I never went far in the Boy Scouts, ending some years' career at Tenderfoot level, the level one achieves roughly by breathing and attending meetings. We met at the little hut on the outskirts of town, right by Gurdon Pond. We would play games like a form of football based on pushing a log across a goal line, and "grab the bacon", which was a bit like rugby, only the ball was instead a kind of bunched-up atheletic sock looking thing.
We did learn to tie some knots in scouts. My favorite was the half hitch. One can tie as many hitches as one things one needs. Pulled in one direction, they are taut and tough. But slip them in the other direction, and they easily "give" and unravel. They're quite useful.
My latest project, improving my chess play, is well along now. I've played some 258 games of on-line blitz chess since October. It's been quite useful for getting me back into the groove of the game. I have this fantasy, you see. I was sitting, pondering, what would be a Useful Thing I could do. It came to me that I could teach chess to people. I had this whole fantasy, of taking the on-line chess instruction courses at U-Texas-Dallas, then teaching chess at those community college extension-type courses as to which I receive catalogs in the mail every quarter or so. This struck me as a worthy thing, as worlds of folks want to learn the game these days, but lessons from "real" chessplayers can be expensive.
Most folks, of course, learned as I did, by picking up the rules from friends, getting their head metaphorically handed to them a few times by superior opponents, and then reading books to get up to speed, trying out the book suggestions against their opponents. I remember the Summer when I finally got a slight advantage over my friend Tim, by realizing that certain defenses I could play would bore him to death, giving me a winning edge. I sometimes believe, by the way, that my litigation style also involves a sheer amount of methodical play which bores opponents to death, but often wins out.
It's possible to learn one's chess from books. But nowadays people like lessons and structure. Kids don't spend their young years playing with paper kites and cheap basketballs and their teen years listening to heavy metal in 8 track format and having no ambition higher than the State U. nowadays. They want to go to a "top 10" school and get listens in fencing and chess from swordsmen and grandmasters. I think that I lived in a freer world once, when education came in books that people read, and we didn't worry as much about things and ribbons.
Still, I imagine that I'd enjoy teaching kids, and adults for that matter, how to be better chess players. I have this mental image that this is a fun way that I could give back to the community, and may one day provide a retirement hobby I could do.
There's a half-hitch in my plan, though. I'm rated B, which means that I am stronger than some 85 percent of all rated chess players, but far short of being an expert or master. I feel that in order to really achieve my goal, I should raise my rating to expert strength.
Chess ratings are funny things. One gets one's rating based on one's results in games against other rated players.I began rated tournament play in 1977, in the Arkansas State Championship. I finished 7th in a field of 30some-odd, taking home a trophy and some cash for being the top unrated player. I soon got my first rating, but I soon found that chess ratings come in plateaus.
It's a funny thing about chess. One's rating will stay at the same level for months and sometimes years on end. It will bob up a little, and then bob down a little. My first rating was 1432, a solid "C" rating, roughly a median rating among rated chess players. I went off to college soon after I got my rating, and found that my college had a very strong chess community. Paul Kuroda, the son of one of the professors, had achieved his master's rating. he was so skilled--a few years later he was one of the winners of the National Open, Las Vegas' huge event to which strong players flock. I did not know him very well, but my impression of him was that he was always a casual gentleman, courteous and very down to earth. He doesn't show up as active on the rating lists, although his rating was 2400. I cannot imagine working to become a strong master, and then just giving up tournament play. This happens often, though, as very strong grandmasters and masters realize that it's so much work, and doesn't really pay like a career. Indeed, one of my chess heroes is Duncan Suttles. He's a Canadian player, who played absurd hypermodern openings and won games despite taking fascinating risks in positions that I can only describe as creepy-crawly. But he gave the game up, in order to make money in computers.
It's a bit like my college English professor, who warned me that once one does reading for a living, one loses some of the love of reading. Maybe being a barely-above-median chess player means that I keep my love of the game.
When I was in college, another couple in town, a married man and woman, had each achieved very high ratings. She was among the top 10 women players in the US, as I recall. I did not really know them at all. I remember hearing about them, because the rumour was that the marriage foundered when one of them withheld some analysis in the c3 line of the Sicilian defense from the other, springing the innovation upon the unsuspecting spouse in a tournament game. I don't really believe that rumour, which I tell only as an amusing anecdote, but I seem to recall that the woman ended up with a strong grandmaster in the long run. We all have our ways of rating people, I suppose.
