Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Next Big Thing

  Chess (along with math and music) is known to produce child prodigies. The best known film about a chess child prodigy is the movie ‘Searching for Bobby Fisher’, a years’ chess journey of 6 year old Josh Waitzen learning chess from the homeless players in New York’s Washington Square Park to being the boy wonder of US youth chess to being overshadowed by another young player who seemingly only lives for chess to Josh’s eventual triumph over his rival at the National Grades Championships. The movie is adapted from the book by Josh’s father Fred (a writer for the New York Times) and takes certain liberties from the book, most notably painting Josh’s father and his chess coach as so fanatical in their desire for Josh to scale the heights of the chess world that they attempt to transform him into an automaton at the cost of his childhood.

  While in the book there is a chapter where Fred Waitzen does search for Bobby Fisher (the American Chess Prodigy who became national champion at the age of 15), to me the title signifies the search for the next great American chess prodigy that will rekindle the popularity and excitement in chess that accompanied Fisher’s ascension to the World Championship in 1972, very much like Morpheus’ excitement at the Neo possibly being ‘The One’ in the Matrix movies. Whenever a young chess talent is spotted, the unspoken question is asked; ‘Could this be the next Bobby Fisher?’ But what most people don’t realize is that Fisher not only had tremendous chess talent, he had an equal or greater talent for hard work.

  In March, I received a phone call from a lady named Kendall asking about the Marshalltown Chess Club that meets weekly at the Salvation Army. She had seen a small write-up about it in the newspaper and wanted to know if her 9 year old son (who liked to play chess and was the best player in his elementary school) would be welcome to attend and what the cost was. I’m always happy to talk about the chess club and I told Kendall how everyone is welcome and while we don’t have any dues, a national membership is required in order to play in our nationally rated weekly quick chess tournament. Kendall was excited that there was a chess club in town for her son and happy that is was just a couple of blocks from their house so they could walk to club and on March 29th Seth made his first appearance at the Marshalltown Chess Club.

  I write to the local schools once a year to remind them about the chess club, but they rarely refer students to me. I’m sure part of the reason is that the schools don’t know me (even though my son’s academic and chess exploits are well known in the local education community), part of the reason is an inherent distrust of the Salvation Army being a religious institution (even though the incredible works of the local Salvation Army is also well known in the community), and part is that the schools have their own after school programs that they’re trying to promote. It’s a shame since study after study after study come to the conclusion that learning to play chess helps many students learn critical thinking abilities that are needed to succeed in school and it is one of the least expensive activities as well.

  Seth was obviously bright, knew how the pieces moved, and already possessed a decent amount of basic chess knowledge. He understood the concept of checkmate and how to execute the king and queen vs. king checkmate. He didn’t understand how the pieces worked together to create attacks but was eager to learn and wanted to jump right in and play in our weekly speed chess tournaments. I didn’t think it was a great idea, but Kendall said it was OK so I got him a USCF membership and he played in the tournament. Seth lost all 3 games and I didn’t know if I would see him again, but he was back the next week ready to play. He had Scott (a 40+ year old mental health counselor) beat with a checkmate in one move but missed it and ended up settling for a draw. I had to play him in the final round. I quickly won a pawn but Seth battened down the hatches and didn’t make another mistake the rest of the game. I ended up winning with my extra pawn, but I was pretty impressed with Seth’s defense in the game.

  Jon (the other adult regular at the club), Jaleb (a 6 year club member who will be attending Iowa State in the fall), and I have taken turns playing Seth at club, trying to give him some pointers as we play. I gave him a book ‘Keene on Chess’ and got him playing online at He has been getting better and better and is slowly climbing the club hierarchy. He started by drawing and then beating Dalton (the least experienced player at club) in April. Then in May he beat Zach. Zach is a 5th grader who has beaten all the club regulars except Jaleb and I and gained wins last summer against out of town visitors Matt Kriegel and Roger Gotschal. I would have expected Zack to be beating Jaleb and I occasionally this year but he’s barely been at club since all his sport practices seem to be have been on Thursdays. Later in May Seth beat Chandler for the first time and in June he took out Jon.

