-forward approach.

Coincidentally, that win over the Expert pushed my rating over 1800 for the first time in my life. I am now a Class A player! I found out quite by accident since the Touch Move tournament I played in back in March finally got rated. No fanfare, no tickertape. It’s just a number but I’m proud of it. When I get to 2000 (Expert), I’ll be sure to throw a party!

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