An Amateur Chess Improver

GM Nigel Davies, a generous-hearted and open-minded fellow, thought it might be interesting to his audience to hear the views of an amateur chess improver. Because I am a nobody in chess terms, I will take the liberty of sharing my brief autobiography, and why my thoughts about chess may be useful to you.

First the brief autobiography. Lord Chesterfield advised his son to write a book worth reading or do something worth writing about. At age 54 I have so far done neither. So this fall I am walking away from a respectable but mediocre career as a high school Latin teacher.

Lord Chesterfield. (From the one-man show created and performed by the late Daniel McDonald, costumed by Douglas William Spesert,

Since college I have walked away from (or been asked to leave) other jobs as a financial analyst, designer in an art museum, newsletter editor, advertising copywriter, mortgage salesman, press officer, web designer, and race-car magazine editor. I am a jack of all trades, master of none, who has done a lot of things well enough to get paid but hasn’t found his niche.

The only job I have stuck with is my part-time commitment to the National Guard. At the advanced age of 33 I joined the National Guard as an infantry soldier. After three months of basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, where nearly all my fellow trainees were teenagers, I returned home leaner and meaner. But my heart was never really in it—I joined out of a sense of civic duty, not enthusiasm for regimentation and hardship and violence. I liked the walking in the woods part, but not the yelling and shooting guns parts. Now I’m just hanging on for the sake of a small pension when I turn 60.

The National Guard takes up only one weekend a month plus a few days of additional duty now and then. Recently I asked myself: What do I want to do next, to occupy the bulk of my time? Rarely in the midst of life can we afford to pause and ask ourselves this question, but just now I happen to have a little money in the bank. They say money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy freedom (at least until the money runs out). I don’t have a formal list of lifetime goals, a bucket list as they say nowadays, but like everyone else I have some personal aspirations. At this point it doesn’t look like the U.S. president thing is going to work out for me, but other lesser goals still look achievable. For example, I have always wanted to be a chess master.

Right now, after forty years of off-and-on engagement with tournament chess—a pattern rather typical of chess amateurs, I imagine—my U.S. Chess Federation rating is only 1947. The USCF National Master level is 2200. But what if I played regularly? What if I studied regularly? Couldn’t I be a lot better? I am sure many amateur players have thought along similar lines. However, life and its many duties and distractions tend to get in the way. Now I am in a better position than ever before to pursue answers to these questions.

Obviously I’m not very talented, or I would have become a chess master long ago. (For a little while in my thirties I was rated over 2100, due to a string of lucky results.) If I succeed at this late date, well past my prime and with drooling senility beckoning, it must mean I am doing something right. That’s where the value to you comes in. As I plod along my chosen path over the coming months, I will share with you what I am doing to improve at chess, with an emphasis on trying to discover what is working for me and what isn’t. I hope my experiences and reflections are of some interest to the regular readers of this blog, which is, after all, titled “The Chess Improver.” Granted, few amateurs have forty hours a week to spare for chess improvement; but if I can discover and demonstrate a chess improvement system that works, perhaps a similar system could work for you—more slowly, but just as surely. That at least is my hope. The worst case, of course, is that I fail miserably and publicly, but I am prepared to risk that outcome.

I have no intention of trying to reinvent the wheel. There is a large body of experience and theory regarding chess improvement, and a growing body of research about how to achieve mastery in any field. I will surely borrow from those who have gone before me. That said, I do have some ideas about chess improvement that I have not seen spelled out anywhere else, and I plan to try them out on myself. My readers (if I have any) will be the first to hear about them.