Unsung heroes of chess

by admin on September 5, 2008

At last Weekend’s Labor Day Chess Classic in San Francisco, I had a little time to sit down and interview Richard Koepcke, the organizer of the tournament. I think that organizers and TDs are the unsung heroes of the chess world. They’re the people who give the rest of us an opportunity to play, who do all the grunt work, who stay up late collecting the results and making the pairings, and who deal with the controversies and difficult personalities one encounters in the chess world … and most of them don’t make any money from it. At least not enough to call it a career or a business.

I asked Richard whether he wished he were playing in the tournament instead of running it. He surprised me a little bit. “Yes, I’d prefer to play,” he said. But at a certain point in his life, he realized that he wasn’t going to get a lot better as a player, and he really wanted to do something else to contribute to the chess community. He directed his first tournament in 1985, and since 1997 that’s mostly what he has been doing in chess.

As a player, Richard was (and still is, I assume) a strong master, whose rating peaked at 2391. It’s now down to 2210 or so, due to lack of practice. I asked him what were the highlights of his chess-playing career, and he mentioned winning the under-2400 prize at the U.S. Open. He also won the only “futurity” event that he ever played in, in 1991, around the time he reached his peak rating. (A futurity is a round-robin designed to make it easier for upcoming masters to get norms.)

We talked about the health, or lack thereof, of California chess and American chess. I had recently read a comment from Michael Aigner that he no longer wanted to be on the CalChess board because it is turning into an exclusively scholastics-oriented organization. Richard agreed that the people involved in CalChess are mostly interested in scholastics, but he still feels that adult chess is doing okay in northern California. “It’s in a steady state,” he said. “We have the Mechanics Chess Club as an anchor.” That was kind of interesting, because when I talked with John Donaldson last fall it sounded to me as if the Mechanics Institute is not quite as solid an anchor as one would like. But at least over the short to medium term, it’s as dependable as anything in the chess world.

Also, why shouldn’t the CalChess board have a lot of scholastic organizers on it? The young players actually help keep the adult tournaments afloat. Amazingly, the CalChess Labor Day Classic — nominally an adult tournament — was 50 percent young players. There were 172 entries, with about 80 scholastic players. Richard broke even on the weekend, maybe even made a couple hundred dollars. Without the young players, where would he be? “We’d drown,” he said. 

It strikes me as a little bit odd that the business model of chess is to make money off of people who only participate in the activity for a couple of years. But maybe I’ve got the wrong attitude. Maybe I just take chess a little too seriously. It’s a game, after all, and that is the way most of the world looks at it. Kids try it, they have a little fun, and then they try the next thing.

I also asked Richard about chess on the national scene. He is a US Chess Federation delegate, and he commented that the running of the national organization is “like making sausage — you don’t really want to get too close a look at it.” Of course, the big issue now is all the lawsuits — Sam Sloan against the USCF, Susan Polgar against the USCF, the USCF against “John Doe.” Should we be worried about the USCF going bankrupt?

Again, I was a little bit surprised. Richard was really not alarmed by any of the lawsuits. He thinks that neither Sloan nor Polgar can demonstrate real financial damages. He thinks the suits will not make it to trial — there will be settlements made before they reach that point. He is a little bit more worried about something that I hadn’t even heard of. Apparently the U.S. National Labor Relations Board is investigating the USCF for failing to distribute assets properly to employees who left?/quit?/were terminated? when the organization moved to Tennessee. Richard is concerned, because the government can do things to your organization that Sam Sloan and Susan Polgar can’t.

Hmmm … I guess I’ll just keep on buying the sausage and closing my eyes. I think that maybe the biggest cost of all these lawsuits and controversies is not financial, but the opportunity cost — the fact that the USCF is not out there promoting chess in an effective way because they are too busy dealing with all of these other distractions.

Finally, I asked Richard what he does in “real life.” He is a software engineer, who works mostly as a consultant to Sun Microsystems. He said there are quite a few other chess players who work in the computer business in Silicon Valley. IM Vladimir Mezentsev is at Sun, and GM Peter Biyiasis was at IBM and then started his own company. By the way, readers who are interested in the non-chess careers of noted chessplayers should check out the very interesting article in this month’s Chess Life on whatever became of Stuart Rachels, Tal Shaked, and Vivek Rao. Hint: One of them works for Google now. Think that might be a little bit more lucrative than chess?

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