Summer of ’72

by admin on July 31, 2022

Fifty years and one week ago I completed my first USCF-rated chess tournament, the U.S. Booster Championship in Chicago, Illinois. I’ve never really considered this to be my “first tournament,” because I had played earlier that summer in the 1972 Indiana State Championship. But a funny thing happened — that tournament never got rated. I did quite well in the state championship, with a 3-2 score including a last-round victory against a player rated 1632. If that tournament had been rated, my first published rating would have been at least in the 1400s, maybe even the 1500s. Instead, my first rating was 1226, thanks to a dismal (2 1/2 – 5 1/2) performance at the U.S. Booster.

For a while, I was pretty sore about the fact that I was underrated by 200 points or so. But then I realized it was a pretty nice racket. The next summer, thanks to my shiny 1226 rating, I was able to clean up on class-D prizes. (Note that I got to use that rating for the entire summer. Ratings took months to update back in those days, not days or hours as they do now.)

But let’s go back to the summer of ’72. It was an unbelievably different world back then. The U.S. was still fighting a war in Vietnam. Richard Nixon was president, the Democratic nominee was an anti-war crusader named George McGovern, and the word “Watergate” was just an incidental mention in a crime report that nobody had noticed yet.

It was a time when astronauts were flying to the Moon on a regular basis. Computers did not yet exist outside of a few elite academic institutions. The principal of my high school had just gotten a new programmable calculator, an Olivetti Programma 101, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. During the summer the principal left his office door unlocked so that a couple other students and I could sneak in and write calculator programs. I had a great time teaching the Olivetti to take cube roots, compute Fibonacci numbers, etc. My Fibonacci program got up to the 107th Fibonacci number before the calculator’s memory overflowed.

In the chess world, Bobby Fischer had started his epic match with Boris Spassky, and chess was suddenly incredibly cool. At the Indiana State Championship, probably half of the players had been unrated, meaning that (like me) they were new to tournament chess. Can you imagine that? If you had asked me to predict the future, I surely would have thought that by the year 2022 America would have had several more world chess champions, and humans would be living on the Moon. Who knows, maybe by 2022 everyone would have a programmable calculator, and we could even compute the thousandth or millionth Fibonacci number. Ha!

The U.S. Booster was a tournament for players rated under 1800, which meant basically everybody. The third-highest rated player at the Indiana State Championship (George Kvakovszky) was under 1800, and sure enough we ran into him at the U.S. Booster.

When I say “we,” I should explain that I went to the tournament with my chess friend Blaise Morton. What an incredible adventure this was for me, a clueless 13-year-old, traveling out of state by myself, with $100 in my wallet that my mother had given me. I’m sure that she never would have let me go except for two things: I was traveling with a much older and wiser 16-year-old and his grandmother, and I was going to stay with my aunt and uncle in Chicago.

The Indiana championship had been a nice tournament with 40 players or so, but Blaise and I were agog when we got to the La Salle Hotel and found an enormous ballroom with hundreds of players milling around. This was the Fischer boom, folks. The very first day of the tournament, July 20, was the day of game 5 of the Fischer-Spassky match, when Spassky blundered on move 27 and Fischer drew even with him, 2 1/2-2 1/2. (Remember that Fischer had lost game one and forfeited game two.)

But back in Chicago, the tournament was a struggle for me. I lost in round one, being distracted by the player sitting next to me, who annotated all of his moves with exclamation points and question marks during the game. In round two I played Judy Rippeth, whom I had already played (and lost to) in the Indiana championship, and I lost to her again after turning down a draw.

In round three I won my first USCF-rated game ever (although I didn’t realize it because at that point I was still under the impression that the Indiana championship had been rated). As Black, I played 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ng5 d5 5. ed Nxd5? and I was shocked when my opponent played 6. Nxf7!? Yes, friends, I walked into the Fried Liver Attack! I had no idea that such an opening existed. Blaise happened to walk by at this moment, and I showed him White’s knight, which I had just captured, and shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “What an idiot my opponent is, huh?”

Later Blaise gently broke the news to me that I was the idiot and told me all about the Fried Liver Attack, which we both agreed was a hilarious name for an opening. But all’s well that ends well. I defended for 60 moves, and at the end I had my first and last tournament victory as Black in the Fried Liver attack. (Needless to say, I never played 5. … Nxd5? again.)

Chess-wise that was probably the high point of my weekend, as I went on to score 2 wins, 5 losses, and one draw. Blaise did only slightly better, with 2 wins, 4 losses, and 2 draws. It was so bad that my most lasting memories were not chess-related at all. First, I remember taking a taxi back to my aunt and uncle’s house one evening, because they were out at a concert or something and couldn’t pick me up. My aunt left a note that they had left dinner out for me. I found something that was tough and inedible and decided not to eat it. When they got back, they asked why I hadn’t eaten dinner, and I explained. They said oh, that wasn’t your dinner — that was the cat food!

On a more positive note, I also remember going with my aunt and uncle to the Museum of Science and Industry one afternoon, when there was a little extra time between rounds, and being especially fascinated by a demonstration of liquid nitrogen and the way that it turned a banana into a brittle hammer.

Needless to say, I didn’t return home with any prize money. Thanks to my frugal cat-food diet, I did manage to bring home almost half the money that my mother had sent me with. I wrote in my diary, “I spent $46.04 on my trip. I had $44.86 remaining.” Which makes me wonder, what happened to the other nine dollars and ten cents?!?!

That was my last tournament of 1972, but fortunately I did not let my chess career end that way. By the following year the Fischer boom had already started to subside, but thanks to friends like Blaise and new friends that I made at the board, I always had people around to play with, and the fun times outnumbered the disappointments.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Hal Bogner July 31, 2022 at 12:29 pm

Ah – so your affinity for cats goes back at least that far!

Chessically, you were a few weeks ahead of me: my first tournament was in August 1972, a CCA/Bill Goichberg extravanza at the McAlpin Hotel off Herald Square in NYC – a bus trip from southern NJ with two older HS chess buddies, stopping at every pay phone to assure our parents we were still OK. We played in the 3-day, 11-round junior event concurrent to the main event, and viewed the moves of the games as they were played in Reykjavik as they were posted to a demo board in the skittle room. I scored 2-9, for an initial 1101 rating, and was hooked. Twenty years later, my last rated tournament became the only one to be reviewable now, at the very beginning of USCF’s posting of rated tournament date in their MSA subsite. Thanks for reminding me of these anniversaries!


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