In addition to these very strong players, there were numerous players much stronger than I was. I had ample opportunities to play chess, as our chess club met two nights a week. I also did a lot of analysis in my dorm room, no doubt cutting an absurd figure as I sat at my little chess table, apparently playing myself in chess.
The curious thing, though, is that despite more practice than I had gotten for years, my chess did not really improve. My rating continued to hover in the 1400s for a number of years. I learned a lesson then, that I have applied in all facets of my life. I learned that although hard work is essential to success, merely because one works hard does not mean that one will succeed. One must also work smart, and have inspiration, intuition and usually a bit of good fortune.
In law school I'd see this theme play out over and over, as the C students might easily have better memory skills, study longer, and take in far more material than the A students.
I remember that many kids I went to law school with had had 4.0 grade point averages in undergraduate school. But the top grades required more than memory skills. It was not enough to memorize the forest. One must be able to further understand the trees.
In college I learned that I could practice and rehearse chess as much as I liked, but practice alone would not improve my game. Interestingly, my rating began to materially improve only when I stopped caring so much about being a good chess player, and just enjoyed playing again. Once my inward Atlas shrugged, suddenly I achieved. I rose a rating class, to "B" rating. I was on the edge of cracking the "A" rating level when I gave up chess tournaments during the first year of my law practice.
I am amazed that I did give up something I enjoyed during my workaholic phase. My thinking was that a weekend of chess was so much mental work I would not have the energy for it. But I wonder, now if I had the energy to do without something besides the workplace to engage my mind.
I took chess back up again while living in Los Angeles. I discovered Chess Palace, the great chess store in Long Beach (now relocated to Los Alamitos), where in a little storefront mini-mall building strong masters would gather to play among we weaker souls. I used to go to a Friday night blitz chess tournament. Each game would last five minutes a side, and one would play a double round robin against two or three dozen players. I found that at the very quick time controls, I could sometimes beat even the master players.
I got to play my first International Master in those blitz tournaments, although I did not beat him.
Later, I found a monthly chess tournament at the Wilshire Chess Society, in which I played a number of times. I even became an officer of the club for a while. I was playing chess for fun, studying a bit, but mostly just enjoying myself. Given my casual attitude, it entirely fits in with my theme here that my rating soon raised into the "A" category.
I'm sad to say that I slipped to "B" category, though, where I still reside. I worry, sometimes, that my strength is actually weaker, because my on-line ratings at the Free Internet Chess Server and at the Internet Chess Club usually hovers in the C level, dipping to a D when I am really doing badly. Of course, most of these games are played at 3 minutes a side time controls, in which my "bore my opponent to death" strategies don't work, because time elapses before boredom sets in. Internet ratings don't mean much, although it is usual they are much higher than "real" over the board ratings, rather than much lower as mine has proven to be.
But I want to get my chess strength up again. I'd like to teach chess as a hobby. Of course, my friend Michael in California taught chess in schools when he was only a "D" player (he also wrote 2 books as a "B" player, which is more unusual still). I've already been asked to teach a chess after school program, but it is in Fort Worth, too far away to fit with my law practice.
But I have this mental image of myself as a rated expert,
teaching kids and adults how to play, organizing tournaments, and conducting myself with a kind of grace and civility. Maybe I'll even wear tweed. I have not had a tweed jacket in years.
But first I must figure out how to stop leaving my queen en prise for beginners to take from me. I must remember not to trade into unfavorable endgames merely to avoid confrontation, which was my bane as a younger player. When I create clogged, complex positions to confuse the other side, I must remember not to think about them so much that my chess clock time runs out. All these thoughts are like little half-hitches, little rules that seem to make for such taut rope. But experience shows me that I do better when I approach the rope from a different angle, and all the knots gently dissipate, leaving me stronger.
In January, I run my first tournament in years. Whether it succeeds or whether it fails, I will run another, learning from what worked and did not work. I will begin to read and study books again, trying to fill in the woeful gaps in my endgames and mating nets. But I'll also relax, and play to my strengths. Most of all, I'll have fun. What purpose is there to doing chess, if it isn't fun?
If the Lords wills, 2004 will be a year of chess, chess poetry, and mail art sent on little postcards to friends far and wide. I'll submit poetry to magazines for potential publications, I'll self-publish another chess poem book, and I'll complete all my outstanding and past due hobby projects. I'll set up that guppy tank I've been assembling for 18 months, and I'll increase my exercise and eat better. I'll do more public service and be kinder and keep writing. I suppose I'm just a walking New Year's resolution today,
tying little half hitches that I hope will hold.