50 Years of Chess: Years 9 and 10

by admin on October 26, 2020

No chess in this post. In 1980 and 1981, I took a two-year sabbatical from chess while real life clobbered me over the head. I actually did play in one tournament in January 1980 (six games, but I only have the moves for four of them). I thought of showing one of the games here, but the games I played in that tournament were just too flawed.

The reasons for my two-year break were complicated. The simple part was graduate school. I had too much work to do. In my first year at Princeton, I was floundering, feeling as if I had years of catching up to get to where my classmates were. But I did find a dissertation advisor, who didn’t want me to spend years catching up. He wanted me to get started on research as soon as possible. He said don’t worry about the general exam, you’ll pass. (In the Princeton math department, the general exam was like a combination prelim and qualifier.) So I took the general exam, tanked horribly (it was an oral), but I passed anyway because my advisor was on the committee and wanted me to pass.

Then it was on to work on my dissertation project. My advisor was probably right. I felt more sure of myself when it was just me versus a math problem, and I didn’t have to worry about how I stacked up next to my classmates. But mathematics was an all-day, all-night sort of commitment. You solve a problem, as Isaac Newton said, “by thinking about it constantly.” And there were other things going on in my life.

I’m going to keep this part short, because the long version would take pages and pages. As I mentioned in my last post, I fell in love with a girl in Leningrad during my semester abroad in 1978. By 1980, it was time to make a decision. Russia had just invaded Afghanistan in the last week of 1979, the U.S was boycotting the summer Olympics in Moscow, and very few tour groups were going to the Soviet Union. I latched on to one of them and went back to Leningrad in May, expecting either to break up or propose marriage to her. I honestly didn’t know which way it was going to go.

As it turned out, an unplanned encounter with a Soviet police officer helped make the decision for me. There was no choice; I had to propose marriage. My girlfriend accepted. There followed an absolute whirlwind of a summer. I had to go back to America with the tour group at the end of May, and then there was barely enough time to arrange all the details so that my parents and I could return to Leningrad by August 24, 1980, the day of the wedding.

The wedding was complicated, with lots of family drama which I’ll skip. I’ll tell one funny story. When we got to the wedding palace, I was told that I needed my passport, so they could stamp it “Zaregistrorovan v Brake” (Registered in Marriage). Who thinks to bring their passport to their wedding? I didn’t. But in the Soviet Union, you see, everyone had an internal passport (not for traveling abroad) that they took everywhere, and where important personal information was recorded. In the U.S. we have no such thing, but the Russian officials needed some place to affix their stamp. So I had to race across town in a taxi with my mother and future father-in-law, retrieve my passport from my hotel room, and bring it back. Success was achieved on all counts. The passport was stamped, rings were exchanged, and we were pronounced man and wife. Then, after six days in which we were far too busy to celebrate, I went back home to Princeton to wait.

It took 231 days for my newly registered wife to arrive in America. The green card from the U.S. was the easy part. The exit visa from Russia was much harder. But the hardest part of all — despite all of this bureaucracy and international politics and intrigue — was actually living with each other. She was all about exploring her new freedom, hanging out with new friends, and she had no time for me. She spent maybe one or two nights a week at home. As for me, I was all about getting through grad school, spending day and night on math. No one was to blame; it just didn’t work. We separated in 1982 and officially got divorced in 1983.

My only regret is the massive amount of self-deception I went through during our year of living more or less “together,” trying to convince myself that everything was all right. Believe me, self-deception is the worst kind of deception.

But there were good things about this whole experience, too. Everybody gets beaten up at some point in their lives, and this was the first time it had happened to me. It taught me humility, and it also taught me a little bit of empathy. I think I used to be really hard, really a jerk at times. If somebody was struggling, I tended to think that they had done something to deserve it. Now I realized that wasn’t necessarily the case; noble intentions and best-laid plans can most certainly go wrong.

Anyway, as you can see, chess was really low on my list of priorities. But I still followed what was happening in the chess world, and met occasionally with chess friends. In 1981 I wrote my article on “Chess in Russia” for Chess Life, which I mentioned recently here and which Michael Aigner found a link to (actually, it’s a link to the whole issue). That was a real accomplishment, the first writing that I ever got paid for.

By 1982 I was ready to get my life back again. I was attending the Princeton chess club regularly, and I made my return to tournament chess in February 1982, at the U.S. Amateur Team East tournament. That’s where we will start in my next post.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Kuhner October 30, 2020 at 10:27 am

I came back from the 1985 US Women’s Championship (having tied for fourth) and shortly had a meeting with my graduate advisor where she said, “You haven’t gotten anything done for a year. Perhaps you are in the wrong place?”

I gathered up my courage and said what I had not previously admitted even to myself: “This project isn’t working and I don’t think it can ever work: the data just aren’t there.”

“It’s good you realize that. Now, what are you going to *do*?”

One of the things I had to do was quit tournament chess. I regret it now, but pride kept me from going back after I got my PhD. I knew I’d tank. When I hit 50 I realized this was stupid pride, and went to a tournament, duly tanked (performance rating 1300) but really enjoyed myself anyway, and have been competing since.

So, I totally get where you were at. Grad school is hard, chess is hard, they don’t necessarily go together. I’m glad you got back to it quicker than I did.


admin October 30, 2020 at 5:03 pm

Mary, Thanks for sharing your story! I’m glad you came back to the game, even if it was many years later than it should have been.

I understand about pride. One reason I’m reluctant to play rated chess online is that I’m sure my rating would be considerably lower for online chess than in-person chess. But it’s possible that one result of this pandemic might be that online chess becomes the new norm and in-person events never return to their pre-pandemic popularity. Maybe it will be a choice between playing rated online chess or never playing rated chess again. In that case, I might have to swallow my pride.


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