Chess, baseball, Nixon, 1974

by admin on April 19, 2008

I’ve mentioned in a previous blog entry that I very much enjoy Ilya Odessky’s stream-of-consciousness articles at www.chesspro.ru, which start out being about chess but end up going in completely unpredictable directions. So I’m going to try a similar approach today and write about the first national chess tournament I ever played in: the U.S. Junior Championship in 1974.

The U.S. Junior was held at Franklin and Marshall College, in Lancaster Pennsylvania, which was two very wide states (Ohio and Pennsylvania) away from where I lived at the time in Indiana. So this was by far the longest distance I had ever traveled to get to a chess tournament. Of course, being only 15 years old, I couldn’t just get on Orbitz and make a plane reservation, the way I can now. I had to persuade my parents to take me, and the only reason I succeeded was that I combined it with a college Grand Tour. I was entering my junior year of high school (yeah, 15 years old is kind of young for that, but I had skipped a grade) and starting to think about colleges. So I lined up interviews at Dartmouth and Yale and Princeton and Swarthmore, and my father agreed to take a week-long road trip with me that would end with dropping me off at the chess tournament.

What goes around, comes around. I’m not sure what it’s like in other countries, but here the tradition of the college Grand Tour seems to be alive and well. My nephew, Stephen, is now in his junior year of high school, and recently on spring break he came out with his whole family to San Francisco, so that he could visit Berkeley and Stanford. My wife and I drove up to the city last month to see them, and we went out to a nice downtown restaurant. Amazingly, when we got there, the waiter sat us down at a table next to one of Stephen’s high-school classmates!! Just to explain how unbelievable that is, you have to keep in mind that America is a huge country and San Francisco is a huge city, with 776,733 residents in the latest census and at least 776,734 restaurants. Every nook and cranny has a restaurant, to feed all the hungry tourists who come there. So I want you to calculate the odds of Stephen flying all the way across the country from Minnesota to San Francisco, picking one restaurant at random, sitting down at the table and seeing a classmate from his own school in Minneapolis eating at the next table, just as if they were eating at the school dining hall.

Such a coincidence requires documentary proof. However, posting on the Internet a photograph of him and a girl who is not his girlfriend would undoubtedly get him in big trouble with the girl who is his girlfriend, so I won’t do it. However, here is a picture of our whole family together at the restaurant on St. Patrick’s Day.

From left to right, that’s my wife Kay, my sister Martha, her older son Matthew, me, my sister’s husband John, and Stephen, the star of the show.

So… back to 1974. The road trip actually ended up being sort of a cool father-son bonding thing, which is probably the way my parents intended it. We drove on two-lane highways all the way through New York (remember, our first stop was Dartmouth), and visited the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for the first time. I think that made a bigger impression on me, actually, than any of the colleges! I was an avid baseball fan. The night before that, we went to a baseball game in Cleveland, in which the Detroit Tigers beat the home-town Indians, 8-2, after getting four home runs in the first inning. All this information is courtesy of my diary, where I also wrote, “We got a room on the tenth floor with an excellent view of Lake Erie and of the power plant.”

The college visits helped me form quick, superficial impressions that for no good reason completely changed my life. I did not like Yale at all, so I didn’t even apply there. Instead, my sister ended up going to Yale, as well as her son Matthew, who is currently a sophomore. If I had liked Yale and gone there, would Martha have picked it? Would Matthew have followed in her footsteps? Probably not. So impressions formed in an hour or two end up echoing down the generations …

The Franklin and Marshall campus was considerably less grand than the schools I had just visited, but I was there to play chess, not interview for college. There were about 200 players at the tournament, and I started out on board 94 out of 100. That means I was just barely in the upper half of the rating pool; at the time I would have been 1500-something, but I don’t remember exactly. The top-rated player was a 14-year-old with a rating of 2315. Can you figure out who it was? I never got within a mile of playing on the top boards, but I still remember this player’s calm, unflappable demeanor. He had curly hair and an angelic face that looked rather girlish, but I doubt that anybody teased him about it in this crowd, because nobody teases the #1 guy in the tournament.

There wasn’t much to do in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Actually, it has a great Amish market with lots of rustic souvenirs, but 15-year-old boys don’t care about stuff like that.) However, I do remember my one off-campus excursion vividly, because I found a record store that had a whole wall full of old 45-rpm records. This was absolutely mind-blowing! People who have grown up in the iTunes generation would not understand this at all. Back in the ’70s, single songs were released on 45-rpm vinyl records, which were much smaller than albums and only had room for one song on each side. They had a big hole in the middle that required you either to have an adapter on your record player or to insert a plastic tab that would take the size of the hole down to the regular size for a 33-rpm record. Why did they make them that way? I have no idea. When you’re a kid, things just are the way they are.

Anyway, the thing about single records is that they were really cheap, crummy recordings. By the time you got to 10th or 11th grade you discovered that it was not cool to own 45’s. All the cool kids bought the 33-rpm LP (long play) albums; 45-rpm records made you look like a little kid who didn’t know any better. So there was only a short period in my life when I was interested in singles, basically from age 12 to age 15.

