The Rise and Retirement of a Chess Master

(April 2022 – My thinking on this has evolved quite a bit since I first wrote this – someday I will update, but right now it reads as I originally wrote it.)

I don’t recall exactly how I learned to move the chess pieces. Given that I lived in a small suburb on the East Coast in the late 1970s, I’m sure it was from reading a book in the local library. Around the time I was in fifth grade, my dad saw something in the newspaper about a local children’s chess club which met on Friday nights. He took me there every week, and he’d also take me to the occasional Saturday scholastic chess tournament. The story ends here for most people who learn chess as a child, but my path would be different.

In the sixth grade, I visited the guidance counselor’s office about some issue which seemed like a major crisis then, but no big deal looking back on it now. During that visit I noticed he had a chess set in his office. So twice a week I had an appointment to get out of class to meet about my “problem”, while we really just played chess for the entire 45 minute period. This arrangement wasn’t tenable over the long run, so we moved this to daily during recess. In the beginning, he had to go easy on me so that it would be a game. But midway through the school year he had to try his hardest, and by the end of the school year I was beating him consistently!

In the meantime, playing much weaker kids in the scholastic tournaments had become quite boring. The counselor, being an “average” tournament player himself (rated about 1500), suggested that I play in weekend tournaments with adults. One of the more memorable ones was a two day tournament when I was 14 years old. My parents had given me $10 for the weekend “just in case”, which I had blown on the video games in the arcade between chess games. (Don’t forget, that was a lot of money in the early 1980s!) Good thing I had played well enough to earn a $100 class prize so I could reimburse my parents for the $10 and stay out of trouble!

We didn’t have a chess club in junior high or high school, nor did I make an effort to start one, because I would have been the top player and it wouldn’t have been challenging. There was a local adult chess club, but it was hard to go to on a school night. So most of my chess activity continued to be at the local tournaments a couple of times a month.

Starting college in the late 1980s, I arrived to a school with a chess club which had a great run in previous years, but it was on its final legs, with only a few seniors left and no juniors or sophomores. But we had a few strong freshmen – myself, Bruce (who I had remembered from local tournaments), and Jeff – and we were able to bring the club back to life. Although the PanAms were the only true intercollegiate team event, there were a couple of other non-collegiate team events throughout the year, and so alumnus Tom as well as Bruce’s brother Lee were able to tag along on occasion. We also traveled as a group to individual tournaments on the weekends.

In subsequent years we had underclassmen come in and fill the spots left by our graduating seniors, and we were able to get money from the Student Activities Council so that we could fly the team to the PanAms when they were no longer within driving distance.

After graduation in the early 1990s, I was at high “expert” level, which is one level below National Master. I relocated to the West Coast for work and with not knowing a soul out here, getting plugged into the local chess scene was the natural thing to do. Going back through my old scorebooks, I played in a LOT of tournaments in 1991. Somewhere in there, my rating peaked at over 2200, earning me the title of National Master. I still have the certificate from the US Chess Federation hanging on my wall.

But then things started unraveling, at least from a chess point of view.  I didn’t want to be sitting for hours in front of a chess board on the weekends after sitting at a desk all day during the week. Furthermore, my opening repertoire was lacking a bit, and not only did I need to bring it up to snuff, but at this level of play I needed to spend even more time (which I didn’t have) maintaining it. Finally, I was having back pain and other issues in my early 20s, and my doctor said I had to become more physically active (that’s a story for another day). So then I suddenly just dropped off the chess radar into “retirement”, and that was it.

I reconnected with some of the folks from the college days, and we tossed around the possibility of a reunion at a nearby tournament on the West Coast.  When all was said and done, Tom was the only one who traveled to play in the event. I ended up not playing, though I met up with Tom a couple of times while he was there. We chatted about the “good old days” and realized that the social aspect of the team was really the glue that kept us going through the college years. Looking back, that certainly explains why I didn’t stick with the game for very long after graduation, and it also explains why playing online when the technology was available wasn’t really appealing to me.

Still, I have no regrets, having met a lot of great people along the way, and learning a lot from the game, including helping me to gain self-confidence during a time I needed it when growing up. However, if you went back in time 25 years ago when I bought my life membership to the US Chess Federation and told me I’d be “retired” from the game today, I would have said you were nuts! Life’s journey can be unpredictable sometimes.