My father taught me how to play chess. I have no idea when he first became captivated by the royal game, when he learned the rules, or when he played his first game. Not even when the U.S. entered World War II, I imagine had he seen a chess set back then he would have been fascinated by the small armies facing off on the checkered board. Sports took up much of his time during high school and college. He played football. He excelled in diving. Maybe it’s a sign of the times, maybe the sports gene had trouble following directions, but athletic prowess has never been my forte. It might explain why I was more disposed toward chess at an early age. I remember growing up and always being interested in my father’s latest hobby. He did not just casually pick up a hobby. He threw himself into it without reserve. Astronomy and we’re both identifying constellations through his Questar telescope late at night, away from the haze of city lights. Photography and the downstairs bathroom was converted into a darkroom. Target shooting (after having our house robbed twice) and we’re using his Star Reloader to make bullets in the basement for his .357 magnum. Even when I jumped into an interest on my own, such as playing guitar, my Dad built a soundproof band room in the basement for us to practice in. His interest in computers (he was a senior systems analyst for IBM for many years) helped shape my career as a software architect.
But at some point my Dad took up chess, and I was hooked. He taught me my first openings and the general principles. I think I was around 13 when we played in our first tournament: The Southern Open in Nashville, Tennessee. This began the first of many family vacations we’d take that just happened to be where a major chess tournament was being held. The Southern Open was a seven-round Swiss event, and we both entered the Unrated section. Besides being unnerved in my very first tournament game because my opponent was a girl (who beat me), I came away with 4 points and my future interest in chess was cemented in.
In those days I never really read any chess books. All my “theory” was whatever my dad showed me. In one tournament I was rated in the 1400s and facing a middle-aged man rated in the 1600s. He opened with 1.d4 (later I heard he was an 1.e4 player who decided to try out a new first move against this little kid rated hundreds of points below him). Then followed 1…d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Nbd7, and my opponent sank into deep thought. This kid has blundered already, he thought! He confidently played 5.cxd5 and I replied with 5…exd5. I was so excited I could barely contain myself. I walked over to find my Dad and get him to come look at my game. He knew very well why I was so excited and told me with a look to settle down and not give myself away. My opponent played 6.Nxd5, sure he had just won a pawn. I reached out and played 6…Nxd5. Then followed 7.Bxd8 Bb4+ 8.Qd2 Bxd2+ 9.Kxd2 Kxd8, and now I’m a piece up, and I went on to win the game. Yes, my Dad had shown me this well-known trap, and I used it to win a key game and finish 2nd place in the tournament. This was the first time I’d ever won prize money playing chess.
My father eventually stopped playing chess. He said he just didn’t have the patience and would move too quickly and eventually blunder a piece. But he still took an avid interest in my growing passion for chess. He followed my tournament progress, and would fondly look over our shoulders as I played a casual game with my nephews. He later developed an interest in Texas Hold-em, a hobby I just haven’t gotten into — yet.
My father passed away a few summers ago. He lived a full life with a loving wife and family. Right up until the very end he was living how he wanted: at home, enjoying his interests, but most of all treasuring every moment with his family which now included grandchildren. My father taught me how to play chess. But more importantly, he taught me the value of family, and of finding passion in your life. I will be eternally grateful. And I still feel him with me when I’m at the chess board, looking over my shoulder, cheering me on.