When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth

Back in the day, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, improving one’s chess skills was a simple process in theory. Playing chess meant facing off against a human opponent because the silicon beast had yet to rear it’s ugly head. When I was a teenager, if you wanted to get better at chess you acquired a chess book and studied it. You then took your new found knowledge and tested it out on the chessboard. There was no training software or DVDs. Here’s what I had to do just to get a hold of one chess book in more primitive times:

Back in the late 1970s, I was making my mark on the world by playing guitar in a punk rock band (it was a very small mark). We played the majority of our early shows at the infamous Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino supper club that let anyone show up and commandeer the stage. The man who booked the shows, and subsequently paid the bands, was known for his stinginess. On any given night, my band would make $13.27 to be split three ways. To purchase a single chess book required playing at least three shows.

I decided to purchase by first chess book after I started playing against stronger opponent’s who were crushing me during the opening. Asking a family friend who played chess what I should to improve my opening play, he suggested that I go to the closest chess shop, which was two hours away in Berkeley California, and get a book on chess openings. He added that I should ask for a man whose last name was Lawless. Being a young punk rocker going by the name of Johnny Genocide, I assumed anyone with the last name of Lawless would be either a biker or a punk.

After sweating it out for three nights playing on stage while dodging beer bottles, I had saved enough money to cover the cost of public transportation, sales tax and the cost of the actual book (as long as it wasn’t more than $13.95). I got up early on that faithful day, geared up for an adventure and started the two hour trip to Berkeley California, home of that most aggravating of species, the old school hippy. As a young punk kid, the though of an entire city filled with long haired throwbacks to the 1960s was dismal at best. After suffering through a long train ride spent listening to the caterwauling of poorly trained buskers, I made it to Games of Berkeley or the Church of Chess as I called it.

Walking in, I quickly scanned the store looking for a punk guy or biker. A middle aged man looked up from the counter and then back down at his book. Seeing no one that fit the description my imagination had created, I walked up to the counter. “Hey, do you know a guy named Lawless?” “Yes,” replied the counter-man. “Is he around?” I asked. “That he is,” was all I got in the way of a reply. Undaunted, I continued my line of questioning. “Can you point him out to me?” The man looked up and said “I’m Lawless!” He appeared to be anything but lawless. I suspect this guy had never even gotten a parking ticket and his idea of breaking the law would be having a beer with lunch. Before I could utter another word be said “what do you want kid?” Still trying to get over the fact that this guy did not in anyway resemble his last name, all I could get out was “I need a book on chess openings.” He grunted something and pointed to a massive bookcase on his left.

Not only was the bookcase eight feet tall, it was eight feet wide and every single book on its shelves was about the opening game. There were hundreds of them. Three hundred and seventy three in stock to be exact. We’ll get to how I knew that number later on. Being a guy, I resolutely refused to ask for further help. Anyone with half a brain would have asked for further information. I decided that a real man would simply start rummaging through the books until he found what he was looking for. I grabbed the first book I saw. It was on the Nimzo Indian. I had no interest in indigenous peoples so I grabbed another book. The next book was The Complete Sicilian. Having no interest in Sicily, I kept going. The next book I pulled out left me speechless. It was titled, The Hedgehog. I suddenly felt as if an elaborate prank was being played on me. After all, shouldn’t books about chess openings have “chess openings” in large block letters in their title?

Sadly, I gave up and started the walk of shame back to Mr. Lawless. All men know that walk. It’s the sad shuffle we do when we realize that as men we don’t have all the answers to life’s questions. After clearing my throat a few times, the counter-man looked up. “Yes?” From his tone of voice, I suspect he was enjoying this moment but I would be proven wrong! In a defeated voice, I said “I need a really basic book on chess openings. With that he smiled and said “why didn’t you say so. Come with me.” We walked back to the massive bookcase and what he told me as we went through the books in the opening section changed my chess life.

On that day, I learned that all these strange book titles had something in common. They all described different ways of starting a chess game. If that wasn’t astonishing enough to my rather undeveloped mind, Mr. Lawless went on to say that every single book on those shelves were based on the same guiding principles. All I could say at that point was “wow, the opening most be pretty important and very complicated.” He smiled and told me I had just learned something very crucial.

After finding the appropriate title, he walked me back to the counter and taught me algebraic notation, something I would need to read my new book. He also gave me a battered copy of My System free of charge. I walked out of the store feeling enlightened and more optimistic about my chess playing. The whole adventure took about five hours but it was well worth it.

How did I know the exact number of books on chess openings in their inventory? Six years later, I would go to work in the chess department at Games of Berkeley. Working there, I became well acquainted with all their chess books. When I got my name tag, I was told I didn’t have to use my real name but couldn’t call myself Johnny Genocide. I settled on Alexander Alekhine and for the entire time I worked there, that was my name. Mr. Lawless was my immediate boss and any free time was spent learning the game of chess. It turned out, Mr. Lawless was a National Master so he knew his stuff. I still have the tournament set he recommended I purchase and it is the one thing I’ve managed to keep for over thirty years.

There’s no chess lesson to be learned here, only a life lesson or two. First, never judge a book by it’s cover, as in the case of Mr. Lawless, and never judge a book by it’s title, as in the case of chess books. Second lesson: Ask for directions, whether you’re trying to find a destination while traveling or facing a mammoth wall of books. Asking for directions is much better than doing the walk of shame when your instincts have failed you. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).