Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Tim McGrew

While I was in Michigan recently, I had the chance to meet Tim McGrew, who is probably best known to chessplayers as the author of "The Gambit Cartel" series at ChessCafe. In the world of academia, which he also inhabits, Tim is better known as "Dr. McGrew" and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Western Michigan University. Though his University duties have kept him from writing as regularly about chess as he used to, he still does occasional analysis for West Michigan Chess and remains active as a chess player and teacher. As a player, he recently tied for first in the Michigan Open and therefore can claim a portion of his state title. As a teacher, he can be found every week at the Portage Library giving lessons and advice to over a dozen young students of the game, including his two daughters.

Tim and Bethel McGrew
Tim and daughter Bethel at the Portage Library
Tim was kind enough to annotate his games from the Michigan Championship for our website. As with the games of young Evan Ju, who claimed the New Jersey title this past year, they demonstrate that it takes a rare combination of skill, stamina, and good fortune to take home a state championship.

I got proof of what a good teacher Tim is when I played a few skittles games against his daughter Bethel, who is a very strong 1600-player, as she proved by nicking me for one game out of two. Tim is nearing master at 2168 USCF but sports an ICC blitz rating of 2705, so I was not too surprised to lose both of our games (the first of which I have also annotated at the link above).

I asked Tim what he thought were some of the advantages chess offered to kids, and he quickly rattled off a whole list of things:
  • It teaches you to sit still and focus on one activity. That's a huge lesson for kids, especially these days.
  • It offers a built in feedback for hard work, so it teaches the work ethic.
  • It teaches kids to take responsibility for their mistakes and for their successes.
  • It teaches them to lose gracefully and learn from their mistakes.
  • It teaches a wide variety of other life lessons.
I told him I also thought that chess could get kids interested in reading. He thought that might be possible, but he suggested that his own experience was that you have to be a reader before you will read about chess. He says that he grew up as a "library hound." He learned chess from his father and figured out pretty quickly that the only way he would eventually be able to beat him was by studying the game and reading books. He got out books on Capablanca, Rubinstein, and Alekhine and would play through one game from each every day. Without already being a disciplined reader, it might have been hard for him to institute and carry out such an intensive study plan.

He remembers studying those games, "while Tchaikovsky played in the background" so that, to this day, he associates certain games and positions with particular musical passages. "Swan Lake makes me think of Rubinstein's Rook and Pawn endings," he said. The connection between chess and music is well known, and it is interesting that Tim plays the piano, though he says he only does it "when no one is listening who might be permanently harmed by the experience."

I have long identified with Tim as a chess writer. We are both academics, both enjoy gambit lines, and both retain an amateur status in the chess world. It therefore should not have surprised me that he was influenced by some of the players who figure so importantly in the history of the Kenilworth Chess Club.

Chatting on ICC, Tim told me the following story: "Believe it or not, I played Steve Stoyko once when I was a kid. I was rated 1300 or so; he was 2305. He crushed me in about a dozen moves. (I've gotten revenge recently against him online, though.) This was the late 1970's, in a little tournament called the March of Dimes Open. I beat an A player in round 1 and got Stoyko in round 2. I had never had a chance to play the Schliemann Defense before, but I decided to try it out. Of course, I got out-computed and crushed. I hadn't really expected to win, so I wasn't devastated, but I did feel that my opening had not held up well. I wandered out of the playing room and into the lobby, where an old guy was sitting quietly. I don't know why I went up to speak to him -- maybe he just looked in my direction. Anyway, we fell to talking about my game, and I told him of my woes, how this was the first Schliemann of my life, and I had lost it like a beginner, and I thought perhaps I needed to get a different defense. Stoyko himself had said, laconically (though not unkindly), 'Get something sound.' But the old guy held my eye and said, 'No, don't give it up, play it again.' So I did. For the remainder of my active tournament career until I stopped playing in college, I used the Schliemann every chance I got. I never lost another game with it, and I conceded only one draw. It was only years later that something clicked and I realized that the old guy had been Edgar McCormick."