The other thing to know about singles is that they were very evanescent. They were basically a promotional device, and so a hit song disappeared from stores very rapidly once the song was no longer a hit. If a song went to #1, you might still be able to find the single a year or two later, but otherwise forget it. This store in Lancaster was the first record shop I had ever seen that had oodles and oodles of old singles, not just the #1 hits but the smaller hits and the not-really-hits-at-all. I was in heaven. But I also had very little money with me. So I had to pick out just two records, and the two I picked out were “Vincent” by Don McLean (you can listen to it here) and “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend” by Lobo (you can watch a video here). You can tell I was really into sappy, moody ballads at that time. (Still am).

I remember picking out those two records as if my life depended on it, as if I would never get a chance to hear those two songs again if I didn’t buy them now. Little did I realize that 30 years later there would be the Internet and iTunes, and absolutely everything would become available again!

The owner of the record store was probably a die-hard pop music fan. I remember that when I handed “Vincent” over the counter to him, he said, “Gene Vincent!” with glee. Then he saw it was really “Vincent” by Don McLean, and shut up. At the time, of course, I had no idea who Gene Vincent was. In a way I’m sorry that I didn’t actually buy a Gene Vincent record; it certainly would have been much more adventurous and would have made the shop owner so happy.

The tournament was kind of a bust for me; I went 5-3, with a forfeit win in the last round because my opponent didn’t show up. It was probably one of the first tournaments in which I actually lost rating points, and that was a shock to me. In my diary I reflected on my motivation for playing:

When we were playing touch football or Frisbee before a round began and someone wanted to quit, we would always ask them, “Did you come here to play chess or have fun?” My problem was that I came to improve my rating and/or win a prize, and that interfered with both playing chess and having fun, so I did neither very well.

Boy, is that a familiar refrain! It’s happened only about a thousand times since then …

But there are two more things that I remember fondly about the tournament. First, it was the only time in my life when I ever played multiple-board bughouse. Most of you probably know bughouse, or “Siamese chess” as it is sometimes called, which is played with two-person teams. One person on each team plays White and the other plays Black, and when you capture one of your opponent’s pieces, you give it to your partner and he can use it in his game. Kids love it. Now that I am teaching chess, I hate it, because kids always want to play it instead of “serious” chess. I stopped playing bughouse a long time ago because I felt that it messed up my tournament chess. If I had just played a bughouse session, when I got to my next round I would still be expecting pieces to materialize on the board out of nowhere, knights to sacrifice themselves on f7 for no particularly good reason, etc.

But if you ever have a whole bunch of friends together and if you’re into bughouse, you ought to try playing with more than two boards at once. It’s absolutely crazy. If you need a queen, you don’t have to wait as long to get one–one of your teammates on another board will almost surely be able to trade queens for you. But, of course, communicating who needs what pieces where is a major problem! We played up to eight boards at a time, I believe. (Incidentally, an odd number of boards, such as three, poses another interesting problem: all the pieces tend to concentrate on the middle board, while the two at the ends tend to run out of pieces. For that reason, I recommend an even number of boards.)

The other great memory of this tournament was that during the seventh round, President Richard Nixon resigned. (The date was August 8, 1974.)

To people who weren’t around then, let me explain that Nixon was that generation’s George W. Bush, only worse. “Tricky Dick” was always easy to hate, with his shifty eyes and his sagging jowls and his speech that always seemed to be dripping with insincerity. By 1974, the Watergate scandal had been unraveling for a year and a half, and it was apparent to everybody that Nixon not only looked tricky, he was tricky. In fact, he was pathologically and criminally tricky, with his paranoia and burglaries and wiretaps and enemies list.

Unlike Bill Clinton a generation later, Nixon was never impeached. But by August 1974 there was no question that he was not only going to be impeached but he was also going to be convicted (and therefore removed from office), because even his fellow Republicans had abandoned him. Most of them, anyway. One representative from Indiana, the state where I lived, had said, “Don’t confuse me with facts!” and said he would not vote to impeach Nixon.

The rest of the country was not at all confused by the facts, and glad to see Nixon go. So when he came on TV, the tournament director told everyone to stop their clocks so that we could all watch the resignation speech. This was the only time I have ever had a chess game stopped for a historical event. During the broadcast, some of us were speculating on how Nixon would end the speech. I suggested that Nixon should say, “I throw myself upon the mercy of God,” and one of the other kids said that the next word would be, “ZAP!!”

This was the only game I ever played that began under one Presidential administration and ended in another. During the Nixon administration my game got off to a bad start and I “quickly obtained a lost position,” as I wrote in my diary. But after the break, with President Ford now in charge of the country, things went much better: I was able to drum up a counterattack, and my opponent got in time trouble and eventually offered me a draw in a position that should have been winning for him. I was glad to accept.

