My Thoughts and Experiences with Chess in High School

This is my very first post on the Chess Improver. I decided to start my story at the beginning of my chess career back in the 1970’s. I moved from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to be with my mom, brother and sister. My brother, Steve, taught me the basic moves and rules of chess, but he did not know all of the official rules. So, when we played against each other we played by our own agreed upon rules and thus made many illegal moves. When my cousin, Jimmy, showed me the en passant rule I thought that he was cheating!

In 1974 I joined the chess club at H. B. Plant High School and became a part of the chess team that won the Southeastern High School (Region 4) Chess Championship three years in a row. My very first published rating was 892. While still rated 892 I beat players rated as high as 1500. This proves that ratings really do not mean much. The chess coach and sponsor, Mr. Stone, taught me to play the King’s Indian Attack as White and the Sicilian Dragon as Black. Steve showed me the Four Knights variation of the Sicialian Defense and we both had some luck with that. Most of the other kids that we played against had no clue how to handle these openings. I quickly rose up in ratings to just under 1400 points and then stayed in the 1300 range for a few more years.

I was able to borrow chess books from the library of books that the Paleveda family owned and that helped me to learn quickly. Even so, I had trouble beating Steve at chess even though he almost never studied chess at all! He had a natural talent for it and was rated a few points below me throughout my entire Junior and Senior years of high school. The main reason that I joined the chess club was to get good enough at chess to consistantly beat Steve at chess!

During 1974 my chess coach, Mr. Stone, mentioned a chess tournament that was USCF rated and encouraged me to play in it. I told him that I was not good enough to play in chess tournaments and he stated, “You don’t play in chess tournaments because you are good. You play in chess tournaments to become good.”. My first rated event was a beginners (Under 1200 or unrated) chess tournament that was 4 rounds in one day. I lost my first three rounds and won the last one in only one move. I played 1. N-KB3 (Nf3) and my opponent said, “Oh no! I can’t take it any more!” and resigned! I asked him why he did that and he stated that he did not know how to defend against that opening. He could have at least tried to play me. Although I do enjoy easy wins I cannot learn anything from them.

One thing that hurt my rate of improvement was playing in mostly Under 1400 sections of chess tournaments. I won trophies and cash prizes, but I hurt my rating and chances to get better at chess. Also, I didn’t really have a coach that gave me private, or group, lessons. The stronger players did not teach me much either. I learned mostly by losing to them.

Back then there were no chess engines, databases or DVD’s. VHS was the most popular video format and chess playing computer programs were so weak that a 1300 rated player (me) could beat them. Playing in chess tournaments and studying books was the only way for me to improve at chess.

One thing that irks me about coaches is that they have a preferred way of doing things and will force their system onto players and students. A football coach will eliminate or bench any player that cannot fit into his system. Likewise, chess coaches have their preferred chess openings and will teach those openings even if they are not appropriate for some of their students. For example, one coach in the Tampa area has his 900 rated kids playing gambits as White. Gambits are a good way to learn tactics, but a 900 rated player is not going to know how to effectively handle the complications that can arise. He may become discouraged by all of the losses before he really learns anything. Another coach in Tampa teaches al of his students to play the Ruy Lopez as both Black and White because that is his favorite opening!

When I once took chess lessons from a USCF Life Master he changed my opening repertoire and created confusion that cost me over 200 rating points. He failed to completely explain some of the ideas behind certain moves. Also, he would not play practice games against me at any time control except 5 minutes. He considered playing a slow game against me to be a waste of his time! I have never paid anyone for chess lessons after that!

My recommendations for beginners are as follows: get a chess coach that will consider your strengths and weaknesses instead of forcing his or her system onto you; learn openings that fit your temperment and style (classical openings versus hypermodern); play against slightly better players than you are as often as you can, and study chess books at a pace that you can handle.

Mike Serovey, MA, MISM