Sunday, February 27, 2011

ChessExploits: My Pawn Years

Jimio relaxing in hotel room during a large chess tournament
Dreaming of becomming a Grandmaster
It all started when Bobby Fischer won the World Championship from Boris Spassky in 1972. I was a Junior in Highschool and I saw the games in our local newpaper. I knew the moves but very little theory so when I went over the games they didnt really mean much. Then 4 years later I decided to see if we had a club in my town. I would call the YMCA then the Library. Well I only needed to make 1 call. I went down to the Y and found 2 old guys playing. One guy said he emmigrated from Ukraine in 1956. I made the horrible mistake of calling him a Russian. We were playing a game and he slammed a fist on the table and said, "I am not a russian, i am a Ukranian!" I soon learned that russians and ukranians did not like each other. His name was Sam and he would always tell us stories from the "Old Country", One such story was during WW2 their jeep radiator had a hole in it and they would drive it till it got hot then push it for a few miles them jump back in and drive some more. Sam got captured by the Germans and put in a concentration camp and taught people there how to play soccer. sam would say "Sugar is poison" and "I always drink 1 beer before bed". When he came to my town in the early 50s he started a window cleaning service and ran it for nearly 50 years.
 Another guy said he was a fighter pilot for the Canadian RAF. His name was Art and he was a very polite and calm man. He worked for our towns Newspaper. In advertizing I think.   I proceeded to set up a board and chess pieces. Ten minutes later a man about my age sat down and whipped out a move like he knew what he was doing. After a few moves and a lost Rook I resigned and figured I'd win the next game. But this dude kept winning and winning. That night I realized chess was not a game of chance. I went to the biggest bookstore in town to find if there were books on chess and sure enough there was. And a magazine on the United States Chess Federation. I never knew they had organized tournaments for chess all over the USA and the World. Well I bought a few books and joined USCF in 1976 and tried to find a "Repotroire" that suited my playing style. I am shy and introverted so I picked quiet openings and looked for long term tiny positional advantages. I started beating some of the worst players at the YMCA Chess Club and knew I must be learning. One time my first move as black startled a club player so much he jerked back as if he saw a Lion or Tiger.
 The Club has a ladder system. The members had a rectangular plastic piece that hung on the wall and each rated game you played, your rating would go up or down according to your wins or losses and draws. [Drawing a higher oppenent netted a few points and losing to lower guy meant losing a few points] This one old man would come to the club, play one game and leave. Every time but on rare occasions if he won the first game he would play again but this did not happen very often. Another guy Joseph Spinde was the state checker champion at one time but he got into chess because no one played checkers much anymore and he knew chess was a more complicated game. He was fun to play he loved the Stonewall opening and would make these old comments while thinking "One's afraid and the other dancing" or "I'm forever blowing bubbles" or "Ivan Skavinsky Skavar".
 I used to go to his house to play chess. He had frozen chili he would cook and his wife made homemade pies for dessert. His wife died like 1 year after I started going over to his house. He had 2 daughters which were much older than me so i wasnt interested ;] The first time I went over I got out my car and was walking fast, his Collie started to attack and Joe yelled "Dont Move!" and the dog stopped. Next summer we played in his basement which was cooler and he grabbed some LP records to play. One was the "HarmoniCats" 4 guys playing harmonicas. Old songs but they were good. I thought to myself "This was this guys heavy metal and wanted to impress me just like I would have let him hear my Led Zepplin or Jimi Hendrix LP's if he was at my house". A few years later he got real sick and a friend and I visted Joe in the hospital. I bought him some slippers. He was so happy he cried. I'll never forget how gracious he was. He told us he had brain cancer. After he died his daughters gave me a Checkers book he got after winning a checkers tournament called, "Second International Checker Match". It was played at the Hotel Alamac, NY City Feb28 to March 10, 1927. Inside is an inscription by Jean Philippe Charbonnier of Chicago Ill. He was  a photographer that photographed China and Moscow during the Cold War. I found a pic in Life Magazine of his. Charbonnier started the first photo gallery in Paris called the Agathe Gaillard Gallery. Jean Philippe must have been a checkers fancier.
 I played this one chess club member [Mark] at his work which was an old house they slept in while waiting for 911 calls because he was a ambulance tech. They had a huge hole in a wall where they put their empty fast food bags. He had all these russian chess mags that had great games in them and we would go over them. He had a friend we called "Tireman" because he fixed flats on semi-trucks on the highway. Tireman would spin me around like a wrestler. It was fun sitting on the roof on a warm summer day playing chess up there.
