Seeking Chess Fame

Seeking Chess Fame

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Many players aggressively asked (in effect):

Can a non-titled, low rated player who desperately wants attention from players in his own category also become well known in elite chess circles?

Dear “I want to be a chess star” hopefuls [This sounds like the makings of a new American reality TV show!]:

I’ve created this question from endless ego-driven diatribes by players who stare in the mirror when nobody is around and fantasize that everyone is thinking of them in glowing terms, 24/7. Before continuing, I should add that I’m not really sure why these attention-seekers want to hang with much higher rated players, or secure some kind of chess notoriety. Isn’t it enough that you have chess friends, and play exciting blood and guts games against them? Isn’t it enough that you can play online at any time of day or night and meet people from all over the globe – often making lifelong connections in the process? But … whatever floats your boat.

My answer is for those egomaniacs, but ALSO for the down-to-earth realists that realize they will most likely never be an IM or GM, but still dream of making a mark in the game they love (a nice dream, which we all have at one point or another). It’s a serious question, and I am pleased to say that I bear happy tidings; the answer is yes, it IS possible. HOWEVER, as with all worthwhile undertakings, you can’t get it by rudeness, or by pretending you know what you’re talking about so you can impress those that don’t know any better, or by cheating with a chess computer in postal play. You CAN get it by hard work (which impresses everyone of every rating ... sadly, most of the egomaniacs don't like hard work), dedication, or simply by being a genuinely nice person (doesn't everybody want to hang out with a really nice, unobtrusive person?).

Other than the nice guy card, there are several ways to make a name in chess for yourself, but first we have to decide what our parameters are (in relation to becoming well known). I think we will create one simple parameter – it must be related to some form of chess skill. Thus, we won’t pat you on the back for being well known as the guy that spits on other players, or well known as the guy that took a grandmaster’s chess clock and threw it through a window, or well known as the guy that ate some titled player’s dog. No, you need to earn that “well-known” label by exhibiting some form of chess excellence and/or creativity.

* One way to make a name for oneself is to specialize and excel in chess history. There are several people that aren’t world-beaters over the board, but who know every detail of our game’s role in the past, and those legends who dominated it. These individuals are highly respected at all levels of chess society, and their knowledge is often sought out by authors and/or publishers.

* There are quite a few players who live, eat, and breathe opening theory. The masses of opening pretenders can’t make the grade due to an inability to assess positions correctly (by “correctly” I mean that it’s a correct assessment and you know WHY it’s a correct assessment – the “why” is something your computer helper will rarely give you), but a few are able to bypass this and make a name for themselves as true experts in some specific system.

* The same can be said of endgames. A chosen few might not be knocking down any rating records, but they are famous for their deep knowledge of Rook endgames, pawn endgames, or other types of endgame.

* Yet another way to become relevant in higher chess circles is to make a name for yourself as a tournament director and/or organizer. The top people in this field often carry a lot of clout (of course, some are also reviled or blamed for everything that goes wrong).

* Top postal players, even though they might not have any over-the-board titles, are highly respected because everyone knows that an unimaginable amount of work is put into every game they play.

* Finally, there are a certain amount of players who are insanely aggressive and possess great tactical skills and wonderful imaginations. This kind of heavy-handed player (In boxing, a fighter with heavy hands is someone that hits like a brick – one punch can take anyone out.) is always a crowd favorite, and though he might not ever get an international title, he’s still given a lot of respect since everyone knows that his “punch” can trip up virtually anyone on a given day.

In this article, I’m going to concentrate on one player who, though never a master (in fact, he usually resided in the 1700 – 1900 rating range), became something of a legend in San Francisco chess circles. Jimmy Buff was a close friend of Fischer’s (and an old friend of mine) who taught Bobby how to play baseball in New York, and spent countless hours with the future World Champion on the baseball field and facing off on the chessboard. Jimmy was a blitz specialist, and this form of chess was perfect for his seek and destroy game – he had no positional skills, but a “cut the King’s head off” mentality and great tactical creativity made him a fearsome foe when a few minutes were all either side had to play a whole game.

Dick Nolan (from his S.F. Examiner column in March 6, 1975) had this to say about Buff:

“I got to thinking and chuckling (insanely, insanely) about the ‘hand that shook the hand’ when I received proper humiliation the other night in a casual coffee house chess match. My defeat was at the skilled professional hands of Jim Buff. And Jim Buff is the boyhood (and lifelong) friend of World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer. Jim, as a matter of fact and record, has played more chess games with Fischer than anybody has, and on occasion has handled the champ roughly; not often, but once in a while.”

I (Silman) first ran into Buff in San Francisco in the early 70s. We played a tournament game and, seeing his rating, I expected an easy afternoon. However, he went at me like a rabid animal, clamped his jaws on my ankle, and it was all I could do to hold him off and eventually take the full point. After that we became friends and played blitz often – blitz with Buff was always an exhilarating adventure.

Jimmy Buff recently died in San Francisco. Talking to him a couple months before he passed away, he was proud that he suffered from the same (ultimately fatal) affliction that Fischer did (kidney disease) – somehow, dying in the same manner as his old New York buddy seemed proper and right to him, and I didn’t have the heart to argue his odd point.

