Aleksandr Lenderman

Young U.S. GM Aleksandr Lenderman, even if he never wins another chess game, has already been immortalized in the surprisingly readable 2007 book by journalist Michael Weinreb, The Kings of New York, subtitled “A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Geniuses Who Make Up America’s Top High School Chess Team.”

I say “surprisingly readable” because not every book about chess by non-chessplayers is readable, at least not with unalloyed pleasure. For example, The Chess Artist by J.C. Hallman, though mildly interesting, comes off as an artificial production, in which Hallman follows around the marginal U.S. master Glenn Umstead (who actually loses his master rating during the time covered in the book, which renders the title problematic), and provokes situations to give himself material for his book. In his attempts to make these situations seem significant, Hallman uses portentous language to imbue them with a false sense of drama. As filler between these lugubrious pastiches, Hallman provides historical information about the game and its players, but his tone is slightly off because he himself is not a real chessplayer and he does not really understand the game or its milieu. The entire work is weighed down by a heavy air of skepticism about chess and chessplayers, with the usual digs at chessplayers’ clothing, hygiene, and behavior, and the drabness of typical tournament settings. Hallman himself is a creature of writers’ workshops: his overwriting reeks of academic exercises. Back in the 1970s, Alexander Cockburn of The Village Voice attempted another deconstruction of chess and chessplayers in his notorious book Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of Death, but Cockburn was a hip journalist rather than a writing workshop graduate and did the thing much better. Idle Passion is a hilarious account of Cockburn’s time with Bobby Fischer in the lead-up to the 1972 match with Spassky. Like Hallman, Cockburn adds reflections on the game of chess itself, which are so outrageous in Cockburn’s case that they amuse rather than offend. Of course Cockburn had the advantage of following around Fischer at his peak rather than Umstead at his nadir, but his prose is also more fun to read. Perhaps I exaggerate: I read Idle Passion over thirty years ago, and in those days my capacity for fun may have been greater, my critical sense less well-developed.

In a random postscript, let me say I was hunting through a pile of my old forgotten scoresheets recently, literally dusty and most of them never looked at since the games were played. Although I have only played a dozen or so games per year on average, and the USCF has probably had hundreds of thousands of different members during what for lack of a better word I will call my career, I discovered I had once played Umstead. What are the odds? (For the record: I lost.)

Why do I bring up Lenderman in The Chess Improver? Because Lenderman is a wonderful example of a self-made player, who could not afford coaching or much in the way of chess literature or travel to events, but played himself into a grandmaster. He probably could not have done this, if he had not lived in New York City. At least, he probably could not have done this anywhere else in the U.S.

Here is a chart of Lenderman’s USCF rating over time:

Rating Graph

Rating Graph

A cursory look at this chart may lead you to think Lenderman simply shot up the charts with great natural talent, and certainly he must have some talent, but there is a great deal more to his story than talent. Look at the following chart, showing how many USCF-rated games he played over the years, especially in his school days:

Games Played

Games Played

Looking at the list above, a number of observations occurred to me. The first one is that Lenderman has played an awful lot of chess in a relatively short time. You can also see that his rise to grandmaster was not meteoric or even easy. For example, after 55 rated games he was still a USCF Class D player, rated only 1368. At a similar age I played in my first USCF-rated events, and after only two events my initial rating was 1569—201 points higher than Lenderman achieved in his first two years of play.

In Lenderman’s third year of tournament play, he picked up the pace significantly, playing 154 rated games and reaching a peak of 1922. So it took him about 200 games to reach USCF Class A, which is two classes below National Master. I myself reached Class A, with a somewhat higher rating than Lenderman, in fewer games—perhaps half as many. No one thought I was a prodigy.

But then Lenderman really buckled down, and played an incredible 270 rated games in his fourth year. He achieved a 2214 rating, which is barely National Master. We will now stop talking about me, except to note, that by now in his fourth year of tournament play, Lenderman had already played more rated games than I would play in my entire life (to the present day).

So now Lenderman was on his way, right? It would all be easy sailing for him from here on out, as he rose inexorably up the rating chart.

If you thought that was the case, you would be dead wrong. In Lenderman’s fifth year he played another 169 games, a large number by almost anyone’s standards, but his rating only inched up five points, from 2214 to 2219. Think of how frustrating that must have been for him! Here was the young Lenderman, giving his all to chess, and playing a rated game about every other day on average for a solid year—playing more tournament chess than 99% of all players—and improving absolutely not at all by statistical measures, because five rating points is well within the margin of significance for a USCF rating.

Many players would have drawn the conclusion that they had peaked, reached their limit, and were now stuck on a plateau they could not rise above. But Lenderman, in the face of a painful year’s worth of evidence that he was destined to be no more than a very weak, marginal master, actually redoubled his efforts. I use the word “redoubled” with conscious intent, because the next year he played 322 games, almost double the number he had played the year before, and still his personal record. This was 2004, his miracle year of fabulous improvement, when he raised his rating from USCF 2219 to 2454.

In no year since has he played as many games or improved nearly so much (how could he?). In fact, his rating actually decreased in two of the next seven years. But every year through 2010 he played a very large number of games by almost anyone’s standards—he played 311 games in 2009—and his rating has continued to trend upward overall, reaching its peak of USCF 2710 in 2012. His playing schedule has eased off a bit in the last two years, but he has still played 90-plus games per year on average. So far in 2013 he looks on pace to play well over 100 games again. His current USCF rating is 2700.

What lessons can we draw from Lenderman’s career to date? Let me suggest a few.

First, talent rarely exists independently of effort. Whatever talent Lenderman had, required hard work to draw it out.

Second, even the best players can get stuck on plateaus. We can see from Lenderman’s data that he went through stretches of hundreds of games when his rating hardly moved—or even decreased. Again—try to imagine his frustration! Think of the inevitable nagging, corrosive self-doubts any player would have to deal with in such situations! Each time he found himself on a long-lasting plateau, he must have wondered: Is this my limit? Have I finally hit a hard ceiling, which I cannot fight my way through? Is this how good I am destined to be?

Which brings us inevitably to our third lesson: If you want to improve at chess, you must be persistent in the face of negative feedback! You will have setbacks, no matter how hard you work, no matter how good you are. You will endure long periods of apparent stagnation. You must face the self-doubts and overcome them. It is true that eventually you will hit a ceiling that you cannot break through: everyone does. But you must not pre-judge what that ceiling is, because you cannot know in advance what it will be. You must always believe that you can break through whatever ceiling you are currently banging your head against. Only by having faith in yourself, and persisting despite your own doubts and the negative opinions of others, will you be able to fight through the barriers you encounter, and become the best player you possibly can be. One day you will reach your maximum. But you will only recognize that day much later, when you are looking back at it.

Tim Hanke