 Another club guy named Clyde was a skinny chap with a long beard, but good player. He loved going over the old classic games. He had over 500 chess books most of them very old. He would take one off the shelf and show me some of the greatest games ever played. Clyde was even in a simul [which means a good player would play many people at once] against GM Smyslov, a former World Chess Champion. Clyde was crushed by Smyslov's English opening.  He used an old drafting table to study his games on with a robotic like spring loaded lamp that could be placed anywhere over the table. When Clyde moved away he sent me a record LP Album in the mail. "The Speckless Sky" by Jane Siberry. Kind of a haunting  emotional , very Indie like record. Well after a few years Clyde came to visit me and we went to a Pub called "The Trackside Tap"  located across the street from the Harness Raceway and also which held the local fair each year. We sat down at a table played a few games, drank some beers and then ordered food. I ordered a hamburger, fries and of course another beer. While eating the burger I noticed it tasted kinda strange. I didn't complain but I swore it must have been horsemeat they used for that burger. It made perfect sense being next to the Trotter Horses and all the Barns were across the street.
 Joe came to the club after winning a teen tournament set up at the YMCA. He managed to beat be after only his 3rd game against me. I felt it was so unfair , me studying all these books on chess and going to tourneys and here this young teen Joe beats me with hardly any book knowledge. This proves some people are a "natural" at things. I used to help him on his paper route now and then. Joe won the Michigan Open Reserve in 1987. Joe is also a good hockey player and is even a Level 5 hockey coach. We skated a few times at the Sports Ice Arena and I think at Gilletts Lake where my parents lived.
 Looie was a club member who got a law degree and set up practice locally. He won the State Championship in the mid 1980's. He took me to my first tournament. I lost the first 3 rounds the first day and contemplated giving up tourny chess but Looie said you will win the next 2. He was right, the next day I won rounds 4 & 5. It also helped that, as each game you lose ,you are paired with worse players, so I was bound to win eventaully. I remember beating Looie for the first time, it was very rewarding and satisfying. I knew I was finally getting somewhere in chess. I knew guys who said they are going to be Grandmasters after just learning the moves. I had to smile and say, "Being a GM is like trying to be like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. It just aint gonna happen, especially if you start playing at age 35". Most GMs started very young like age 5. Even Tiger Woods started at age 3 I think. Well Looie became President of our Chess Club after Sam retired.
 We had a member named Bill who was a rustic looking eastern european like guy. Bill had a habit of taking a his finger and twirling it in his hair while playing a game. I guess it was sort of a nervous thing he did, but it never bothered me. He was a professional college student, never finishing school, just going on year after year, he could afford this cause his wife was a professor at the college. He had a good "Sam" Ukranian accent and mocked him all the time. He used to smoke a pipe at the club [In the late 70s you could smoke about anywhere] The tobacco was Balkan  Sobranie and smelt like burnt leaves, but it tasted ok [I tried it]. Bill went to this middle school that was putting on a "Think In" a sorta fair for smart kids. We just gave a simul vs the 30 kids in the class. I lost my queen in one game from not paying attention but managed to get a draw. Bill died a few years after that. He was clearing a field to grow veggies and lifted a big rock and had a heart attack. Poor guy was only 51.
 Doug first came to the club as a kid. His dad drove him. Every time he lost he would say: "You good player" As he got older he got better, he even tried to run against Looie for club president. In fact the club had a renegade section that broke off and started at the Library. I was in the revolution crowd. Well we only lasted a week there, the librarys hours were too short for our long playing thirst for chess, so we found a great place, a fast food restaurant. Hardees was perfect. Lots of coffee to keep you awake, long hours for breakfast, lunch and dinner. salads or greasy food, your choice. Next door was the greyhound terminal and one time we were playing and some lady yelled "he has a knife". It seems some guy wanted to commit suicide by holding a knife to his own throat. The cops were called and they even drew their guns on him to force him to put his knife down. One chessclub guy was so scared he ran at the door and drove home.
