50 Years of Chess: Year 5

by admin on September 20, 2020

Continuing our gallop through my personal chess history, we come to 1976. It was the year I turned eighteen — unfortunately, two days too late to vote in the Presidential election. It’s always been a little bit of a disappointment that the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, was no help to me. I didn’t vote in 1978, because I was in Russia at the time, and I didn’t vote in 1980 because I didn’t go to the right polling place (I didn’t know what precinct I was in!). So 1982, when I was 24 years old, was probably the first time I exercised my constitutional right.

However, 1976 was definitely a year of growing up in other ways. Most notably, I had my first real experience of looking for a (summer) job. I had worked in 1975, but that was a job that my father found for me. In 1976 I was determined to find my own work. I was sure that a smart college student like me would find a job right away — and boy, was I mistaken! After about a month wasted, I was ready to throw in the towel. In the end, my job came about through family contacts. My grandfather was the secretary of the American Geophysical Union, which was one of the biggest customers of the William Byrd Press, which was located in Richmond only a 15-minute bike ride from where I lived. My grandfather put in a good word for me with the president of the press. And lo and behold! It turned out that they had a temporary opening. I never would have known about it or gotten the job without the personal contact. Real World Lesson number 1: smart college students are a dime a dozen. Real World Lesson number 2: jobs come through connections.

Anyway, I worked hard, made a good impression, and ended up working at the William Byrd Press for three more summers. And rode my bike every day! I guess I still wasn’t grown-up enough to contemplate getting my own car.

I was at the same time getting to know the chess scene in Richmond pretty well. I played in monthly quads at Virginia Commonwealth University and a weekly chess club (which I previously wrote about in this post). I won my first quad but otherwise had a frustrating summer; I seemed to be stuck at a plateau in the mid-1600s. In my last quad I had three losses in three games, and forlornly wrote in my diary, “It seems that I just have to bomb out every so often to jolt me into actually breaking my bad chess habits. I did one time last year, and did terrifically in my next tournament. Maybe it can happen again.”

On Labor Day weekend, I was back on campus at Swarthmore and didn’t have any classes yet, so I went with a college friend of mine to the Pennsylvania Championship. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, and I wasn’t really expecting much. But out of the blue, I had my best plateau-busting tournament ever. I played in the under-2000 section, and started out with a draw and a loss. Then I won five games in a row and tied for first with a 5.5-1.5 score.

The last four games in that five-game winning streak were against higher-rated players, so when my new rating finally came out in November, it made a huge jump — all the way from 1669 to 1838. Perhaps even more surprisingly, it never dropped below 1800 again.

Because of that experience, I have a theory about rating plateaus. When you’re young and improving, they are vastly frustrating. You study and study; you play every week at your local chess club; you feel as if you’re learning more and more; but your results don’t show it. My message to you is: don’t get discouraged. You have to trust that the improvement is happening subconsciously. At some completely random point, it’s going to click for you. Whatever was blocking you will suddenly drop away, and you’ll find yourself winning games against higher-rated players. And once you have that infusion of confidence, you’ll keep playing at that new level.

Alas, this theory only works when you’re young and improving. As I got older, the plateaus lasted longer and longer. After two years in class B, I spent four years in class A. Eight years an expert. I finally did reach national master (and you’ll read all about it), but that turned out to be a peak rather than a plateau. I’ve never been able to maintain my rating permanently above 2200.

Though I’d love to show you a game from the breakthrough tournament, the scores are lost to history. 1976 was the only year when I was actively playing chess but didn’t save any of my game scores. At some point I’ll make up for the “missing” game in this post by posting two games from a single calendar year, but I haven’t decided yet which that year will be.

A very strange addendum: I wanted to include a link to the William Byrd Press, where I worked for four summers, but unexpectedly I found out that it closed this summer due to COVID-19, costing 184 people their jobs. I am absolutely speechless. Why is this innocent trip into the past leading me to find out all this sad news that I would never have known otherwise?

The link above fills in much of the history of the press between 1979 and 2020. It merged with another press based in North Carolina in 1984 and the two formally became one company called Cadmus Communications. What happened then would be familiar to anyone who follows American business. Cadmus kept growing and diversifying and adding new businesses. William Byrd kept its identity as a division until the mid-90s. But then Cadmus itself morphed into something called Cenveo Worldwide, which was no longer based in Virginia or North Carolina but Connecticut. Cenveo has been shuttering its printing operations one at a time throughout the last decade. For the former William Byrd Press, which was founded in 1913, the COVID-19 epidemic of 2020 was the last straw.

I truly no longer recognize the world that I live in.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Larry Smith September 21, 2020 at 2:08 pm

If there’s not yet a word that’s the opposite of serendipity, you just created the need for it.

I worked in the newspaper software business for 39 (!) years, working at a single company (!). I was laid off 3 years ago, luckily for me pretty much at my retirement age.

It is a terribly sad thing but, COVID or no, much of the world of the printed word, especially newspapers, is going by the wayside.

I hope your further explorations and reminisces yield more pleasant results.


PS: The opposite of serendipity is zemblanity, btw. I just looked it up on the entity (the Internet) that is killing newspapers.


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