Friday, July 06, 2007

Questionnaire Tag

Thanks to Blue Devil Knight, there is a questionnaire being circulated among chess bloggers in the form of a game of tag. Atomic Patzer has tagged me, so I guess I'm "it."

I tag DG of the BCC Weblog (he might be best prepared to choose the next victim).

Here are my answers to the interview questions:

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?

I always seem to have been aware of chess. My grandparents had an attractive red and white plastic set that I remember playing with long before I would have been able to learn the rules. And I remember my father tuning in to watch at least one game of the Fischer-Spassky match on TV, with Shelby Lyman commenting; I had no idea what they were talking about at the time--but it seemed important, so I remember it. I actually learned the rules of chess in third grade, at school, when one of my teachers allowed us to play at recess and even in the classroom when our other work was done. That would have been around 1973-1974. It was hardly a "Chess in the Schools" program and I think it was actually instigated most by a very bright red-haired kid named Bartholomew (he insisted on going by his full name) whose father was transferred by his company the following year. I still have a recollection of losing to him, as we all did, and being angry about it. I also remember picking up the bad habit of developing with Rook lifts via h4, Rh3, Re3 and a4, Ra3, Rd3, as most kids naturally want to do--as though trying to "get their dukes out" to fight.

I don't think I played again until seventh grade, when I befriended a very bright kid named Tom, who went on later to graduate at the top of our high school class. As he would likely admit, he was a skinny kid and typical "nerd genius" type. So when he beat me at chess--snatching my Rooks with his Bishops before I could even get my dukes out--I was very angry about it. "Who was this skinny kid to beat me up at chess?" Afterward he asked if I had ever read any books on the game.

"There are books written about chess?" I remember asking.

He had several on his shelf that he had inherited from his brothers (he was the youngest of five very smart boys). They included Chess the Easy Way by Reuben Fine, some opening books by I.A. Horowitz, Logical Chess Move by Move by Irving Chernev, and some books by Fred Reinfeld. He let me borrow them, and driven by the competition between us I worked through them very carefully. Soon I was able to hold my own with him and had nearly an even record. Then I discovered the books at our public library and started doing even better. By the time we entered high school, I had read over 20 books, including Tarrasch's The Game of Chess and Fred Reinfeld's Complete Chess Course, and was beating him fairly consistently. After all, while I was studying chess he was studying college math (he would later become a successful actuary).

What's funny is that before I discovered chess, I was not much interested in reading. In fact, at least one of my grade-school teachers told my parents she worried about passing me to the next grade because my reading level was so low. I think it's chess that got me into reading and taught me many of the academic skills I have now.

Around when my friend Tom and I were age 14, our parents began taking us to the Westfield Chess Club, where I quickly was seen as a very strong young player. An old master and chess teacher by the name of Edgar McCormick offered me some free lessons and gave me access to his very extensive library. In my first rated tournament, I had a strong performance and got a rating of 1600. By the time I went to college, I was rated over 2000. In college, though, I played much more haphazardly. Within a few years, I began to lose touch with my chess friends from home and only occasionally looked at chess books. I played in one last tournament -- trying my luck at the U.S. Open which had come to New Jersey (as it is coming again this year). But I had a miserable tournament and dropped out before the halfway mark. That was the last rated event I'd play for many years.

It's hard to believe, but I pretty much put chess away after that. I remember sometimes spending time with The Life & Games of Mikhail Tal and Bronstein's Zurich 1953, which were always my favorite books at the time. But after college came graduate school, and I almost never played or studied chess, except as a rare pleasure (when stumbling upon a chess column in The New York Times, for example).

At the turn of the century, in the year 2000 or so, I started to learn HTML and made my first websites to support my teaching. On a lark, I took an old analysis I had written up of the Urusov Gambit (which had been published my freshman year of college in The Castled King, which later became The Atlantic Chess News) and put it up on the web. It was just a long page of text with some links. But it was still much deeper analysis than anything else I had seen in print. I remember thinking that someone might stumble across it and we'd correspond.

