Winning the state, part 1

by admin on June 6, 2008

In a recent post I wrote about chess in the Triangle area (Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina) in the 1980s. That inevitably leads to my next topic, which is the two state championships that I managed to win while I lived in Durham. I’ve been debating whether I wanted to write about this, suspicious of my own motives, and afraid that you would all consider me immodest and stop reading my blog.

But if one is doing memoirs, one has to write about the good as well as the bad. So here goes.

Fact is, I was never the best player in North Carolina. Never never never. Not even close. In my earlier post I already wrote about several people who were better than me just in the Triangle — masters like Greg Samsa, Michael Feinstein, Bill Mason, and Steve Tarin. I was no better and no worse than a lot of other experts — Bernie Schmidt, Robin Cunningham, Alan Patrick, Matt Noble, Dan Liu, to name a few. So I owed my two state titles to a little bit of skill and a whole lot of luck.

But first, a small digression. A psychologist would surely say that my interest in becoming a state champion was because of my younger sister. Our parents got us both into age-group swimming when we were 9 or 10 years old. She was an immediate success. At age 10, she won Indiana state championships in the butterfly and freestyle for girls 10 and under. At age 12, she won again in the girls 11-12 age group.

As for me, well, my parents said I would “grow into” swimming. I would be a “late bloomer.” Et cetera, et cetera. But I knew that I was not cut out to be an athlete. Too skinny, too uncoordinated, too everything. So at age 12, I decided to quit swimming.

My sister and I happened to have a conversation about 35 years later that showed me the other side of the “star athlete” equation. She kept on swimming, with great success, all the way through high school. But she realized that when she got to college, she was not going to be the best any more. So she decided that from then on she would only swim for fun.

This conversation was the first time it had occurred to me that almost everybody — even the kids who seem like star athletes — hits a point when they realize they are not going to get to the next level, whether it’s high-school champion or college champion or professional athlete or Olympic champion. It’s part of growing up and learning to accept your limitations.

Anyway, to get back to the subject, I realized at a very young age that I wasn’t going to be an athlete, and was very much at peace with that. But during my high-school years, I got very interested in chess. I think that as soon as I even knew that state championships in chess existed, it became my goal to win one. It would, in some psychological, karmic way, even the score with my sister.

The nice thing about chess championships is that you can take your time about winning them. You don’t have to be a kid or a teen-ager. So it took a little while, but at age 26 I finally got my turn.

The first thing that gave me a chance to win the state championship in 1985 was politics. As I recall it, there were not very many masters at that year’s tournament, for various possible reasons. The championship that year (and for the following two years) was held in Charlotte, in the very southern part of North Carolina, and some players from the Triangle area simply weren’t interested in traveling that far.

Also, the 1985 state championship was supposed to be a closed event — in other words, only North Carolina residents were eligible. A closed state championship just doesn’t sound like as strong an event as an open one. That’s why they aren’t as common (even though a state championship should, in principle, be determined by games between residents of the state). Perhaps the closed format contributed to a low turnout of masters. If so, Leland Fuerstman, the organizer, got the message: the next two years he ran it as an open tournament, and those years the tournament was much stronger.

One other weird thing happened that year, which turned out to be very significant. As it turned out, one out-of-state player did show up, a master from Virginia named Rusty Potter. I have no idea how he talked his way in. Maybe he got in on some technicality, as a part-time resident or something. Leland’s edict was that Potter could play in the tournament, but he wouldn’t be allowed to be state champion.

So guess what happened? The lone entrant from Virginia scored 5½ points out of 6, beating all the players from North Carolina. I finished second with 5 points out of 6 (losing my one game to Potter). True to his word, Leland did not award Potter the first-place trophy, only the first-place money. I refused the first-place trophy, because I didn’t think I had a right to it. Instead I took home the second-place trophy, but most importantly I was designated the state champion (a title I’m sure Potter didn’t give a damn about anyway).

In a way, Potter handed me the state championship. In the last round, he was paired against Randy Kolvick, one of the few North Carolina masters who showed up. Potter and Kolvick both had 4½ points going into the last round. Potter won the game, which allowed me to leapfrog over Kolvick into second place. If the tournament had been closed, as Fuerstman intended, I would have had to play Kolvick in the last round, which may have made my title more fairly earned (or else Kolvick would have won the title).

In spite of all of these strange circumstances that perhaps made the task a little bit easier for me, the fact remains that I still had to win my games. It was the best tournament of my life up to that point. As an expert, I beat two class-A players, two experts, and one master, and lost only to Potter. I was actually 5-0 against North Carolina players, so I feel that the title of North Carolina champion was deserved, even if I didn’t get to prove it against Kolvick.

Next time: Some of the key positions from my first state championship!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Leland Fuerstman September 25, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Give me a call when you get a chance. 704-965-8931


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