As Tim knows, Edgar was my chess mentor growing up. It would be very much like him to urge Tim to keep playing the Schliemann. Edgar played lots of gambit lines, and was the reason I play the Albin Counter-Gambit (which Tim plays too, of course). I also find it very ironic that his story pits Stoyko's statement to "Get something sound" against Edgar's embrace of gambits, since in some ways I am perched myself between the advice of these same mentors, wondering if I should try to create a repertoire that is less focused around gambit lines or just embrace the openings I enjoy.

It was this same theme that I had identified with so much in Tim's pieces for ChessCafe, especially in the three he refers to now as "The Peter Stories": A Little Learning, The Power of Ideas (my favorite), and Master Class. In all of them, Peter struggles within himself to justify his choice of a gambit repertoire, often against external voices telling him to "play something sound."

The Peter Stories are a good illustration of how Tim's work as a philosopher connects with his chess writings, since they illustrate his view that we arrive at knowledge through "internalist foundationalism"; that is, our beliefs are based on a conscious choice that we arrive at through reasoning from basic premises. Ultimately, we are not convinced by outside influences alone but by our own examination and analysis of the evidence. And the evidence is pretty good for gambits, looked at from the right perspective.

As Tim argues, we should not judge the strength of a gambit by any "objective" measure of its quality, as played by a computer (with computer accuracy), but by the effects it has on human players left to their own devices in over the board or online play. He even suggests we try to quantify the number of difficult problems an opening sets for one's opponent as a factor in judging its quality. If a gambit line has a hundred pitfalls and only one or two true ways to advantage for one's adversary, that may be a better opening than a safer line that offers one's opponent numerous paths to reasonable play. If you play a line that gives your opponent lots of ways to self-destruct, he very likely will do so...
Gambits are a great training ground for learning to think on your feet and make the most of what you have. In a number of his ChessCafe articles, Tim explores how you can turn your material-dropping mistakes into gambits by just adopting the right attitude. You need to convince yourself that your gambit is sound before you can hope to turn your belief into fact over the board.

I hope you enjoy Tim's writings as much as I do. And I hope I have other opportunities to talk with "Dr. McGrew," who has made me much happier about my own embrace of gambit play.

Webliography of Tim McGrew's Chess Writings

  • Tim McGrew's 2006 Michigan Open Games, Kenilworth Chess Club website (July 2007)
    A Zipped file of all Tim McGrew's ChessCafe articles from September 2002 to August 2005
  • Jarosz - Budzenski, Michigan Amateur 2005, West Michigan Chess (July 2007)

  • Belsitzman-Rubinstein,Warsaw 1917, West Michigan Chess (May 2007)
  • Smooth Sailing, Michigan Chess Association (January 2006)
    Notes on games from the 2005 Michigan Open Reserve

  • The Heat of the Moment, Gambit Cartel #36 at ChessCafe (August 2005)
    Tim's farewell piece, which discusses several gambit lines in blitz games on ICC and World Chess Network.

  • Kevitz's Legacy, Gambit Cartel #35 at ChessCafe (July 2005)
    Discusses the interesting countergambit 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 c5 3.c4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nb5 d5!?

  • Master Class, Gambit Cartel #34 at ChessCafe (June 2005)
    A "Peter Story" about a young player who asks his master mentor to show him an opening against the French. The master teaches him 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Be3!?

  • Come to the Dark Side, Gambit Cartel #33 at ChessCafe (May 2005)
    A treatment of the Sollar Gambit 1.d4 e5 2.dxe5 f6 (or 2...Nc6 3.Nf3 f6!?) which is sort of a Reversed Blackmar-Diemer.

  • Call It a Gambit, Gambit Cartel #32 at ChessCafe (April 2005)
    Tim relates the story of one tournament game where he accidentally began 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.d3 d6 5.Ng5!? Qf6!? which you may as well call a gambit.

  • Bennett's Temptation Redux, Gambit Cartel #31 at ChessCafe (March 2005)
    A return to the same line covered in GC #30.

  • Bennett's Temptation, Gambit Cartel #30 at ChessCafe (February 2005)
    1.d4 d5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.e4 dxe4 4.f3 exf3 5.Nxf3 Bg4 6.h3 Bh5 7.g4 Bg3 8.Ne5 Nc6 9.Qf3!? Nxd4 10.Qxb7 which is more complicated than you'd expect.

  • The Bishop's Gambit, Gambit Cartel #29 at ChessCafe (January 2005)
    An excellent introduction to 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Bc4 as White.

