Matt Phelps tagged me for this blog tag thing.

1. How long have you been playing chess? Have you played it consistently since you started, or were there lulls in your play? How did these lulls affect your performance?

My brother played casually and bought a Fidelity Chess Challenger 7, which I used to tune up for a casual middle school tourney run by future PhD David Ruffalo. This lead to unrated league play (board four in the Greater Cincinnati HS Chess League) and then I started rated play in 1982. Rating went 943, 1042, 1181. In 1986 I hit expert. I played rabidly in high school and college, then played infrequently from 1989-1997 as other priorities interceded. I was a purely tactical player but that ability disappeared somewhere between 89 and 2001; don’t know whether that was due to rust or simply age.

2. Aside from playing games, what is your primary mode of training?

Honestly, if I didn’t have email correspondence with expert Tim Newman over the past ten years, I’d probably be out of chess. He kicks me in the butt when I need it and props me up when I despair and generally puts up with my nonsensical ramblings. (Thanks, Tim.) Now I have added email and occasional lunches with Mark LaRocca and Petr Jirovsky, both of whom work near my office. I hope to take lessons before I die. I play blitz on FICS and use the chess tactics server to stay passably sharp. And about three years ago I finally decided to learn an opening repertoire, so that’s entailed some book study.

3. What is the single most helpful method of improvement that you have ever used?

From Kotov’s Think Like a GM: Pick a tactical game. Play through until the game reaches a boiling point. Put the book aside, set the clock for 60 mins, and analyze your brains out without touching the pieces. Spend the last ten mins writing out an analysis tree. Compare versus GM and Fritz analysis. Reflect on the fact that you suck. Nevertheless, this process helps organize your thoughts. There’s a difference between solving tactical puzzles (ala the tactics server) and actually learning to calculate in a complex OTB position where may be no clear “answer” waiting for you (or not one you’re going to see, anyway).

4. What is your favorite opening to play as white? As black against e4? As black against d4?

Ponziani, Orangutan, O’Kelly Sicilian, Latvian Gambit…

Does anyone besides Vigorito ever answer this question honestly? I spent decades playing anything and everything, narrowed down recently to a few really bad openings where I nonetheless feel more comfortable than most of my opponents. Now I am selectively adding classical openings in an attempt to learn to play real chess.

5. Who is your favorite chess player and why?

Sadly predictable but I love Tal and Morozevich. My least favorite players are Na Ruthramoorthy and Ed Astrachan, who play the Exchange French and the Caro Kann respectively, and who both kill me through a combination of skill and boredom. This is why I need to learn to play real chess.

6. What is your favorite chess book?

My first, The Chess Companion by Irving Chernev. Second place, the book I had checked out of the UNC library for four straight years: Tal’s My Life and Games. (I had a Botvinnik book checked out too but evidently didn’t retain anything from that one.)

7. What book would you recommend for a friend who knows only the rules of chess?

Ah, screw the instruction manuals and find The Chess Companion or Howard Goldowsky’s modern-day analog, Engaging Pieces. These books can help you learn to enjoy the game, which is more important.

8. Do you play in in-person tournaments? What is your favorite tournament experience?

Hm. Kudrin smushing me in 18 moves while reading The Economist? Christiansen putting me in a position where I literally can’t find a move I’m not embarassed to play? Winning the 1987 Kentucky state championship by destroying Larry Foushee in my first Blumenfeld Gambit? So many choices.

Nowadays my favorite experience is the annual trip to USATE in Parsippany with Tim Newman and Matt Phelps. Team play, no cash prizes, and after dropping 80 points one year I’ve generally played pretty well. It’s the highlight of every year now by a wide margin. The fourth round is “the beer round”: finish early and go sit in the bar of the Hilton and discuss your team’s games and pat each other on the back. When my vision fails and I retire, I hope to retain a chessplayer friend or three.

9. Please give us a link to what you consider your best two blog posts (on your own blog).

I got a kick out of writing You kids get off my yard! I don’t blog strictly about chess because I’m trying to keep my brain alive by feeding it new stuff.

10. What proportion of total chess time should be spent studying openings for someone at your level?

Surely this depends on your weaknesses. If like me you spent 25 years ignoring openings, it’s time to crack the books. If like some others you fixate on openings, follow the advice Tal gave to Samour-Hasbun (and I’m quoting Jorge here:) “You suck – learn some endgames so you’ll be able to win no matter what opening you choose.” I suspect for pure improvement’s sake most people spend too much time on openings, though from a pure enjoyment standpoint openings can be quite interesting.

Update: Per Blue Devil Knight’s recommendation, I tag Chessloser, whose post will undoubtedly be a classic…

10 thoughts on “Tag

  1. Great stuff. The one on the Kotov method had me rollin’ (‘reflect on the fact that you suck.’)

    I am over in Durham. Do you ever play in the TACO tournaments?

    Hey, did you tag anyone?

  2. Hey BDK – Alas, I left NC in 1990 and only get back for the occasional OBX vacation (next spring, I hope).

    Um, tag. This thing’s been going for so long that I despair on finding someone not-yet-tagged. Let me poke around (suggestions welcome).

  3. Derek — Was there much of a chess scene in Durham when you were there? I wasn’t aware of one when I was there (89-93) though, admittedly, I didn’t look very hard.

    Btw, thanks for your kind words on the BCC blog!

  4. Greg – You’re welcome. Always nice to win a tourney. Or so I’ve read :)

    85-89 was hopping in the Triangle. Robert Singletary directed a tourney (usually in a 3-round Octo format) on the UNC campus every month, and had a period of activity at NC State as well. The top section in Chapel Hill usually had several masters – Robin Cunningham, Greg Samsa, Steve Tarin, sometimes others. Duke had a professor or two of master strength (Dana Nance was one, I believe) but not many active students, or strong ones anyway. We also contested a big ad hoc match of Durham/Chapel Hill versus Raleigh w quite a few masters, experts, A players. (The sides were balanced but for whatever reason, we killed them!)

    BDK – Meet Greg (Duke alum). Nobody’s tagged chessloser? I find that hard to believe. If not, CL, you’re it. (I’ll check his blog.)

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