New class, Jeff Sarwer interview, etc.

by admin on January 9, 2010

Happy new year! I can’t believe that a week has already gone by and I haven’t watered my blog yet this year. (You know, blogs need care and watering, just like plants …) As I result I have lots of little odds and ends to write about.

My main news is that I am going to start a new chess class at a local elementary school, the Santa Cruz Gardens School. It will be a six-week class, starting January 22. This will be a new experiment for me. Although I have run the Aptos Library chess club for 13 years, with a similar age range of kids (from about 6 to 12), I have never done it in a school setting and also never been paid for it before. I’m going to assume that the kids might not even know the rules, so I will have to start very basic indeed. Does anyone out there have ideas for good instructional materials? Free stuff from the Internet would be best, of course.  😎

I am thinking that I will try a similar approach to what I do at the library, 15 minutes of instruction and 45 minutes of just letting the kids play.

Second item: What are you doing reading this blog when you could be reading Jennifer Shahade’s amazing interview of Jeff Sarwer over at the U.S. Chess website? I’ll help you — here’s a link that will open in another window.

For people who don’t know who Jeff Sarwer is, he was Josh Waitzkin’s big rival in the book Searching for Bobby Fischer. In the movie by the same name, he was changed to a fictional character named Jonathan Poe, but the character was of course based on Sarwer. The two of them tied for the 1986 U.S. National Elementary Championship, but of course the Hollywood version needed the hero (Waitzkin) to beat the villain (Sarwer), so that’s how the movie went.

Sarwer absolutely disappeared from the chess scene after that, and in Shahade’s interview we find out why. First he and his sister were separated from their father and placed in foster care. Then they ran away and, in some order, hooked up with their father again, ended up in Europe, changed their names, and traveled around for years with a group of hippies. In the last few years Sarwer moved to Gdansk, Poland, started using his birth name again and started playing competitive poker. In a recent tournament he finished third and won a six-figure prize! (Try doing that in chess!) He has only played in one chess tournament as an adult, but he showed his talent was still there. With no preparation at all, he tied for second in a tournament in Poland, drawing with two grandmasters and losing only one game (against a GM).

This only scratches the surface, but it gives you an idea of what an amazing and unorthodox life Sarwer has led.

Shahade also provides a link to Sarwer’s website, where the first thing you see is a TV documentary about him as a 9-year-old prodigy. It’s equally fascinating, and very poignant to watch it with 20 years of hindsight. He talks about wanting to be a world champion, and Bruce Pandolfini, who briefly was his teacher, says that he has the greatest talent of any kid he has ever met. But at the end, with spooky prescience, Pandolfini says that he is afraid Sarwer’s potential will never be realized, because he has no one to coach him and point out what he is doing wrong. (Sarwer’s father had stopped the lessons with Pandolfini after six months because he did not believe in letting other people teach his kids.) Also very fascinating is an interview with the late Sammy Reshevsky, where Reshevsky says that he sees himself in the young prodigy — an amazing compliment! Reshevsky says the only difference is that Sarwer has maybe even a little more enthusiasm for the game than he did as a youth.

In fact, it is that enthusiasm that really stands out in the clip, and is totally at odds with the way that Sarwer was portrayed in Searching for Bobby Fischer, both the book and the movie. There he was portrayed as a strange, antisocial kid under the thrall of his domineering father, almost like a chess-playing machine. That is not at all the kid you see in the TV clip.

In spite of the strange things life has thrown at him — being a villain in a Hollywood movie when he was still a teenager, living under an assumed name — and in spite of Pandolfini’s concern that his life would be a “tragedy,” Sarwer’s life has been anything but a tragedy. From Shahade’s interview and from Sarwer’s website, he sounds like a guy who has gotten his act together and is happy with where he is in his life.


One other interesting thing I noticed on the U.S. Chess website was a report on the Bay Area Chess tournament in Santa Clara on the weekend of January 1-3. I decided not to play in it, because as noted before I have been playing too much and studying too little in recent months. However, it sounds as if it was a big success, especially for the winner Sam Shankland, who destroyed the field with a score of 5.5 out 6. Far back in second place was Steven Zierk with 4.5, who scored the only draw against Shankland.

Also, I was delighted to see that Jim Parker, a Santa Cruz local, won the C section, also with a 5.5 score. His rating had dropped to 1599, which is how he qualified to play in the C section, but after this tournament it will be back up to 1685 or so, which is really where it should be. (Actually, I think that with a little more self-confidence he could easily be in the 1700s.)

Finally, since it’s a new year, I should have some new year’s resolutions, right? Well, I completely struck out on my resolutions last year — to get started on writing a chess book, and to help the Berkeley Invitational find a sponsor. On the other hand, some great things happened that I could not have anticipated — helping out with Daniel Naroditsky’s book, winning my biggest cash prize ever at the Western States Open. So I’m not quite sure what the point of making resolutions is.

Nevertheless, here are four resolutions for 2010, in increasing order of difficulty.

  1. Reboot my opening repertoire, playing open Sicilians and also some d-pawn openings as White.
  2. Continue to focus on process rather than results during my games — Zen chess.
  3. Win a tournament. That’s right, a whole tournament, not just a class prize. I haven’t done that (at least for an open, Swiss-system tournament with more than three rounds) since 1993.
  4. Beat a grandmaster. I’ve never done that; it’s perhaps the biggest hole in my chess resume. (I beat now-GM Vinay Bhat twice when he was a teenager, but that doesn’t count.)
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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashish January 9, 2010 at 8:11 pm

My score against Vinay is 2-0. Why should it matter that he was 11 years old? GM ees GM!


Vernon R Young January 9, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Wow, what a tremendous story about Sarwer. I wondered if Poe was a fictional character from the move Searching for Bobby Fischer, but never looked into it. Now as for chess and poker, that makes two poker players that I know of now who were once fully engrossed in chess! Dan Harrington, being the other, wrote the only book on poker that I have ever read – Harrington on Poker. Thanks for the post. I would have been oblivious to Sarwer’s story if not for it.


admin January 10, 2010 at 9:43 am

Ashish, LOL! Your comment made my morning.


Michael Goeller January 10, 2010 at 6:33 pm

I have some materials and advice in my series on Teaching Chess to Kids. I especially recommend “Magnetic Sumo Kings” and “Pawn Battle Rules and Strategies” as great starting points. I have a much improved version of the Magnetic Sumo Kings somewhere and will send it if I find it. I subscribe to teaching them one piece at a time and making them play some games or do collaborative exercises with those pieces. It is very effective for teaching some basics, and if you have a number of lessons with the kids you can eventually get them up to the whole chess set after having established an incredible foundation. Most importantly, a game like Pawn Battle gives you a way of really focusing on the moves of the pawns, which are so complicated for kids to grasp, and lets you introduce complex ideas like zugzwang and stalemate in a simplified context where they can grasp them easily. Just today, at my local library, I gave a lesson to some kids who had been playing for years but still did not understand either en passant or stalemate — two concepts that could be brought home quickly with just a few games of Pawn Battle.


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