  • The Omega Gambit, Gambit Cartel #28 at ChessCafe (December 2004)
    Discussion of a bad but accidental gambit that Tim frequently ends up playing on ICC, when, in a series of blitz games beginning 1.e4 e6 2.d4, his opponent suddenly switches to the Alekhine's Defense with 1.e4 Nf6! 2.d4? Nxd4 -- and then Tim beats him anyway...

  • The Power of Ideas, Gambit Cartel #27 at ChessCafe (November 2004)
    I consider this the best "Peter Story," and it is certainly my favorite of all Tim's "Gambit Cartel" pieces. It tells the story of a game where Pete opens with the Smith-Morra Gambit, describing his thoughts and emotions before, during, and after the course of play. It is really a ground-breaking piece of chess writing which manages to both instruct and entertain, while it also offers a rather convincing defense of playing gambits to develop tactical awareness.

  • A Shilling in the Mailbag, Gambit Cartel #26 at ChessCafe (October 2004)
    Follows up on the previous article to look more closely at a reader's suggested White counter-gambit: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nd4?! 4.Nxe5(?) Qg5 5.Bxf7+! Ke7 6.O-O! which is a very interesting way to turn a mistake into a challenging problem for your opponent to solve.

  • Reader's Showcase, Gambit Cartel #25 at ChessCafe (September 2004)
    Featuring the games of reader Charlie Gold who has had great success playing the Black side of Blackburne's Shilling Gambit: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nd4?!

  • Every Once in a While Part II, Gambit Cartel #24 at ChessCafe (August 2004)
    Tim returns to the Benko Gambit declined with 5.b6--from the Black perspective, of course.

  • Every Once in a While, Gambit Cartel #23 at ChessCafe (July 2004)
    Tim examines some recent games with the Benko Gambit line that goes 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 4.cxb5 a6 5.b6.

  • Dimensional Analysis, Gambit Cartel #22 at ChessCafe (June 2004)
    Returns to the themes raised in "Gambits in Many Dimensions" in a much more clearly formulated way.

  • A Fistful of Novelties, Gambit Cartel #21 at ChessCafe (May 2004)
    Tim puts some old opening analysis under Fritz's microscope to develop some interesting novelties.

  • A Little Learning, Gambit Cartel #20 at ChessCafe (April 2004)
    The first "Peter Story," where Pete's chess instructor tries to convince him to ignore the database statistics and stick with the Smith-Morra Gambit, because if you look at the games where White loses you quickly see that he was just a complete putz.

  • Shall We Dance? Gambit Cartel #19 at ChessCafe (March 2004)
    Continues his discussion of the complicated line 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Nc6 4.f4!? Nxe4!

  • Blindsided, Gambit Cartel #18 at ChessCafe (February 2004)
    Discusses his first encounter with the Black side of 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Nc6 4.f4!?

  • Designer Gambits, Gambit Cartel #17 at ChessCafe (January 2004)
    Looks at 1.d4 e6 2.e4 Nf6 3.Nc3 c5 4.dxc5 Bxc5 5.e5 Nd5!? 6.Nxd5 exd5 7.Qxd5 Qb6! and some lines with related patterns.

  • Steinitz for the Defense, Gambit Cartel #16 at ChessCafe (December 2003)
    Steinitz liked to grab gambit pawns and hold onto them for dear life. Tim shows one Danish Gambit game where the pawn proved fatal.

  • Danish Pastry, Gambit Cartel #15 at ChessCafe (November 2003)
    Uses the publication of Danish Dynamite as a good excuse to look at some pretty games in the Danish and Goring gambits.

  • Terra Incognita, Gambit Cartel #14 at ChessCafe (October 2003)
    Tim looks at the Reti Gambit against the French with 1.e4 e6 2.b3 d5 3.Bb2!

  • Gambits in Many Dimensions, Gambit Cartel #13 at ChessCafe (September 2003)
    Tim develops a fascinating way of evaluating opening lines by considering how many ways your opponent can go wrong rather than focusing only on the one true way he might be able to survive or gain an edge.

  • Life on the Edge, Gambit Cartel #12 at ChessCafe (August 2003)
    Returns to the Damiano and discusses some other problematic gambit ideas.

