Meet Ray, He’s my dad.

Jun 20, 2009, 5:23 PM |

In case you are wondering how I got to be such a chess enthusiast, you needn’t look much further than one click up the genealogical tree in my family. Being father’s day, I thought I’d take the time and tell you the story of Ray, my dad.

Ray grew up in a small town in Maine and was the youngest of 4 children. Since his three older siblings were much older, there weren’t many shared interests. This meant my father had to find things to entertain himself with.

Ray heard of one person in town who proclaimed to be a checkers champion who he sought to learn the game. If I recall my father’s version of the story correctly, he won the second game. Impressed with his talent ( or fearing further embarrassment), the alleged checker champion steered Ray towards a more challenging game, CHESS!

Eager to learn, Ray found a local bookstore that carried some basic chess books. With the money he made as a young teen working at the family bakery, he picked up a couple of these books to get started. He began playing with his friends and anyone who showed an interest.

He found a few friends in High school to play. He yearned for better competition and discovered Postal chess to be an answer. He’d get several cards going in the mail playing several games. This was a great period for him to hone his skills in the days before the internet and ICC.

As a young man in the late 1950’s, he was a newlywed. He found the local chess club in the city of Portland, Maine to fulfill his growing passion for the game. My mother would rather see him head off to a chess club on a Friday than hanging out in the bars, which was never the case for my dad. The only time he’d hang out in a bar was on a Saturday morning, as their bookkeeper. After all, he was a CPA.

The early years of raising a family and moving to a small town in Maine gave him limited chess options other than the postal games. I was the youngest of three. Once I reached school age, I remember him teaching my sisters to play chess. Unlike Lazlo Polgar making a psychological study out of his children, Ray merely provided us the opportunity. As I watched my oldest sister attempt her best game at dad, with knights developed off the edge of the board and nothing in the center, she was in tears by the end of the game and swore it off. I, on the other hand, was eager to dive in. I didn’t care if my pieces were taken immediately off the board. I’d only come back for more.

It was about this time in the late 1960’s that he started up a chess club in small coastal college town. The pool of players came from the local Naval base, the college and several small hamlets in the area. What amazed me was the fact that chess was the great equalizer no matter what walk of life you were.
Through our house, over the years, I’ve met plumbers, doctors, carnival workers, teachers, students, and military personnel all with a common interest in a game that lasted two millennium.

My passion for the game grew as my father’s involvement for the club grew. I was eager to come to the club, but using reverse psychology he’d say simply “ Not yet, these guys are tough. When you are ready, I’ll let you know.” Ray was patient with this exuberant youth. He started to hand me the very same books that he learned from. I recall fondly, the book by Al Horowitz, “ How to Win in the Chess Openings”. Before this, my game resembled toy football players on a vibrating table that would fall off the edge of the board. Ray, got me started down the right path by learning some basic concepts of opening play and making his copy of Chess Life and Review ( before the USCF called it Chess Life in 1980) available. He advocated playing over annotated games as the real meat to learning the game. I was naïve and wanted to simply play. But still, I was not ready for the club.

The Fischer versus Spassky match of 1972, was brought into our living room through PBS and the genius work of a couple of men, Shelby Lyman and Michael Chase. The first ever real-time American televised coverage of a world championship match was being kibitzed by my father and I in our living room with portable chess sets on our laps.

One summer day, as I played Dad handicapped by the Red sox playing in the background, I ended up not losing! The draw was my qualification to allow me to attend the weekly Club. I started going on a regular basis, even playing in team matches against other towns like Portland, Saco, and Lewiston. He encouraged me to start a chess club in the high school and even chauffeured the rag tag team to a couple matches.

Not once in my growing up did Ray ever force this game down my throat or tell me to “concentrate”, or “ how could you play such a stupid move”. These are comments, I have heard chess parents tell their kids at recent events as I watched the enthusiasm get sucked right out of these kids. Rather, he cautioned me that “ these guys at the tournaments are playing for blood.” And “ Expect to get your face rubbed in the mud by these guys ( at the club), that’s the best way to learn.” He was there for the post mortem, never shaming, always encouraging, with a “ better luck next time”.

He was there for me when I won the top student in the state in 1979. (BlunderProne shown in a vintage photo with trophy on right) Not once did he rub it in my face that there were only two of us competing for the same trophy in the Maine State Championship that year. Rather, he was proud and let me feel good about the accomplishment. He bragged to all the club members of this accomplishment. He made me feel like I was part of something special.

Then I grew up and moved out. Ray kept the club going until his retirement when it got to be too much for him to keep up. He maintains his title as Maine Chess Association’s treasurer ( to this day). I had since moved out of Maine and could not keep the club going. What did keep going was the spark of enthusiasm for this game.

I did the same for my kids, as I learned from my dad. I provide the opportunity but I don’t force it down their throats. Even though my youngest daughter loses more games than winning, she still comes back for more because she likes the same things I like about this game. The experience of meeting people of all walks of life sharing a common bond to a game that has outlasted gameboys, play stations and Frisbees.

In 2004, at a local event, a little known fact occurred that went under the radar of the local chess media. Three generations of chess enthusiasts attended the same tournament. We may not be a family of masters but we are a family of enthusiasts.
In Ray’s words:

“ The beauty of this game is that the answer is always right in front of you. It’s your mind against your opponent’s. There’s no luck, no dice to be thrown, no cards to be drawn. It’s your own fault if you lose and it’s your skill and ability if you win.”

Say hi to my dad. He lurks here and lives vicariously through my blog these days. I love him. Happy Father’s day, Dad.