Chess memories (1980s edition)

by admin on May 10, 2008

Today I will continue the ambling through my chess past that I began with this entry about the Richmond (VA) chess club in the 1970s and that entry about the U.S. Junior Open in 1974. But first, let me mention, for anyone who likes this kind of stuff, you should also definitely check out Mark Ginsburg’s blog, A Personal Chess History. He has tons of entertaining stories (and lots of hilarious photographs!) about well-known chess personalities and events from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Unlike me, Ginsburg knows everybody who is anybody in the U.S. chess scene.

It turns out that he was also at the U.S. Junior Open in 1974, and mentions it briefly in two entries, here and here. For all I know, we even played Frisbee together. Like me, he writes about what Yasser Seirawan was like back then, and adds some other minor details that I had no memory of, such as who won the tournament!

But let’s move on to another place and era in my life: the 1980s, and North Carolina. In 1983, I staggered to the finish of my graduate studies at Princeton University. They somehow let me out of New Jersey with a paper saying that I had a Ph.D., and I got my first teaching job at Duke University, in Durham.

Duke had some very strong players in the mid-1980s, but the real center of chess in the Triangle (this refers to three cities — Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill — that are separated by only a few miles) was Raleigh. The Raleigh chess club met every Friday night, at a recreation center in Kiwanis Park. I’m glad to see that the club is still going, and still in the same place! 

Raleigh was also where we had the monthly “Phi Kappa Blanca” tournaments, which were organized by Robert Singletary. This may have been the longest-running series of tournaments anywhere in the United States: they went all the way up to Phi Kappa Blanca CIX (that’s 109, for people who don’t do Roman numerals) before they ended in 2002. They began in 1983, inspired by the “Phi Slamma Jamma” nickname of the University of Houston basketball team that year. I don’t know why they ended, but I can only guess that Robert got too busy directing tournaments at the national level, and didn’t have time for these local tournaments any more. (I would welcome more information from anyone who knows.)

With his red hair and freckles, Robert was easy to spot in a crowd, but as a person he was very selfless, calm and reasonable, and did not draw attention to himself. That made him a perfect tournament director and organizer. He was certainly a unique figure in North Carolina chess, and maybe even national chess. Young chess-playing prodigies are a dime a dozen, but can you name anyone else who was a tournament-directing prodigy? I didn’t think so. Although he was a player of modest ability (perhaps 1600-strength), he had a greater impact on North Carolina chess than any master. I don’t know anyone who ever had a bad thing to say about him.

The mainstays of the Raleigh chess club at that time were a strong group of experts. They were great competition for me, because I was an expert, too. Bernie Schmidt, an English teacher, was perhaps the most colorful of them, the sort of person who was willing to talk about anything — not just chess. He had a hard-fighting chess style; I would compare him to Lasker or Korchnoi in the sense that he didn’t necessarily have the best theoretical knowledge, but in any position he would find the moves that would make it a hard battle. He never managed to get his rating to master level, but you always knew when you played him that it would be a good game.

The strongest player in the club (although he didn’t come very often) was Greg Samsa, a 2300-ish player who probably could have been a lot better. Style-wise, I would compare him to Capablanca; he had a very smooth and effortless approach to chess. One time I asked him how he could play so fast, and he said, “Chess is a very simple game. There’s just not that much to think about.” Unfortunately, Greg almost never played in tournaments outside the Triangle area; he said that his wife kept him on a short leash.

Greg had a subtle but barbed sense of humor, which expressed itself most in the nicknames he gave to people. Steve Tarin, another master, was “The Macrodont” because of his large teeth. Jack Berry was “Jack the Expert.” I don’t know why this nickname was so peculiarly appropriate for Jack, but it was. It somehow captured Jack’s vanity, and the fact that he lusted after being a master but seemed condemned to eternal life as an expert. (Actually, Jack did eventually make it to 2200 for a while, after I left North Carolina, but I don’t know if he ever shed the nickname “Jack the Expert.”)

