50 Years of Chess: Limits to Growth

by admin on December 9, 2020

I have two fantasies about what happens when we die. My first fantasy is that we get to have three questions answered about our lives. We get unimpeachable, God’s-eye view answers to three things that we could never find out when we were alive. Maybe it would be a cosmic question like, “Is there other life in the universe?” Maybe it would be something very personal like, “What could I have done to stop x?” I have two of my questions picked out already.

The other fantasy is simpler. We get to re-live one year of our lives again, exactly as it happened. No changes allowed, and we would not know we were re-living it. It would just be a chance to enjoy again the prime of our lives. A little reward for making it through everything else.

My year would be 1988. That was the year I fell in love again.

For years, ever since college, my other main hobby besides chess had been folk dancing. In North Carolina I went every week to the Chapel Hill International Folk Dance Club. I’ve already written about how much it meant to me to have a peer group of chess players in the Triangle area. I think that the folk dancers meant even more to me, and the those two social outlets were a big reason that the whole six years in North Carolina were such a great time in my life.

In late 1987 a new woman started showing up at folk dance. She was a mystery to me, because I hadn’t seen her before, but she seemed to know all of the people who had been around longer than me. I finally started making cautious conversation with her, and found out that her name was Kay. It turned out that she had started folk dancing with the CHIFDC as a teenager, back in the late 1960s when the group itself was still very new. She had moved away from Chapel Hill for years, but came back home that fall, basically to make a new start.

In April 1988 I asked her for a nice, low-pressure lunch date at the Hardback Cafe, a combination bookstore and deli in Chapel Hill. Low pressure for her, anyway, because I was too skinny and nerdy to be The One. But it wasn’t low-pressure for me! I had been in love once before, in Russia, and that had not ended well. Since then my dating history had been strictly one-and-done. One date, thank you, I had a good time, but no sparks.

With Kay, it was immediately different. All I wanted in life was to spend more time with her, and unbelievably she managed to look past my unkempt bachelor looks and find a “diamond in the rough,” or at least that’s what she told people. By the end of the year we were engaged. I proposed on her birthday, and I still love thinking about every moment of that night. That would be the finale of my re-lived year. I would happily go off to oblivion after that, or whatever comes next.

Okay, this is a chess blog. I hear you. Enough with the touchy-feely stuff. What does this mean for chess?

First, it means that 1988 was a great year for me chess-wise. I was still on a roll from the previous year, when I had won my second state championship and achieved a master rating for the first time. That spring, for the first time ever, I won an open tournament (the 1988 Georgia Congress). In both of my state championships the first-place finisher had been from out-of-state, so that I was the North Carolina champion but not actually the tournament winner. It was great to actually get over that obstacle and win a tournament, and even better that the person who finished second was a grandmaster, Boris Kogan! Correction, posted 12/11/2020: As a couple of readers pointed out, I made a mistake here. Boris Kogan was only an IM. He sure seemed like a GM to me! 😎

In 1988 I re-calibrated my goals in chess. As I’ve written before, for a long time my two goals had been to win a state championship and to reach a master rating (2200). Done and done! Now I needed new goals. I decided that they should not be too ridiculously high, but they should not be easy either. My new goals were to win a U.S. Open and obtain a senior master rating (2400). Note that I said U.S. Open, not U.S. Championship. I knew that to get invited to the U.S. Championship you had to have a stratospheric rating (2600 or so) and I would never get to that level. But U.S. Open was do-able. My model was Joseph Bradford, a 2400-level player who won the U.S. Open in 1978.

It’s important to have goals, but I’m sorry to say that I never got anywhere close to these new goals. In fact, I was like a balloonist trying to cross the ocean who never actually gets off the ground. Little did I know it, but in 1988 I was already standing at, or very close to, the peak of my chess career.

What happened? I will give you the unvarnished truth, from my point of view. I know this is a matter of great personal interest to every serious chess player: What are the limits to my growth? What is the level I will never get past, and how will I know?

Here were the factors that set my ceiling, as I see them.

  1. I started too late. I learned chess around age 7 or 8, but I didn’t start playing in tournaments until age 13. I think that people who start in tournaments really young, under age 10, somehow get chess into their synapses. They can orient themselves more quickly in any position. When I watch GM’s play, I am just in awe at their combination of speed and accuracy. I can play accurately, but not fast. It’s an effort for me to find good moves, but for them it seems effortless.
  2. I never got coaching. When I was a kid there were no chess coaches, unless maybe you lived in New York. By the time I was an adult, I was too stubborn and set in my ways to listen to someone else telling me what I should do.
  3. Time trouble. This has been the bane of my chess life, as it is for many players. By move 30, I’m always low on time. I’ve learned to manage it (by trying to never go below one minute per move), but I haven’t overcome it. Of course, it’s wrong to think of time trouble as an external problem. It’s internal. In my case it’s a lack of confidence. I’m not sure enough of my ability to find good moves quickly, so I take too long in the early stages of the game. Then from moves 30 to 40 I have to find good moves quickly. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I even manage to surprise myself — but there are also many, many times when I screw up. This is when the “tunnel vision” that Mike Splane wrote about kicks in. The less time I have, the less I am able to think outside of the box — something we saw pretty clearly in my last post.
  4. Priorities. This is a big factor that changed in 1988. For the previous five years, I was able spend almost all the time I wanted to on chess. I had a regular time set aside, on Sunday morning (if there wasn’t a tournament), for chess study. I was playing more than ever in my life, thanks to the Raleigh chess club and Robert Singletary’s monthly quads and the many other tournament opportunities. Of course, I had a job at Duke University, and my career as a mathematician and a teacher came first. I also had folk dancing and volunteered for Meals on Wheels, so my life was not one-dimensional. But still, I had enough time for chess to make some real improvement. In 1988, that time shrank a lot. After that my #1 priority was Kay, #2 was math, and chess fell farther down the list.

I want to emphasize that this last point is by no means a complaint. If you have a choice between chess and love, choose love! If you have a choice between career and love, choose love! But it will change your life. Be ready for that. Once chess is no longer #1, or career is no longer #1, you might not be able to achieve the same things you could when you were able to focus exclusively on your individual ambitions.

But that’s okay. Love is what we’re here for.

In my next post, I’ll get back to the chessboard and show you one of my games from 1988.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Roman Parparov December 9, 2020 at 11:20 am

Not to doubt you, but Wikipedia and other sources list Boris Kogan as an IM, not a GM.
Interestingly, he’s one more representative of the “lost generation” of the USSR chess – young stars born between Spassky (1937) and Karpov (1951) who never made it to the World Elite, and a lot of them left the USSR (Gulko, Dzhindzhikhashvili, Alburt, Liberzon, Sosonko, Lein)…


Larry Smith December 10, 2020 at 2:47 pm

Lovely column and sentiments.

“All that you’ve loved, is all you own” – Tom Waits

I would add that if you have to choose between spending money on material things, or on travel, choose travel.



Larry Smith December 10, 2020 at 8:51 pm

And just now, reading the Five Books interview about books about Dating, there was this quote:

“Love,” wrote Ovid, “is no assignment for cowards.”



Sara December 10, 2020 at 9:01 pm

Hi Dana, I have a picture from July 1988 of a group that played in one of Dad’s tournaments. I don’t know how many of the players you would know, but would I share?



Sara December 11, 2020 at 9:32 am
Douglas Legvold December 11, 2020 at 5:47 am

Fact check:Boris Kogan was an IM, not a GM!


admin December 11, 2020 at 10:58 am

I have now corrected this. Thanks for pointing out the mistake!


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