Well, someone did--and pretty quickly too. A player named Max Burkett from Montana was using the line in correspondence and had put together an extensive games database for the Pitt Chess Archive. He came across my site and we began corresponding by email. He told me about his database and urged me to expand my analysis in light of those games. He also told me to get a copy of Fritz and use it to help me analyze more deeply. It took me a year or two to find the time to take up his suggestions. But in the summer of 2002, trying to avoid more important work, I dove in and revamped my website, even doing some library research at the Princeton Library and Cleveland Public Library to help me. My excuse at the time was that by taking up a hobby site, I would be motivated to learn more about web design and web-editing programs (including Photoshop and Dreamweaver). You can basically trace the progress of the site at the Web Archives. I worked on it off and on for about a year and then abandoned it the following summer (about August 2003).

I enjoyed doing the Urusov Gambit System. It seemed to bring together all of my strengths, as a researcher, writer, analyst, chessplayer, and budding web designer. It also got me interested in playing chess again, and I began to study the game and use what I had learned in analyzing the Urusov to analyze some other openings. Within a few years, I had a pretty well detailed repertoire worked out. What's funny is that I really only played against my computer during those years, if I played at all. What interested me most was research and analysis and the game was just a vehicle for exercising those skills.

In 2004, I was approached by a student at Rutgers who was interested in chess and had come across my website. He was interested in playing rated chess and starting up a club at Cook College (where I was on the faculty at the time and could sponsor his club). By the summer of that year, I had decided to join a New Jersey chess club.... And, if you're reading this, you probably know what happened next. The funny thing is it's a bit like coming home again after many years, since I knew many of these guys when I was a kid playing at other area clubs.

2. Aside from playing games, what is your primary mode of training?
If I were training for chess, the first thing I'd have to do is give up blogging.... I really don't do any training since I have no rating or improvement goals. I'm satisfied to remain an Expert player, and if I drop below 2000 you'll likely see me at the World Open or some other big-money class tournament (for which I might actually train a little). Occasionally I'll spend some time with a book of tough puzzles. But mostly I just enjoy researching and writing about chess-related things, especially opening lines. I prefer playing for fun over rated play. And, honestly, I have a lot more fun studying chess than playing it. Studying chess is very relaxing. Playing gets me nervous. Chess is my escape. If I took up serious competitive play, I'd have to get another hobby. And I'd definitely have to stop the blog!

3. What is the single most helpful method of improvement that you have ever used?
I think I learned the most from looking over well-annotated games very closely. I also benefitted a lot from analyzing my games with stronger players. When I was just starting out, I benefitted a lot from reading through all of Fred Reinfeld's books on tactics. Since then, it's mostly opening study and analysis.

4. What is your favorite opening to play as white? As black against e4? As black against d4?
After analyzing it for many years, of course, I feel most at home in the Urusov Gambit and related lines (especially the Two Knights with d4). As Black, I now play 1.e4 e5! and I'm cultivating an extensive repertoire there, which includes the Philidor Defense. As Black against 1.d4, I am trying out three systems: my old-time favorite Chigorin Defense with the Albin Counter Gambit on occasion; 1.d4 Nc6 heading toward the Tango but avoiding a lot of 1...Nf6 crap; and 1.d4 d6 to include the King's Indian, Old Indian, and Philidor by transposition (after 1.d4 d6 2.e4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e5 etc.) But my problem lately is that I'm always discovering something new to distract me--like one day when I visited with Fred Wilson at his bookshop and ended up getting captivated by the Spanish Four Knights of all things!

5. Who is your favorite chess player and why?
That is a very tough one. I actually have not spent a lot of time looking at the games of a single player since I was a kid, when I adored Frank James Marshall and Mikhail Tal--two great tactical swindlers. Occasionally, I have followed the games of Sveshnikov closely, but only because he plays some of my favorite lines. Maybe my
favorite player now is Igor Nataf, who has played some genuinely brilliant and inspired games, such as Nunn - Nataf, France 1999 (which Nunn annotates deeply in one of his books--rather like Spassky applauding with the crowd after Fischer beat him in Game 6). But Nataf doesn't really play any of my openings, so I don't usually seek out his games. I remember quite a few of them, though, because the tactical ideas just run so deep--rather like Marshall's and Tal's games, but a little more accurate and true.