During our final meeting, he told me that he was working on a book of 80 Buff games, each ending in a two-Knight middlegame mate. I laughed at such a preposterous idea – two-Knight mates in the middlegame are very rare, so the idea that he had won (or was going to win) 80 games in this manner seemed impossible. Yet, when I voiced my doubts, he quickly began playing through one game after another and sure enough, he had dozens of the things!

Jim was respected by all of San Francisco’s grandmasters and international masters. We viewed him as an artist, and always made a point of watching his tournament and blitz games. Most importantly, we appreciated Jim’s huge, almost ecstatic, smile whenever he played. He didn’t care about notoriety or titles or rating, all he cared about was the joy of battle and creating a nice bit of chess beauty. Everyone, from beginner to grandmaster, whose ego lives and dies through chess, can learn a lot from Buff’s perspective.

The following amazing game was published in the California Chess News. Here’s what the editor of that magazine wrote:

“Jim Buff of San Francisco plays ‘go-for-broke’ attacking chess. And while this all or nothing style often leaves his tournament score depressed, it does not repress an occasional outburst of pure art. Witness the dazzling display of fancy fireworks which follows. U.S. Champion Walter Browne, IM Peter Biyiasas and USCF masters Dennis Fritzinger and Jeremy Silman all thought very highly of this effort.”

Buff - Hendricks, Burlingame 1978 [All notes by Jim Buff, unless otherwise stated]

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e5 Nd5 4.Nc3 e6 5.d4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Qa5 7.Bd2 Qc7

Black had probably intended to play 7…cxd4 8.cxd4 Bb4 9.Bd3 Nc6 and then saw that I would have continued 10.0–0! Bxd2 11.Nxd2 Nxd4? 12.Nc4 with a crushing attack.

8.Be2 Nc6 9.0–0 d6 10.Bg5! 

Defending white’s e5-pawn, as two captures there costs Black a Knight and three captures costs his King by Qd8 mate!

10…Bd7 11.Rb1 dxe5?

Overlooking the point of my last move in his desire to win a pawn and the battle for control of the e5-square.

12.dxe5 Nxe5 13.Nxe5 Qxe5 14.Rxb7!

A nuclear attack with 14.Qxd7+? fails to 14…Kxd7 15.Rxb7+ Kc8 (15…Ke8 16.Bb5 mate) 16.Ba6 Qxg5 17.Rxf7+ Kd8 (17…Kb8 18.Rb1 mate) 18.Rd1+ Ke8 and White has reached the end of the road.

Silman: Jim was off on this note. After 14.Qxd7+ Kxd7 15.Rxb7+ Kc8 16.Ba6 Black should not play 16...Qxg5 due to 17.Rxa7+ Kb8 (not 17...Kd8? 18.Rd1+) 18.Rb7+ Kc8 19.Ra7+, drawing. Instead of 16...Qg5?, Black can win by 16...Qd6! 17.Rb6+ Kc7 18.Rxd6 Bxd6. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Buff gave 14.Qxd7+ serious thought during the game. I'm sure he was dying to play it, and tried as hard as possible to make it work. However, he realized its shortcomings and made the right choice.


14…Qd5 15.Qxd5 exd5 16.Bb5! Bxb5 17.Re1+ wins for White. 


The most critical move so far. It had to be seen on move eleven.

15…Qe3+ 16.Kh1 f6!

Forced. 16…Bxb7 17.Bb5+ mates.  Also bad was 16…Rc8 17.Bf3 Bxb7 18.Bxb7 and if the black c8-Rook moves White mates on c6 or d8, while 18. … Be7 leads to 19.Bxc8 Bxg5 20.Qd7+ Kf8 21.fxg5.


Avoiding 17.Bxf6? Bxb7 (17…gxf6 18.Bh5 mate) 18.Bb5+ Kf7 19.Qd7+ Kxf6 20.Qxb7 wins for Black since he’s a Rook and position up.

17…g6 18.Re1 Rd8

Fantastic! All of white’s pieces are under attack! However, the new weakness on e6 will provide a fresh target for white’s busy pieces.

19. Qb1!

An attacking move directed against the weakened white squares around black’s King. Black now makes an ingenious last ditch stand.


In one stroke, the Queen escapes white’s Rook, defends against the devastating 20.Rxe6, and threatens mate on the move.


Decisive, now ...Bxf3 loses to 21.Qb5+ and mate in two.

20…Bxb7 21.Qxb7 Rd6

21…Qf5 22.Bc6+ does it. 

22.gxh3 fxg5 23.Bc6+ Kd8 24.Rxe6 Rd1+ 25.Kg2 Bd6

Guarding against the dual mate threats on e8 and b8, but allowing a third.

26.Qd7 mate.

Later in life, Jim gave up tournament chess and focused entirely on blitz (5 minute, 3 minute, and 1 minute). His online name was CheckmateJim, and his motto was, “Jim’s the name, checkmate’s the game!” Here are some interesting moments from a few of his blitz games. Let’s see if you can find the same solutions Buff did.












































































I hope you enjoyed Buff’s art. For those that have chess aspirations, dreams can come true, even if you don’t get a title. But most importantly, the real winners in chess are those that simply love the game.

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