Meetings With Remarkable Chess Masters

Those of you who don’t grok the reference to Gurdjieff, seriously consider getting the book. But back to the precise subject at hand:

Tim Hanke published his fascinating Conversations With Rustam  a couple of days ago, and the piece reminded me of my own encounters with NMs, FMs, IMs and GMs, though I have never had the privilege of having dinner with someone who threatened to kill Nigel Short. That aside, the chess world is actually quite a small world after all, and I have had a number of encounters with famous, semi-famous and infamous masters. Here, in stream-of-consciousness no-particular-order, are some of the more memorable:

When I was 21 years of age I played in a small tournament in Reno, Nevada at the private home of a gentleman who was a friend of GM Larry Evans. Evans showed up shortly before a round and chatted with our host and the players. Evans, who was in his 50s, said something like “Us old guys are not the future of chess, these guys are the future of chess,” waving in my general direction. I blushed. It was not one of his most accurate predictions.

I played in a tournament in Los Angeles in 1986, and had one of the best results of my career, but aside from that I participated in a discussion of the author Raymond Chandler with GM Larry Christensen and some of his friends in the analysis room. I think we disagreed about whose games Philip Marlowe played over in the books. I said Steinitz, and I still think I’m right, but I don’t have the books handy so perhaps a reader will correct me.

I believe it was at this same tournament FM Eric Schiller, Facebook Friend of Nigel Davies and prolific chess author, corrected me in the book room when I said the Slav Defence was a variation of the Queens Gambit Declined. In those days I was still studying books that were old enough to call it such. The “Slav Defence” didn’t become important enough to have its own name until the 1930s, I think. I tried to tell him this but I’m sure he was writing his 67th or 68th chess book in his head at the moment, so I don’t think the point got all the way through.

IM Byron Nickoloff was the friendliest strong player I ever talked to. At the 1990 World Open in Philadelphia, I watched him play GM Seirewan a long tough game, which Seirewan won, and I asked him about whether he might have drawn. Not only did he talk to me like a friend for at least 15 minutes, he revealed that he had many novelties ready, especially as black. “These guys (grandmasters) don’t really want to play e4 against me,” he said, laughing. It was the only time I ever spoke to him, but I could tell he was a Remarkable Man.

Also in Philadelphia I stood at a bar for awhile and struck up a conversation with GM Nick deFirmian. I was drinking whisky, and he was drinking something potent, I think. I don’t remember what we talked about, more’s the pity. It was undoubtably brilliant.

A last player I had an interesting encounter or two with was IM Bryan Smith, the strongest player ever to come out of Alaska. He writes in his article “Chess in Alaska“:

Some months later the year’s biggest tournament took place. This was called the “Fur Rendezvous” and took place along with the annual festival in Anchorage of the same name.

Yes, I played in a number of “Fur Rondys” and once got paired with Bryan in a preliminary “fun” team match at G/30. We had similar ratings, but given his youth (I believe he was 15), he naturally played very quickly and I got into serious time trouble and lost both games. I recall him as being pretty annoying in the postmortem, too. Years later I played him some friendly blitz and a simul, and he was quite a nice person. So it goes. Bryan also writes:

I played two matches against a fellow named Bill Anderson, one in the fall of 1994 and another in the spring of 1995. This was a guy who really loved chess and followed all of the top level games. He was one of the nicer people there.

Well, I played Bill Anderson a match in 2000 and defeated him, as well. So the IM and I have that in common. And Bill was and is a great person, too. I haven’t seen him for a number of years but I hope he reads this, because the point is that chess is wonderful game, but it’s the people we meet, defeat and are defeated by, the talks and drinks and analysis and camaraderie that are really the point. None of us would pay for travel and entry fees and hotels to play against computers.

Improving your chess play and your rating is an important and worthy quest, but along the way, have fun and seize your chances with both hands to talk to and learn from and enjoy the other players, masters or not.