How Do You Define Success?

In October, after the tournament director at my local chess club had seen me lose game after game over the previous month to players of a caliber I used to handle easily, he said to me—meaning to be kind, I believe—“I’m not willing to say you’ve lost it yet.”

What is this “it”? Apparently in his estimation, “it” is something you have to have to win chess games. But I think he was looking at the matter the wrong way, if he believed “it” was something you had to have. In fact, “it” is something you have to do. When you have learned to do “it,” your confidence may become visible to those around you, and perhaps at that point you actually do have “it,” in the sense that your aura, if you will, begins to contribute to your success. But the having starts with the doing. If you cease being able to do “it,” you will probably not have “it” very much longer. As the saying goes, “It is not enough to be a good player. One must also make good moves.”

Sometimes, even making good moves is not enough. The other week at my club, I observed a player, who had just lost his game, mark it up on the pairing chart as a win for himself. Of course this was an inadvertent blunder, but I teased him: “You know, Alekhine at his peak used to say, ‘To win against me, my opponent must defeat me in the opening, in the middlegame, and in the endgame.’ Apparently to win against you, your opponent must also defeat you on the pairing chart.”

When we get past the semantic discussion of having “it” versus doing “it,” the question arises, how do we learn to do “it”? We have arrived squarely at the raison d’être of this blog, which is called “The Chess Improver.” Leaving aside the specifics of what one must do day-to-day to improve at chess, which I will discuss in many another post, the key thing is to keep on doing it. It is all about the doing. But more than that, it is about doing it every day consistently. Let me quote Kramnik’s earnest advice again: “You must work hard every day. If you work hard for six months and take six months off, you will never get anywhere. You must work hard every day.” Granted, Kramnik’s definition of working hard at chess is probably very different from yours and mine. In our cases, an hour or two a day may be all we have to spare for chess; we think we are working hard at the game if we give it that much time out of our busy lives. We are amateurs, and so by definition, our lives are not primarily organized around chess. We can still work hard at chess by our own definition, and we can still achieve success at chess by our own definition. Whereas Kramnik’s definition of success was beating Garry Kasparov to win the world championship, your definition may be earning the master title, or raising your rating to the next class, or beating that player at the local club who always seems to beat you. You can define success any way that suits you.

I have observed many aging players, from grandmaster level on down, who were clearly losing “it,” yet continued to play as often as they could, even with severely diminishing returns in games won. Clearly they have learned to redefine chess success for themselves. Last month I witnessed Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier, born in 1929, the same year as my father, playing in the top section of the monthly swiss at Metrowest Chess Club near Boston. Bisguier was U.S. Champion in 1954, almost sixty years ago. I met him nine years ago, when we were roommates at the 2003 U.S. Open in Los Angeles. That was the last year his USCF rating was as high as 2300. These days his rating is usually at his 2200 rating floor. As a Life Master he cannot fall below 2200, unless he petitions the USCF to remove his floor. (A USCF Life Master has played 300 games while maintaining a USCF rating of 2200 or higher.)

In the 1980s Erich Marchand, whom I played against at the Rochester Chess Club in my high school days, became the most active player in the U.S. despite being in his seventies. You could also argue he became so active because he was in his seventies, since as a retiree he now had the free time. A former U.S. Amateur champion and endgame columnist for Chess Life, Marchand was a Life Master, but asked the USCF to allow his rating to float downward in his old age.

As someone who runs to stay in shape and occasionally competes in local races, I have observed the inevitable slowing of runners as they age. Chess has rating classes so players of all levels can compete for prizes against others of their own rating level; running has age-group prizes which are further divided by sex. Thus 54-year-old male runners like me will compete for prize purposes against other male runners in the age 50-59 age group. Larger races will make the prize categories even more granular, putting me in the male 50-54 group. Unlike U.S. chess tournaments, which (unless they are very small) typically separate players so they compete only against players in their own class, most U.S. road races and cross-country races lump all competitors together during the race, and only differentiate them by group in the prize-giving process. Thus a 50-54 year old male (or less likely, female) runner can win first prize overall in any race if he (or she) is fast enough, whereas a Class B chessplayer who competes in the Class B section will not be eligible to win first prize overall in the chess tournament. Chess events like the U.S. Open, in which players of all classes compete together, are exceptions.

Why do older chessplayers keep playing, when their ratings keep dropping? Why do older runners keep racing, when their times keep slowing? An article in Running Times (September 2012) offers one explanation that may serve for both groups. “Always Up for a Race” profiles 53-year-old John Tuttle, whose name I first heard when we were both high-school cross-country runners in upstate New York. Tuttle finished third in the 1984 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials—my high-school teammate Pete Pfitzinger finished first—and competed in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Today at age 53 he is still racing. Tuttle says, “I want to be as good as I can be, for as long as possible. I’m always going to run. And if I’m going to run, I might as well race and try to be up near the top.” What if you can no longer finish near the top? “Regardless of what shape you’re in there’s always somebody else to race. You can always get into it with somebody and make it kind of interesting and fun. That’s the way I look at it.” I’m guessing Arthur Bisguier feels much the same way, and so did Erich Marchand.