6. What is your favorite chess book?
Generally, whatever I'm studying at the moment is my favorite. And there are so many things I go through. One of the first things I wrote up for the Kenilworth website was a list of my Favorite Chess Books, and that still seems pretty accurate. But I'm really a sucker for opening repertoire books--I go through them like candy. And I like books that have short articles on specific lines. So I like the Secrets of Opening Surprises series, the Dangerous Weapons series, Graham Burgess's 101 Chess Opening Surprises, Leonid Shamkovich's The Chess Terrorist's Handbook, etc. I like being able to read a short article on a line (something you can get through in one or two sittings) and then try it out in a game or add it to my repertoire as a back-up. Of course, they're hardly "desert island" reading like my Favorites list.

7. What book would you recommend for a friend who knows only the rules of chess?
Recently I gave my brother-in-law my copy of David Shenk's The Immortal Game (now in paperback, by the way) which he has really enjoyed. Of course, there is not a lot of real chess in that. If you mean a real chess book, with games and all, maybe Bruce Pandolfini's Kasparov and Deep Blue, which may be one of the best real chess books written for a general readership.

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

These days, with lots of work responsibilities and two young children (ages four and one), I can only find time for one serious tournament per year (if you'd call it a "serious tournament"), and that's the U.S. Amateur Team East. I really identify with Glenn Budzinski's classic ChessCafe article, Tournament Chess for the Rest of Us, which is still so true. This past year was my best experience, just playing in the mornings, alternating with a fellow Expert who just played the evening rounds. That way I got to see my chess pals, visit the book stalls, play my very best chess, and still spend much of the Holiday weekend with my family. Plus, we got to play on Board #1 in Round 5 against the guys who ended up getting their pictures on the cover of Chess Life. Ah, if only we had won, that could have been us...

I prefer to visit tournaments rather than to play in them, though I will definitely be doing something at the US Open (maybe a quad or speed event).

9. Please give us a link to what you consider your best two blog posts.
I was going to say, "Just two?" But the truth is, it pretty much is just two: A Chess Tourist in New York City and my series on The Panther. The New York City piece was something I had been planning to do for over a year until I finally got the chance to bop around Manhattan snapping pictures. I like having done it as something of a "public service" post, and I'd love to see other chess bloggers do the same for a city near where they live. But it was also personally pleasurable. It was a really gorgeous summer day and I was doing something I really enjoy, which I get to relive by looking at the photos I took. Looking at the piece now is sort of like looking at a photo album and remembering a great tourist adventure, which is basically what it was. It's also one of my most popular pieces and tends to get lots of hits this time of year. So I'm glad other people appreciate it. The Panther series, meanwhile, does not get many hits and does not seem to have generated any reader interest. But I just love that piece and I really enjoyed doing it, because it pulled together so many skills and interests--of research, design, analysis, cultural critique, and personal story-telling. I did a later piece on the Mad Dog which proved a little more popular, but The Panther is the one closest to my heart.

10. What proportion of total chess time should be spent studying openings for someone at your level?
I don't really know how much time I "should" study openings. Probably a lot less than I do now, since that is pretty much 90% of what I do. If I really wanted to improve, I think I'd have to get a coach and really take a close look at my games and my thought process. Too often, I just make bad decisions. And I should look through more games in "Chess Combat Simulator" or "Solitaire Chess" mode. I know what I should do if I really wanted to improve. But I just enjoy studying openings so much more...

I like the interviews that close with the subject discussing some of his best games. Two of my best I have annotated online: Goeller-Mess, Westfield 1982 and Goeller-Hall, Union County Ch. 1980.


katar said...

You quit chess during college and grad skool???

This is more impressive to me than a GM norm.

I would like to see an article called, "How to Quit Chess (And Mean It)".

Blue Devil Knight said...

I was really hoping someone would tag you soon, as I've always wondered about the mind behind the Kenilworthian! You did not disappoint.

The post about chess in New York is fantastic. I think my wife will be a little unhappy that I found it, though :) That chess table at the Strand is making my mouth water: it's been years since I visited the Strand, but it just went back toward the top of my list. Also, I hadn't seen your list of favorite chess books. Helpful and fun.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Hmmm. DG? DG?

Anonymous said...

Very cool blog. I've just entered the chess blogosphere myself with my irreverent contribution My entry today is on the fact that chess can indeed pay.