The other most appropriate nickname was Alan Patrick’s. Everyone called him “Alpo,” a name he must have hated, but it fit him perfectly. First, it was such a nice, easy contraction of his name. And second, he was kind of chubby and beefy. Just like, well, a can of Alpo dog food. Sorry! But actually, Alpo was a great, easy-going guy. He eventually made it to master, just barely: His peak rating was 2203, and he only stayed above 2200 for one tournament! Still, that’s good enough to get a certificate. Alan was also a state co-champion in 2003.

Probably the player I liked best, both personality-wise and also because our chess styles were quite similar, was Robin Cunningham. He graduated from high school in Raleigh and went to the University of North Carolina. I kept in touch with him for a long time after both of us left North Carolina. For a while he worked for the Educational Testing Service, and then he became an actuary. He has written a textbook on actuarial science, so he is a published author, too!

Robin now lives in California, not too far from me. His peak rating was 2432, but he is now retired from tournament chess, having succumbed to the lure of poker instead. However, I did manage to drag him out of retirement in 2006. I was forming a team for the (short-lived) Bay Area Chess League, called “Eight is Enough,” which aside from Robin consisted entirely of Santa Cruz players. We didn’t have anyone in Santa Cruz who was really good enough to compete on first board, so I asked Robin if he could be our ringer. Actually, given his long absence from chess, he felt more like a sacrificial victim — he said that his main role would be to keep the first-board chair warm while the other three people on the team won the match. He played three games for us, losing one and drawing two, but one of those two draws was the biggest game of the whole season. In the championship playoff, we had to win because the other team was ahead of us on tiebreaks. We got ahead 2-1, but Robin was in a life-and-death struggle on board one. I thought he was going to lose, but in a pawn-down minor-piece endgame he pulled out a miraculous save. Thanks to that game we won the match, 2.5-1.5, and took the league title. He said, “I was never so glad to draw a game in my life!”

Incidentally, Robin had a history with team tournaments. If you look at Mark Ginsburg’s list of winners of the U.S. Amateur Team Championship — East, you’ll see the team “Walk Your Dog” listed for 1987. Even though Duke and UNC are archrivals in sports, this team was a joint Duke — UNC effort. The two top boards, Michael Feinstein and Bill Mason, were students at Duke, and the third board, Robin, was at UNC. I have to admit that I don’t know where the fourth board, David Greenstein, came from.

Unlike many USATE winners, “Walk Your Dog” was a balanced team; everybody’s ratings were between 2000 and 2400. There was a big controversy this year when a “stacked” team subverted the rules by fielding three grandmasters and a five-year-old whose rating was 100-something. (Elizabeth Vicary’s blog entry just barely mentioned this issue, but drew 189 comments (!), some of them quite impassioned.) Well, there were stacked teams back in 1987, too, and “Walk Your Dog” took particular pleasure in beating all of them. A second “Walk Your Dog” team, still with Feinstein and Mason on the top two boards (although by this time both had graduated from Duke), won the USATE in 1990.

Michael Feinstein, by the way, remains very active in chess, coaching one of the nation’s best scholastic chess teams in Austin, Texas. Elizabeth Vicary mentions him in this blog entry, where she says that he was her first chess teacher! That would have been when Michael was a student at Duke, and Elizabeth was still in high school.

I went to the World Open one time with Michael, and I can report that he had one interesting superstition. He had a pair of rather ugly green pants that were his “lucky pants,” and which he wore on the last day of any big tournament. I wonder if he still has them? Does he wear them when his chess team has a big match? Inquiring minds want to know.

Speaking of Elizabeth, she was also a product of the Triangle chess scene. I’m very proud of her. I would never have guessed that she would become so well known nationally, would write great articles for U.S. Chess Online, would have one of the most popular chess blogs, would coach prize-winning chess teams from Brooklyn and would be profiled at length in a book, Michael Weinreb’s The Kings of New York. Back in the 1980s, she was just a goofy but extremely smart high-school girl. One year I taught her in a math class at Duke’s Talent Identification Program (TIP), a summer program for gifted and talented students. I guess I should have known she would go on to do great things, because even in a class full of overachievers, she overachieved the most. I had to make up extra assignments in the last week for her and one or two other kids, because they had finished the syllabus. It was the first time I had ever needed to do that in my TIP course.

