Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Chess and I

A few months ago, sometime early in 2009, I finally came to the conclusion that I was never going to make any significant amount of money as a professional chess player. Not that I was ever sure that I would. Or that I didn't realize that it was a little silly for someone who had started so late to have dreams of great success in chess. I count my start in chess from the mid-1990's, from my mid-30's. I learned the moves sometime in my early childhood, and played some games all through my life, and I actually won a school chess tourney in the 5th or 6th grade, the finale of which was recorded on the school video equipment by a teacher who also provided a chess set for the finale, with large non-standard pieces, and who may well have been much more enthusiastic about the tournament than any of the participants. But I don't consider that to have been serious chess. It so happened that no-one in my grade in the school that year was really interested in chess. If someone had been, they would have stood apart from the crowd. Or, more likely, if that someone had shown an aptitude for the game, the crowd, his or her classmates, the school and the entire small town would have rallied around him or her, perhaps other cases of aptitude would've appeared, sales of chess books would have skyrocketed, the school would've hired a good chess coach and voila, there would've been a bona fine chess team in our small-town school. But, as I say, apart from that teacher, I don't think anyone was much into it at the time. I myself found chess pretty tedious.

Until my mid-30's. I don't know why, but suddenly it got interesting. I began to buy and study chess books. I was at the Manhattan Chess Club one evening, thinking about buying a chess set, when a man asked me if I'd like to play. I said I wasn't a club member, he said that was okay, he was a member and I could come in and play as his guest. A door behind the counter led to a large area filled with tables with chessboards inlaid with different colored wood. A few moves into our game, another member happened by, and asked my opponent if this other guy, me, was any good. My opponent was very polite, but already, just a few moves in, he could not suppress a rather disappointed expression on his face. I answered that I didn't really know how good I was.

A few moves later it was clearer to me why my opponent seemed disappointed. I was not good enough to make the game other than a lopsided win for him.

I bought a set from the club, a standard set with plastic pieces and a vinyl board which rolled and folded up. It all fit into a case about the size of a fanny pack. I played as often as I could find opponents, which wasn't as often as I wanted to play. Dues at the Manhattan Chess Club were beyond my means. At Bryant Part, a few blocks from the club, people were getting together informally in the early evenings for blitz games. Most of them beat me handily.

When I couldn't find opponents I studied chess books. Most of the books I got early on were collections of top-level games. I played the games out on my set and attempted to understand what was going on, attempted to understand the commentary included in the books for most of the games. Most of the time I couldn't keep up at all. I was happy if I was able to move the pieces correctly so that the position on my board matched the diagrams in the books. I didn't manage that much all the time. (I still don't, although I've gotten better at it.) Once when I was in Bryant Park following the moves from one of these books, the guy from the club, who had asked if this new guy was any good, walked by, and asked what book I was looking at. I showed him the cover: the 1974 Soviet Union championship. "Pretty advanced stuff, " he remarked. "I'm just pushing the pieces and trying to understand what's going on," I replied. He asked whether I had a chess coach, or a computer. I told him no on both counts. He said both were important if I wanted to get good.

The books were crucial in helping me get better. More helpful than the collections of grandmaster games, which remain way above my head, have been books written for beginners, the most helpful of which for me have been Jose Raul Capablanca's Chess Fundamentalsand Modern Chess Openings.I am fairly certain that I never would have advanced nearly as I far as I have in chess -- and let's be crystal clear about it: I haven't advanced very far -- without the books. I have met a couple of players who were stronger than I am who never cracked a chess book, but they seem to me to be anomalies, and if they could get over their aversion to the books I'm sure they'd get much better very quickly. Everybody who's anybody in chess studies what the masters have done in the past. If nothing else, the chess books point out certain basic errors so that you don't have to repeat them.

By the late 90's I had a PC and an Internet connection and I was playing online, at first against a chess program at delorie.com, then at sites which were the equivalent of postal chess -- make a move, wait for hours or days, make another move -- I'm not knocking it, but it's not my thing -- and eventually at sites which host live games between humans, like FICS, the Free Internet Chess Server, a wonderful, a glorious site. That's where I play now, mostly. I have been a member of a couple of different chess clubs, where I played in USCF rated tournaments. I like FICS better, perhaps in large part due to my Asperger's.

I still have a lot of those chess books on my shelves. If I had really studied them thoroughly, I would be a much stronger player. I gave up my dreams of a pro chess career because it was becoming clearer to me how much effort and time it would've taken for me to even possibly have a chance at it. And even then it would have been possibly no chance at all. I don't have a really strong aptitude for chess. And the players who have pro careers typically start in with the books and the coaches -- and the sophisticated computerized training programs these days, too, about which I could tell you very little -- well before their teens.

So now I play for pleasure, not hoping for any greater reward than that. My blitz rating at FICS is currently a little under 1200. Yeah, not very good at all. Recently I was up to around 1250, which was within a few wins of a new personal best for me. My best on the site is in the 1280's. Yeah, still not very good at all. I bragged when I got back up to 1250 the other day, and, it seldom seems to fail, bragging was closely followed by many losses and a steep drop in my rating. Cracking 1300 would be awesome.

Sadly, the Manhattan Chess Club closed in 2002, one of the most venerable and storied chess clubs in the nation, Fischer's club, Reshevsky's club. It's a shame. In other countries, they have parades for chess champions. To my knowledge that has never occurred in the US. Maybe they had a parade for Fischer when he won the world championship. But in some other countries chess is in the bloodstream like basketball is in the US. Take an American and a Russian at random, have them play chess and one-on-one hoops, bet on the Russian in chess and the American in basketball, and you'll very likely make money. You're welcome. Some of the top chess players in the world today live in the US, but most of this group was born somewhere else.

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