 One of the most colorful characters was Carl. He won a contest once for citing Pi to 1,000 digits. He loved "camping out" in the Library going over Supreme Court Cases. He even did some work for the lawyer Looie. When I was out of work Id go to the library to see if Carl wanted to go to Hardees to play chess. Sometimes he'd say "Oh Im busy reading" but all I have to say is "I'll buy you a burger and drink" and he'd say "Ok lets go!" Anytime any club member talked about something sexy or nasty, Carl would cover his ears with his hands and say "Oh No". He acted just like Rainman did in that movie. He could multiply large numbers in his head real fast. We took Carl to a few tournaments. Once when he had a real long game and used all the moves on his scoresheet, he jump up and yelled "TD, I need a new scoresheet". He could be embarrasing at times. He picked a piece of cheese off the sidewalk and started eating it, I said "Dont eat that Carl", he said "Its ok . It still has the wrapper on it". Then one night at Hardees the manager said get ready to leave we are closing soon, so Carl walks outside to talk to himself. Well 5 minutes later the manager locks the doors and we are all still playing. We got like 15 minutes. Carl is staring at us through the window and this one club guy pulls out his pockets on his pants and points at Carl and says "Kiss the Bunnys Nose". Carl lived like 6 miles from the Library and 7 miles from the Chessclub, but thought nothing of walking every day. sometimes I would call him and tell him to start walking and pick him up along the way. After Hardees would close for the night, we would all  go to Dunkin Donuts to play till 4 am. Many cops were there playing Centipead and Pacman on the big video games in the store. Sometimes a person would watch us and a few times we let some play us. Once in a while, some drunk would come in, sit down in the next booth and make snide remarks like "Checkmate" or "Which one of you is Bobby Fischer?" One of our members always wanted to get up and blast those smartalecs but we always held him back cause we wanted to keep playing at this great latenight spot which was only 4 blocks from the club. One time Carl was in a booth with his eyes closed and a worker yelled at him "You got to leave if you are gonna sleep" Every time Carl lost he would say "You Got Me" in his vibrato voice. I was visiting my parents on a Saturday in April when the phone rang. Seems Carl was in the hospital with pneumonia. I didnt know he was so sick. He looked ok last I saw him but he refused to eat the last 2 pieces of pizza which was kinda strange. He died that night. 5 Chessclub members went to his funeral. Then we went to a restaurant to have lunch and talk about Carl, I'll never forget him. He was only 38.
Then there was Vic who had this little black poodle and when a few of us played at his house he would say to the poodle [Newt was his name] when he had the black pieces "Now Newt, the black pieces never win" which was odd cause we all won a lot with the black pieces against him. Vic moved about 80 miles away and died a few years later. He wasnt too old either.
 Gary, who I have known for 33 years and still play chess with, came to the club looking for a hobby after he hurt his back at work. We played a few games then I went to play at his house. His 5 year old daughter asked me "Are You Married?" I guess she thought all grownups were married, but there's a few of us Swinging Bachelors out there. Gary then showed me his Hammond Organ. He started out on the accordian, then went to organ and then piano. He has 2 nice keyboards and can play blues, jazz, rock,country, R&B. I took him to his first tournament in Lansing Community College and he was hooked on the tourny life. We went to many tournys, 1 day, 2 day, 3 or 4 day tournys. Quads, Swisses and Round Robins. Lansing tourneys were fun because we had friends we would play at their house after the tourney. Get some beer and play all night. One time we were playing in Ann Arbor and Gary saw this Ivy growing on a building. It looked so nice he pulled a small part of it out of the ground and planted it by the north side of his house. Well in 3 years that Ivy was going crazy, he had to trim it to control it. It 's still there today some 30 years later looking nice. We were heading to one tournament in Lansing and I was on this 6 lane road and I came to a stop at an intersection, trying to figure out which way to turn. I was the only car on the road and was in the middle lane. All the sudden cars from all 6 lanes were heading at me from opposite direction across the intersection. But then they stopped. seems they hit a red light. By that time I knew I was going the wrong way on a 1 way road, so I decided to turn left. Gary has had Chess Parties at his home many times and upwards of up to 15 people have played chess at them. Good food, great beer and wild woolly chess was to be had by all.
[A little History] Andrew Palmi started our club in 1920 and retired as President of the club in 1959. Palmi also started the Michigan Chess Association in 1931 and the 1st Michigan Open Chess Tournament that determines the State Chess Champion was held in my town sponsored by our chessclub. I never got a chance to meet him since I first joined the club in 1976. When I first joined the club, some of the older members would tell of their travels to Grand Rapids, Detroit, Kalamazoo and Benton Harbor to play other chess clubs. This rarely happens today. While I was there our club never played a match vs another club but we did give a few simuls at the mall to advertize our club and we had a few rated USCF tournaments at the YMCA building which a few club members including me participated in. A few other tourmeys we had were at a Motel, a Community college and a church.