  There have been some bumps in the Seth’s road with losses and draws to Dalton, but he never seems to get discouraged and always has a great attitude. In our first 2 tournaments in July, has gotten to the last round tied for first place and playing to be the tournament winner. He didn’t win either game (against Matt Kriegel once and me the other time), but the improvement is obvious to me and it is evident that we will have to step our games if we want to hold off this young challenger.

  This past Saturday, Seth’s dad took him to Des Moines for my monthly youth tournament. I would have taken him but Seth was going to play in the morning and then either go home or stay for the afternoon tournament. The was going to be Seth’s first games outside Marshalltown and at 30 minutes per player his first games at a longer time limit than our Thursday Night 10 minute games. In Seth’s first game, he played Sean, a middle school player from Carlisle that has won one youth tournament and finished in the top 5 in a few others. Seth won easily and then in his second round game he beat Caden, who won the June unrated tournament. In the third round Seth got to play Sam Cole, an eighth grader and 2 time Iowa grade champion. Seth’s penchant for not castling caught up to him and he went done in flames to Sam (the winner of the morning tournament). Then in the last round, Seth played Chandler and beat him to take second place in his first youth tournament.

  I was pleased but not totally unsurprised by Seth’s youth tournament debut. He was composed and confident and didn’t get flustered when he got behind in a game. He was happy with his second place finish and decided to play in the afternoon session after getting lunch. I overheard Seth tell his dad when he got back from lunch that he was tired and that was natural since he had never played in a tournament that lasted more than an hour and he had already played 3 hours and there was a noticable sloppiness in his afternoon games. He was lost in 3 of his games at some point but battled back to win 2 of them and finished the afternoon with 3 wins in 4 games and another second place finish. Seth was back playing in our blitz tournament on Thursday and got to match wits with 2 visitors from Ames, Roger Gotschall and Brad Sheperd. Seth didn’t castle in either game. Roger ( a 70+ retired civil engineer and legendary Ames chess teacher) kept Seth’s king trapped in the center and picked him apart, but noted that Seth missed an opportunity to possibly turn the tables. In his game against Brad (a retired forest ranger), Seth found himself a rook behind but not only got the rook back with some neat tactics, but managed to grind out a win from an equal rook ending.

  Is Seth going to be another Bobby Fischer? Not likely, but I'm not qualified to tell. Is he going to be a state grade champion? I know what they look like and he has the ability and potential, but he’ll have his work cut out for him to catch up with the Iowa 5th graders that have been playing 4 or 5 years instead of 4 or 5 months. Seth is heading to Marshalltown’s intermediate school this year. He was in the talented and gifted (TAG) program in his K-4 school, but the TAG teacher in that particular school has never made finding learning opportunities for gifted kids a priority (She is retired now in a stoke of good luck for many of the talented kids). The intermediate school has a better TAG teacher and it’s possible that Seth will get into an advanced math curriculum and give up chess like my younger son Ben did. Only time will tell, but his potential has me thinking just a little bit about Bobby Fischer.

  Having Seth show up at the club out of nowhere 4 months ago helped to remind me why I run the club years after the initial reason I started it (to find opponents for my children) went by the wayside. I enjoy the company of the chess players who come and go, but every once in a while there is going to be someone who really needs a place to belong for a day or a month or a year. Last Thursday I got another reminder. A teenager I didn’t recognize came into the Salvation Army building. I asked him if I could help him and he said he wanted to play chess and introduced himself as Eric. I didn’t recognize him but I recognized the name. Eric was a semi-regular at the chess club as a 5 year old whenever his grandpa or dad or mom (his parents were divorced) would bring him. Eric had a lot of the same qualities that Seth has shown this summer. He quickly mastered simple checkmates and was beating all the other beginners at club within a few weeks. Then we broke for the summer as we used to do back then and in the fall he never returned. I don’t know if his family forgot about chess or somebody got sick or somebody had to move or if chess became collateral damage in a custody fight, but 8 years later here was Eric! He remembered the club meeting on Thursdays and after 8 years I was still having the club. Eric said he was a regular at the high school chess club this past school year so I got him a USCF membership and put him in the tournament. He wasn’t used to the clock or tournament play and let himself get distracted with his cell phone sending and reading text messages and as a result played poorly and lost all his games. I have no idea if Eric will be back at the chess club soon or if I will have to wait another 8 years to see him again, but I was happy we were both here this past week.