The only dirt I can dish on Elizabeth is that she wasn’t always the pencil-thin person you see in the photographs today. As a teenager she still had normal amounts of what some people might call “baby fat.” I can only speculate that at some point the Body Image Police got inside her head. Perhaps this is part of what she calls in her blog “the surpassing weirdness of being a female in our society.” Anyway, this is a small matter; if she is happy with her appearance now, that is her business — but I think she looked fine before, too.

Now that I’ve gotten a chance to write about the people I knew in North Carolina chess, what they would say about me? Actually, to start with, some of them wouldn’t know who “Dana Mackenzie” is. I changed my name in 1989, when I got married, and my wife and I moved to Ohio just three months later. So some of the people in North Carolina probably never even found out about the name change, and no one really had time to get used to it. (Previously my name was Dana Nance. As an amusing aside, the official list of North Carolina chess champions until this year listed the 1985 and 1987 champion as “Dana Vance”! I like anonymity, but that’s really taking it too far…)

When I won my first state championship, the Durham Morning Herald ran a short article about it. The reporter interviewed Leland Fuerstman, the tournament director, who told her that I was very “affable.” So the headline of the article read, “Affable Chess Champ Calls Game ‘A Work of Art’.” I don’t think that anyone noticed this article besides me and Robert Singletary, but forever after that Robert called me “Mr. Affable.” Oh well, I can think of worse ways to be remembered.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Soapstone May 11, 2008 at 6:49 am

Very nice profiles. My eyes ate it up. A friend of mine also called you affable along with David Vigorito.


admin May 12, 2008 at 10:44 am

Thanks, Ernest!

For a very brief period of time, about 10 years ago, I played chess online at Yahoo! Games. (I didn’t stick around long because the ratings there are even more fraudulent than the ratings on ICC.) My handle was “elbaffa,” which is “affable” backwards. However, I’m not certain whether this was a good idea, because it sounds kind of Spanish. Maybe “el baffa” actually means something embarrassing in Spanish! Does anyone know?


Conrad Conero November 20, 2009 at 12:48 am

Don’t ask me how I found this blog, but I played in one Phi Kappa Blanca tournament in 1994 ( I live near Durham) and well remember meeting Robert Singletary. I noticed that his tournaments weren’t being held any more and wondered about that. Now I know. Thanks.


Geralds January 9, 2011 at 10:31 am

Perfect blog!
Keep posting


shawn April 25, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Hi Dana,

Wow loved the info on the 80’s Raleigh scene. I was a student at Wake Forest University in the late 80’s and recall playing Bernie, Patrick, Samsa and i believe you as well. Singletary was great! You can’t however have a blog about Nc Raleigh chess without mentioning Buaziz ( sp?) and Cooley. Shawn Hoshall


Demay January 21, 2012 at 11:57 am

A round of applause for your blog article. Thank you! looking forward to more.


Eugene Davenport March 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Nice an old NC player myself and at 48
It’s nice to hear about the good old days. Eugene Davenport
USCF ID 11469647


Eugene Davenport March 9, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Also a guy that I grew up with in Wilmington NC by the name of Mark Becker was in that group of talented young players. The players that came from this little era have been dominate in NC chess for years. This group consist of John and Kevin Kirby,Mark Becker,Matt Noble, Alan Patrick,
Mark Sewell, Arnold Tharington, and Robin Cunningham, I’m pretty sure this era was probly the most dominant ever in that they all came up at the same time!


Sara May 5, 2013 at 6:29 pm

I was meandering through some thoughts and started googling Robert Singletary and came across this info – Just in case anyone is intereted in knowing what Singletary has been up to.


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