50 Years of Chess: Transition

by admin on November 8, 2020

In the spring of 1983 I earned my doctorate from Princeton University, and after a somewhat nail-biting job search I landed a one-year position in the math department at Duke University. After a year it turned into a tenure-track position, and I ended up staying at Duke for six years, from 1983 to 1989.

Those six years in North Carolina were a great time in my life. I had the best circle of chess friends ever and the best circle of dance friends ever. (I haven’t mentioned it previously, but folk dancing in various forms has been my other long-term hobby since college.) I was single again, and for the most part not actively involved in looking for another relationship. I finally was done with my academic degrees. Although I needed to do research to advance my career, I consciously decided not to let it take over my life to the extent it did in graduate school.

All of this meant that I had more freedom and more free time than ever before. I could finally devote as much time to chess as I wanted to. And I was very fortunate: North Carolina, and the Triangle area in particular (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill) had a tremendous chess scene with many players who were right at my level (expert) or a little bit higher (master). Several of them eventually became state champions: Greg Samsa (1981, 1982, 2002); Mike Feinstein (1984); Dan Liu (1992); Alan Patrick and Matt Noble (tied 2003); John Kirby (2005). Two more names I want to mention are Robin Cunningham, now Robin Joseph, the only person I know who has played on U.S. Amateur Team champions in three parts of the country (East, South, and West); and Bernie Schmidt, who was the heart and soul of Triangle chess, the embodiment of a chess fighter. Also I should mention Bill Mason, who was the strongest player at Duke when I got there and who (like Bernie Schmidt) died far too young.

Such a flourishing of talent does not happen by accident. First, there was a chess club in Raleigh every Friday night. More importantly, there was Robert Singletary, who was one of the most active tournament directors in the U.S. Robert organized two long-running series of monthly quads, one at UNC called “Ram” and the other at NC State with the wonderful name of “Phi Kappa Blanca.” Though Robert himself was “only” a class-B player and seldom played in tournaments, he added immeasurably to North Carolina chess by creating opportunities for other people to play.

For me, this all meant that I could get my fill of tough, challenging chess competition, both rated and unrated, on a weekly basis at chess club and on a semimonthly basis at the quads. There’s nothing like playing the same people again and again to force you to confront the weaknesses in your game and in your opening repertoire. As a result, the years in North Carolina were the most active years of my chess career; in 1985 I played 60 rated games. Improvement was not rapid but it was steady, and it was in fact rapider than it had been. I’ve mentioned already that I spent 6 years as a class-A player before moving up to expert. But it took me “only” 5 years to move from expert up to master!

I really want to make these reminiscences useful for my readers, so let me try to pinpoint what changes made each “leap” possible. I make no guarantees, but these are the things that worked for me.

Class D to C to B: Impossible to say; I wasn’t stuck at these levels long enough to feel stuck.

Class B to A: The most important thing is to stop making elementary mistakes, one- and two-movers. If you just quit making stupid mistakes, you don’t even need to know that much about strategy or openings; you will always be tough to beat.

Class A to Expert to Master: Start to get some depth in your chess. Play pawn sacrifices. You won’t be able to win many games against Class-A players just by waiting for mistakes (see above), but Class-A players never expect pawn or piece sacrifices and you can get very favorable positions against them that way. My experience in Russia helped me learn the value of the initiative. Also, studying Kasparov’s games helped, because he was constantly sacrificing pawns. Gradually my attitude changed from “How does he get away with this?” to “Oh, this is how chess is supposed to be played.”

Note, by the way, that I’m not talking about playing gambits, i.e., recognized and well-known pawn sacrifices in the opening. I’m talking about giving up pawns freely and willingly in positions you have never seen before, without feeling as if you are having a tooth extracted.

Expert to Master: Study your own games, thoroughly and without a computer. This was a huge change that I implemented in 1984. Previously, I kept my games in the notebooks I wrote them down in, and only analyzed a few of them. My annotations were sketchy and, when I look at them now, embarrassingly bad. But beginning in 1984, I copied every game into a binder and wrote up to a page of notes on all of them. (I thought this was a lot, until GM Jesse Kraai told me years later that he writes about 10 pages of notes on every game.) It’s amazing to see how my annotations improved. I usually identified my mistakes correctly, my evaluations of positions were more accurate than before, and there were fewer tactics missed. I have to think that this eventually translated to better decisions during my games.

Of course, it’s important too to play over grandmaster games, but I firmly believe that hard-nosed analysis of your own games is the bedrock foundation for improvement in chess. It’s what got me from expert to master.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is strategic play. I think that is what should have come next, to move from Master to FIDE Master (or Senior Master). Unfortunately I didn’t have a good guide for this stage until years later, when I moved to California and started going to Mike Splane’s chess parties. By then I was in my fifties, and even though I do think my strategic understanding got better, it only kept my rating from going down. If I had gotten that kind of guidance in my thirties, I might have gotten to 2300 or 2400. Doesn’t matter to me now; I’m at peace with the way things worked out. But for those readers who are still moving up, strategic play is the next piece of the puzzle: what to do, or what to think about, when you don’t appear to be doing much at all.

I’ve called this post “Transition,” because it was a time of transition in my life, but it’s also a transition in this series of blog entries. Up to 1983 I have very sketchy records; mostly I kept only the games I thought were particularly good or interesting. Starting in 1984, though, I have records of almost every game. I have a surfeit of things to write about. I’ll continue to pick just one game from each year, or maybe two if there are two really great candidates. But it’s going to take a bit more work, so the frequency of these posts might slow down a bit.

I do have a game picked out for my next post, though, a game I played in 1984 against Matt Noble. Look for it later this week!

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Sara November 8, 2020 at 7:18 pm

I was only 9 in 1989, but the players you mentioned, except one, are all players I know from growing up in NC going with my Dad to tournaments and then playing as well. Singletary was still running the tournaments by the time I enrolled at NC State in 1998. I regret not playing in more tournaments while I had the opportunity. We have lacked for tournaments in eastern NC. Looking forward to reading more!


Larry Smith November 9, 2020 at 12:09 pm

Interesting point about how playing at a local club, and facing the same players over and over, affords an opportunity for improvement that playing strangers doesn’t. I would add that such environments also enable you to search for weaknesses in your opponents’ game and opening repertoires. Even now (well, until March of this year), I get a thrill when I am able to successfully prepare for my next round opponent. Not only does it help increase the chances of getting a good position out of the opening, but it provides a big psychological, serotonin-laced boost during the game!


ChessAdmin November 9, 2020 at 3:40 pm

I completely agree that moving from Class B to Class A is mostly about eliminating stupid mistakes, although one hopes there is a good deal of other chess learning taking place. Also appreciate the other observations, they seem well founded.

Any chance you could articulate how you went about the elimination of elementary mistakes from your game? I feel more people get stuck at this level of improvement than at any other.


Mike Splane November 10, 2020 at 3:06 pm

Good write up. I”m enjoying the series so far.

I totally agree that you got much stronger strategically during the time that I’ve known you. Is there anything you can point to about the chess parties that was particularly helpful? I’m not referring to the specific ideas, but rather to the learning environment itself. It would be amazing if you could explain to other people how to replicate it in their own town.

I think one other factor that has held you back was tunnel vision when it comes to candidate moves. You quickly focused in like a laser on 2 or 3 moves and missed a lot of options. That can be both a strength and a weakness.


Felix November 12, 2020 at 8:25 am

Another great post in this series, Dana. I really like the combination of biography, chess games, and here your thinking on the chess improvement in the context of your own path.


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