  • Tactics of Mistake, Gambit Cartel #11 at ChessCafe (July 2003)
    Considers the Black side of Damiano's 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f6!?? with the idea of either challenging White to prove he knows the refutation or meeting 3.Nxe5 with 3...Qe7.

  • Electronic Alchemy, Gambit Cartel #10 at ChessCafe (June 2003)
    Teaches the reader how to use a chess computer and database to develop some unusual lines, such as the gambit idea 1.e4 c5 2.c3 Nf6 3.e5 Nd5 4.f4!??

  • Going Fishing, Gambit Cartel #9 at ChessCafe (May 2003)
    Looks at the line 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bc4 Nf6!? 4.Ng5 d5 5.exd5 h6 6.Nf3 e4 etc.

  • The Lemberger Counter-Gambit, Gambit Cartel #8 at ChessCafe (April 2003)
    Looks at 1.d4 d5 2.e4 dxe4 3.Nc3 e5!?

  • Not Exactly Opera Box, Gambit Cartel #7 at ChessCafe (March 2003)
    Looks at the Blackburne Gambit with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Bg4 4.dxe4 Nd7!? which does not lead to anything resembling Morphy vs. The Count and the Duke.

  • Winging It, Part 4, Gambit Cartel #6 at ChessCafe (February 2003)
    Looks at White's best: 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 e4 4.Ng5 b5!? 5.d3!

  • Winging It, Part 3, Gambit Cartel #5 at ChessCafe (January 2003)
    Continues the discussion of the interesting wing gambit 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 e4 4.Ng5 b5!? by looking at White's better tries.

  • Winging It, Part 2, Gambit Cartel #4 at ChessCafe (December 2002)
    Looks at White's less good responses to 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 e4 4.Ng5 b5!?

  • Winging It, Gambit Cartel #3 at ChessCafe (December 2002)
    Looks at some lines where White or Black play the wing gambit with b4 or b5.

  • Canning the Caro: The Milner-Barry Gambit, Part 2, Gambit Cartel #2 at ChessCafe (December 2002)
    Continues the discussion from the previous article.

  • Canning the Caro: The Milner-Barry Gambit, Part 1, Gambit Cartel #1 at ChessCafe (December 2002)
    In this first article for ChessCafe, Tim looks at Milner-Barry's favorite weapon against the Caro-Kann: the Blackmar-Diemer-like 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.f3!?

  • A Sicilian Surprise, Chess Openings for Heroes at (January 1999), reprinted at
    Excellent and very detailed analysis of the game Svidler-Kasparov, Tilburg 1997, where the champion lost to 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.c3!?
There are also several pieces (mostly featuring deep annotations of classic games with gambit openings) published at not currently accessible via the Internet Archive: The Electronic Campfire #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7.


Robert Pearson said...

Great stories, great games and articles, great post! I had read some of the Gambit Cartel articles here and there, but it's fun to see the man behind them.

Anonymous said...

Hey Michael, I thought you might want to know...Emilio Cordova appears to be doing well!

He is playing in the 4th Annual Continental Chess Championship in Cali Columbia where he is currently tied for first (5.5/7). Yesterday he defeated GM Gurevich and today he plays GM Ivanov.

The official site:

Does this now qualify him for his 3rd and final GM norm?

Anonymous said...

Hey Michael,

I'm not sure you remember me. I'm Victor Rosas 2023 USCF. We played a game once at west orange. Well, the reason i'm writing to you is to joing the Kenilworth C.C i would like to see if there are any possibilities of me participating together with u guys at the amateur team... I've always played board 4 in west orange's strongest teams. Also, I would like more info on ur club. Thank you michael. My email

Anonymous said...

Glad I found this- even more reason to really dig into the Gambit Cartel archives :D

Anonymous said...

Tim McGrew Rocks!

transformation said...

this is the very last time that i will miss your post, and delight in your work, which is of the best class.

thank you so much. the best. thank you.

warmest, david

Michael Goeller said...

Looking for more online writings by Tim McGrew? I just stumbled across some of his games with the Blackmar Diemer Gambit (or BDG for those in the know):
The First Time
Tim McGrew Annotates (1)
Tim McGrew Annotates (2)

I also notice that the Archived articles I link to are suddenly available from the Web Archives. Happy reading!

Anonymous said...

Amazing article. I can't believe this exists.