Join a Chess Club—Or Start One!

Having a strong chess club nearby is very helpful to one’s chess development. It can almost be called a sine qua non, especially if one lacks time and funds to travel to distant tournaments. For most of my life I’ve probably been luckier than most people in having good chess clubs nearby, or at least within an hour’s drive. In my high school days (1972-76) I lived in a suburb of Rochester, New York. Rochester is nowhere near New York City, which has a critical mass of the best U.S. chessplayers and therefore is clearly the best place for an ambitious chessplayer to develop his skills. (Bobby Fischer grew up in Brooklyn, a borough of New York City; he could not have become world chess champion if he had grown up in the Midwestern U.S. He might have made it, but with considerably more difficulty, if he had grown up on the West Coast near San Francisco or Seattle.) Rochester is upstate near the Canadian border, a six-hour drive from New York City, far enough away that it had to create its own chess culture. Which it did: back then the Rochester Chess Club had no fewer than three members who had won the U.S. Amateur Championship (Erich Marchand, Dave Love, and Ron Lohrman who now operates the successful Rochester Chess Center), and another member who finished third in the 1971 World Junior Championship and second in the 1975 U.S. Championship (GM Ken Rogoff, now an internationally known economist and Harvard professor).

After high school, I moved to the Boston area. Boston had the historic and strong Boylston Chess Club. (However, afflicted by financial troubles, it has moved twice since then, losing its large and beautiful rooms in an old building downtown which it had occupied for over a century. Apparently chess was not the “highest and best use,” as economists say, of this valuable downtown space.) Just over the Charles River in Cambridge, Harvard University had several masters and GM Patrick Wolff, who became two-time U.S. champion. The Metrowest Chess Club, in the western suburbs of Boston, may now be the largest and strongest chess club in New England: an average of 90 players competes there every Tuesday night.

After graduating from college, I stayed in the Boston area to work for several years, and my chess rating climbed over 2100. Then I moved about forty miles north of the city with my young family. After the move a Boston roundtrip took two hours, and visiting weeknight chess clubs became less practical. Not surprisingly my playing activity decreased sharply, and my USCF chess rating gradually dropped from about 2100 to 1900 over the next fifteen years. I did what I could to combat the problem, starting a small club in my town; but obstacles continued to crop up. My National Guard unit was deployed overseas as part of the draining wars in which our country has engaged for the last decade. On my return, I started work at a job that required two to three hours a day of commuting, and kept that job for several years.

Now I have time for chess again—and for my chess club! Other players faithfully kept it going in my absence. But time, while a necessary resource for achieving chess mastery, is not by itself sufficient. I still have constraints, including no chess teacher, no strong local training partners, limited finances, and at age 54, a small and diminishing window of remaining time in which to improve my chess. Old age, which is generally reputed to dull or at least slow down the intellectual faculties, is not far off.

In pursuit of my chess goals, I have developed a flexible personal training program which I will discuss in future posts. After only one month I have not seen good results, but I believe the cause is normal rustiness in my play. Time and persistence will scrape off the rust.

I don’t like to concede much to age, but perhaps as one ages, it does take a bit longer to “come back” from layoffs. I see an analogy with physical activities. In recent years I have not run much due to a foot problem which I developed from my job as a classroom teacher, standing up all day on hard floors. This past summer I tried to resume running, with considerable difficulty. At times I felt I would never recover my speed and stamina. In past decades, whenever I quit running for a while, I could “get it back” with a month or two of hard training. This time, after about four months of careful training—I have not dared to train hard, due to aches and pains I never had before—I am starting to feel that yes, maybe I can run fast again after all. But now I must be patient with my training, and back off when there is pain. They say with age comes wisdom: if so, one reason we are forced to become wiser, no doubt, is to make the most of our diminished capacity. Youth has more strength and less need for wisdom!