So I came home disappointed by my result, but with some good memories and songs for my record player. As it turned out, in my next tournament, the Indiana Amateur Championship, I did much better. I won the class-C (under-1600) prize, gained the pile of rating points I had hoped to gain in Lancaster, and earned a monster trophy that is still the largest one in my collection!

Answer to quiz:

The highest-rated player at the 1974 U.S. Junior Championship was the young Yasser Seirawan. My diary doesn’t say whether he won the tournament. A discussion here says that the 1974 U.S. Junior co-champions were Larry Christiansen, now a famous grandmaster, and Peter Winston, who mysteriously disappeared in 1978 at the age of 20, and was never heard from again. However, I suspect that they won a separate invitational championship. I don’t recall Christiansen being at the open tournament in Lancaster. But of course, he wasn’t yet the world-famous Larry Christiansen, and so I might not have noticed him. When the top player in an under-21 tournament is a boy who is 14 years old and looks 10, as Yasser was, you tend to notice that.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Ernest Hong April 19, 2008 at 7:16 pm

That was a fun excursion down your memory lane. Even though I’m guilty of creating heavy chess content, I find it difficult to look at other people’s games and positions. Travels on the lighter side are easy on the brain and yours had some delightful detours.

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Rob April 20, 2008 at 9:49 pm

Dana…Last year I took my wife and her parents, who are french, to California to visit and camp at various national and state parks.

On the last leg of our tour we stayed at a small hotel/casino close to Death Valley. After spending the morning visiting Death Valley, we returned to the hotel to swim and rest.

At the pool we encountered another couple from France and I remember thinking umm…neat, we are not the only ones from France.

At dinner, tables were soon filled with people speaking french…another coincidence?
When I mentioned this to my wife she had a very reasonable explanation for encountering all these french tourists…it was the guidebook! My wife, who a frugal traveler, pointed out that there were several folks who had the same book she was using. The place we were staying at was noted for their nice accomodations at “very good” prices.

Perhaps your nephew and his schoolmate shared the same travel guide found in his school library?
Maybe not such a strange event afterall.

I hope you did not spend hours calculating the chances of such a random encounter, when Sherlock Holmes would have found the common thread.

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Carina April 21, 2008 at 5:29 am

Haha, you look like a happy bunch on that picture. 😀 Nice story btw, the different approach in telling it works out well. Quite relaxing to read and all the details become vivid and interesting.

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admin April 21, 2008 at 8:21 am

Thanks, everyone! I should really try to write more entries like this. Like Ernest and many other chess bloggers, I tend to get caught up in the details of my games and the never-ending Battle to Improve, and my blog gets perhaps a little too serious. Then it’s time to step back and ask, “Are were here to play chess or are we here to have fun?”

Rob, I’m sure you’re right. The restaurant was surely not chosen at random, and it’s quite possible that Stephen’s parents and his classmate’s parents had the same guide book. Actually, I had a similar experience to yours on my first visit to San Francisco. I was traveling with a friend from France, and we stayed at a hotel that was recommended in his guide book. You would have thought we were in Europe! Lots of other guests were speaking French. Not so many Americans.

Moral: You may think you’re leaving home, but you always take a piece of home with you.

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admin May 14, 2008 at 9:50 am

Mark’s addendum says that he doesn’t recall Yasser being rated that high. I’ll be interested to hear what he can find out. My diary is quite specific about the fact that the highest-rated player was rated 2315 and 14 years old–but I did not say in my diary that the highest-rated player was Yasser. That’s my later extrapolation. There’s another possibility, which is possible because I was so new to the chess scene at that point. Perhaps the highest-rated player was someone else, but I saw Yasser constantly around the top boards and mistakenly thought he was the highest-rated player. The only thing I am conifdent of is that the highest rating was 2315, because I just can’t imagine why I would write that number down in my diary if it weren’t on the wallchart.

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Marty Frank October 17, 2011 at 11:37 am

I believe the winner of the tournament was Spencer Lucas. The tournament was my second or third and I was last seed with a rating of 881 or so.

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Dave Gertler August 6, 2016 at 4:36 pm

Spencer Lucas did indeed win the 1974 Junior Open. That was also one of the early tournaments in my career – I was rated 1269, and I played like it.

Yaz was there, and I think he _was_ the top seed. (That sounds right to me, and none of the other players who finished near the top were 14-year-olds with 2300+ ratings.) He finished in a tie for 3rd at 6.5-1.5, behind Lucas (7.5 points) and Charles Brenner (7). Among the other players scoring 6.5 were future IMs Rick Costigan and Mark Ginsburg, plus future FM Karl Dehmelt (who took third on tiebreaks).

One of the other prizewinners was Marty Frank, previous commenter in this thread, who was the highest-scoring player age 12 and under! (Hi Marty!) 🙂

Dana – The tournament that Christiansen and Winston won that year (well ahead of the rest of the field) was the US Junior [Invitational] Championship. That was the first year that all participants were masters! These days, I think everyone in that event is rated well over 2400.

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