Monday, January 26, 2009

Life in the Lower Section

I have always had an amazing ability to learn. My parents told me that several teachers throughout my youth commented that I was a gifted learner. I imagine they kept this information to themselves so as to encourage me to one day become a well-adjusted adult. This ability to learn was evident in every intellectual endeavor I attempted. I was creative and mature in my understanding of language while destroying the grading curves in math and science.

And please don't think that my talents were limited to the classroom. Outside of class while enjoying baseball, I also loved to play board games. My favorites were Risk, Monopoly and chess. Especially chess. I guess I was about nine-years-old when my father first taught me the way the pieces were supposed to move. Almost immediately, I displayed an amazing command of the board and seemed an expert at making those sixteen pieces do their deadly dance. I demonstrated my dominance at the board by winning, almost without exception, every game I played. This incredible, unprecedented streak continued for nearly twenty years.

You may now be wondering why I don't have a GM or IM in front of my name. Well, perhaps I am very modest and don't wish to rub your face in my internationally recognized title. Perhaps like Henry V, I like to walk without my well-deserved designation, so as to get a better idea of what the average chess player is thinking and doing. But the truth is that I never played anyone who had even the slighted clue as to how to really play this game. And even worse, I had to come to the ultimate realization that after twenty years of playing chess, I didn't know shit. I was about to become a serious beginner.

It is hard to believe that that an adult can lose a game of wits to a child. But there I was, sitting across from sixty pounds of terror. I had fumbled through Nimzowitsch's MY SYSTEM before this kid had taken her first step. In the opening, I was knocked off balance and never got back on track. All I could do was await each painful move that she recorded with a pink Hello Kitty pen onto her scoresheet.

And of course I did not have to suffer alone. The only thing misery loves more than company is an audience. And at any chess tournament, an audience can always be found when a child is beating an adult. I tried not to look at the audience as my position got worse and worse, knowing that the room was filled with smirks and at least one smug parent. At the same time, a part of me was very proud of my child-opponent. After all, I have two children of my own, including one just about her age. The only difference is that my son's favorite pastime happens to be throwing dirt clods at the neighbor's house.

I believe that being a serious adult beginner in the game of chess is one of the most challenging things in the world. Some non-chess playing people will disagree and righteously say that the greatest challenge is raising children and ramble on about things like the importance of future generations and tomorrow's leaders. Compared to chess, raising children is a piece of cake. If one of my children talks back to a teacher, I simply explain "he gets that from his mother." If one doesn't want to eat his vegetables, "he gets that from his mother." But when I blunder at the's all me.

The biggest threat to the serious beginner is the temptation to just quit. After all, this is supposed to be fun, a pastime. But to sit down and lose again and again is incredibly frustrating. The serious beginner has to make a lot of new friends. These friends go by many names, but the most common ones are frustration, heartbreak and humiliation. To be two pieces up and then lose to a one move mate on g7 has made me curse this game more times than I care to mention.

It is also at this point that we truly learn about ourselves. Do we simply give up like a spoiled child or rationalize that adults are not capable of learning as quickly as children? I am old enough to know that persistence will overcome almost any obstacle. Intelligence is great and helps, but over the long run it is the persistent person who comes out ahead.

And it was at that moment, when I could do no more and tipped my king in resignation, that I made the decision to renew my studies. There are many examples from my past where I have given up too easily. I decided that this would not be one of those times. I will focus more on the fundamentals that I know I neglect. I will seek a teacher to help me fill in the gaps in my play that seem to be reoccurring over and over. And I know that the next time I sit down to the board, it will be a fresh chance to show what I have learned. It will be a fresh chance to climb out of the lower section. But most importantly, I will try to not get discouraged and always enjoy my journey with this beautiful game. It is often difficult to love something, which at times, does not seem to love me back. But like all our great loves, we do not choose them; they choose us.

I walked out of that tournament with a lower rating but a greater understanding of myself. And in the grander scheme of things, which was more important? The answer was obvious. So as that little girl climbed into her dad's minivan and began to drive away, I picked up a dirt clod and threw it at their car. He gets that from me.

I had written this essay a while back and it was posted on Jeremy Silman's -John.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Chess and Lit

A customer of Endgame Clothing sent me the following quote...

"If alterna-rock were a chess game, Lit would control the all-important mid-board squares, where the diagonals of cutting force intersect with the horizontals and verticals of straightforward pop-melodic appeal."

Talk about an amazing coincidence! This is from an article written in the LA Times back in 1999. Fast forward 10 years and a few million albums later and the guitar player, Jeremy Popoff, is wearing one Endgame's chess t-shirts. Awesome!!

By the way, if you do not own Lit's "A Place in the Sun," you have to get it. It is simply one of the best pop/punk albums ever.

The full article with the above quote can be found here.

Play well,


Thursday, January 15, 2009

What Does This Have To Do With Chess T-Shirts?

I came across this video a while back and I find myself watching it over and over again. There is just something magical and beautiful about it...

Sony Bravia 'Balls' from Mark Kirby on Vimeo.

So what does this have to do with chess t-shirts? Well...nothing, really.

Play well,


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Chess and Other Boring Things on TV

Poker is boring. Golf is boring. Billiards is boring. They are all so boring that each of them is usually accompanied by massive amounts of drinking. But they are also all on TV. Take a gander on ESPN2 on a Sunday afternoon and you will see nothing but boring sports. Billiards, golf, poker, spelling bees, scrabble and sandcastle building. Seriously? Sandcastle building? And did I mention that cooking has an entire channel?

Now I'm not here to pick on anyone, (well, maybe the scrabble people, I mean they're just so smug with their big vocabularies) but instead I want to spotlight what these other "boring" sports are doing right and what chess can learn from it.

When we're watching golf and the camera just happens to cut away to some guy in 19th place, we know he is going to make a spectacular shot. Go spend some time in a poker room and tell me that's not one of the most boring places on the planet. But when we watch on TV, every hand is pure excitement.

We're not talking about rocket science here...with chess you would film hours of play, do massive post-editing to just show the critical moves and put in some decent commentary. With the help of computer analysis, you can explain to the casual player or layperson what the best move is and illustrate it on-screen with some snazzy computer graphics. Flesh out the players with some filmed interviews and narratives with compelling back-stories. And, of course, some hot chick to conduct post game interviews.

People don't watch TV to see games, they watch to see human drama and joy. By itself, does it really matter if someone sinks a 20 foot putt or catches a spade on the river? No! But what I find engrossing is the passion and dedication it took to be able to sink a 20 foot putt. And I love to see the child-like excitement when someone catches a spade on the river to complete a flush. I want to see the victory and defeat, the journey, the competition, the stakes and the winnings!!

Do I really give a shit if a kid knows how to spell "alopecoid?" Hell, no! I just want to see something like this:

Good stuff. Human stuff. Ridiculous stuff. And is there anything more ridiculously human than sitting for hours, deciding which little piece to move on a board?

Play well,


Sunday, January 4, 2009

2008 North American Open

The North American Open just finished up last week in Las Vegas with GM Giorgi Kacheishvili winning with a clear first. Chris Bird did an amazing job with timely coverage and photos of the event. All coverage and photos can be found here.

Speaking of photos...what do we have here?

It looks like IM Sam Shankland sporting the Wandering King! Thanks for the support, Sam!