The Open File
by Life Master Mike Petersen (Zug)
Even though it has been 20 years, I remember him like it was yesterday. I was at the World Open in Philadelphia in 1988 when I first met Joe Kennedy. I saw him in a far corner of the tournament hall. His game was far removed from the others. He sat hunched over the board, studying it intently. He had to, for you see, Joe was legally blind. We've all seen blind players before. What made Joe so different? Well, Joe was not only legally blind, he was hard of hearing to the point of deafness, could not speak without an interpreter and, to top it off, he couldn’t walk, having spent almost his entire life in a wheelchair. Oh, I forgot to mention that he had two steel rods in his backbone to help support his upper torso.
I decided to approach Joe during dinner. His family was with him - they had been since the beginning. The beginning? Joe was completely normal until he was two and a half years old. Doctors had no idea what caused his handicaps. They gave no prognosis. Anyway, I sat down, introduced myself, and asked if I could speak with Joe. Little did I know what I would hear!
First of all, Joe's rating was a healthy 2058, and had been steadily going up since he started playing in tournaments in 1980. Joe's family dutifully took him to many events all over the world from their home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This had paid off, as Joe had won the US Blind Championship no less than three times, while finishing second twice! Joe accomplished all of this from the years 1983 through 1987. And, in 1984, Joe finished second in the WORLD in the junior division of the World High School Blind Championships, played in Sweden that year.
Needless to say, I was stunned. Looking at Joe's frail body, one would never believe he could put up with the strain. But he had the heart of a lion, and a mind like a steel trap: he finished in the top one percent of his class in the SAT mathematics portion. In addition to his chess skills, Joe had just finished his insurance examinations and hoped to land a job soon. I asked him his goals, and he said that he would like to get a good job to help pay his own way and perhaps get married. All of his answers were passed through his parents by way of interpretation, but I found that if I listened closely, I could catch a lot of what he said. His manner was mild and pleasant, not at all what one would expect of someone who is trapped inside an almost non-functional body. I found myself liking and respecting Joe. He was a nice man.
But what about his chess goals? Joe told me he wanted to study and become a grandmaster. He hadn’t decided that it was impossible for him, even then. Study? In order for Joe to read anything, his family had to painstakingly blow it up five to six times normal so he could see it. It took him over two hours just to study one page of a chess book! But he never gave up. I tried to sit and imagine myself taking that long just be able to read a page and failed miserably.
Until just before the World Open, Joe had punched his own clock, but his family had to start doing it for him. Joe had been winning a game, but lost on time when his hand would not allow him to punch the button on the clock. He missed it four times, and then his flag fell. Sadly, his opponent would not allow Joe to continue and claimed a win on time. They also kept score for him, as he couldn’t control a pen well enough to write legibly. He said the best part of his game was tactics, and that he needed work on his endings.
I want to tell you something. Joe was just one of many handicapped chess players all over the world, the unsung heroes of chess. They all are, quite honestly, studiously avoided by most of the participants. It’s a real shame, because these people can give us all a lesson in how to maintain a serene outlook on life despite unbelievable obstacles. Joe's case was just about the most severe I had ever seen.
Unfortunately, I found out a couple of years later that Joe had left us. His body just couldn’t keep up with the disabilities that were ravaging at him. Every time I think about Joe, now, I think about the old saying, "There but for the grace of God go I." Not in this case, though. In this case, I knew where that grace was – and still is today.
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