How I got into this mess in the first place, part 1

Harwood Mulliken was a kind old professor with a bow tie. When the Mullikens came to visit us (in the late 1970s), he would set up a chessboard in the living room and play my older brother Keith a game.

My brother enjoyed this so, when he earned some cash working the scoreboard at the St Jude’s Memphis Classic PGA golf tournament, he used the money to buy a Fidelity Chess Challenger 7. A truly state-of-the-art machine, i.e. slow and crappy at chess.

Then in 1981, when I was in middle school in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky, a new student named David Ruffalo insisted that we hold a knock-out chess tournament. He talked 16 people into playing, one round each Thursday after school in Mr. Leising’s room.

Side note: David Ruffalo was awarded his PhD before I finished my undergraduate degree. Smart dude.

My first opponent psyched me out by talking trash all week leading up to the game, and then played awfully and I won. Then I went home and started practicing against Keith’s Chess Challenger machine. I beat my buddy Pat Gardella the next week. In the third round I had to play Brian Moore. His older brother Brett was the captain of the high school team, so I expected to lose, but somehow I won that game also. Then I beat Ruffalo in the championship.

I had discovered that I really like winning.

Brett Moore tracked me down – “You beat my brother, you have to play for the high school team next year.” So I did. I played board 3 or 4 on a four-man team, with a 10-week season playing against other local schools in the Greater Cincinnati High School Chess League (GCHSCL).

I lost my first game. I lost my second game. I lost my third game. I had discovered I really hate losing. I became embarrassed and determined. So I lost my fourth game. Then I won the last six games of the season. My parents gave me two books: Chess Openings in Theory and Praxis by IA Horowitz (which I just threw away within the past year) and The Chess Companion by Irving Chernev. I could not understand chess notation so I had to figure it out myself to read the books.

“We have to win the Kentucky team championship,” said Brett, and so in the spring of 1982 I played in my first rated tourney, a four-round Saturday Cincinnati scholastic “tornado”, as a warmup for the Kentucky tournament. The top seed was David Glueck, a 2400 in high school who later quit chess and became a college professor in New Hampshire. The second seed was Albert Moore (I think), an 1800 who presumably got destroyed regularly by Glueck.

In my first rated game, I played one John Stinchomb, rated 1200, who gave me a free pawn via the strange sequence 1.P-Q4 P-Q4 2.P-QB4. Obviously I took it. He won. I won one game, against a 1000-rated player whose name escapes me, and lost two others including a long last-round game against Ken Potter, a 900-rated member of the Price Hill Death Squad chess team.

My first rating was 943.

In the Kentucky championship the following month, I beat a 1400 named Tony Sammons in the first round – a Budapest defense, believe it or not – but then lost all my other games.

We did not win the championship.

I later became the commissioner of the Greater Cincinnati High School Chess League. I never won the Kentucky scholastic championship, although I won the overall (open) state title in 1987.

Brett Moore later got a medical degree and quit chess in favor of bridge.

Tonight I played 3 hours and then blundered and lost to a 15-year-old.

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7 thoughts on “How I got into this mess in the first place, part 1

  1. “Tonight I played 3 hours and then blundered and lost to a 15-year-old.”

    Good thing it wasn’t against a 14-year-old. That would have been embarrassing.

    (I enjoyed this and am eagerly awaiting part 2. You know how to tell a story.)

    1. Thank you – to borrow from Monty Python (again), “My theory about storytelling is that stories START at the beginning, and then have a middle part, and then END after that.”

      But actually Part 2 was intended to be about my job.

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