My Path to NM - Part 1

My Path to NM - Part 1

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I got a message this morning pointing out that I've never written a blog about my own early experiences. I'm not 100% sure that's true, but it also makes sense to write something about which I am knowledgeable (for once). 

So we'll start today:

It's the summer of 1996. I'm 5 years old, almost 6. My parents are visiting my grandparents for some sort of family reunion. In the corner of the room are my grandfather and teenage cousin sitting across from each other in silence. It smells of cigarette smoke. Why is there so much tension over there? I walk over to investigate. I'm mesmerised by a hand made block of wood with alternating squares, some black, some nicotine yellow. The important part seems to be the pieces on top of this board, clearly not just toys.

I watch carefully while my cousin and grandpa take turns moving these pieces around. The colour of the pieces seem important. They seem to have a special energy as my cousin hovers his hand over one specific piece for several seconds, unable to touch it, and then quickly pulls his hand back. I best not try to touch it myself, whatever is happening here is important.

Suddenly, the tension ends and the pieces lose their power. The pieces are pushed across the board and reset into a symmetrical position. The combatants begin again, this time controlling alternate colours. I keep watching.

Eventually, my grandfather asks if I would like to play. I sit in my cousin's spot, but I can't reach the board, so I stand. Grandpa starts explaining the rules, while I grab a knight and start moving it in L-shapes around the board. Before long, I've played my first game of chess.

At some point my mother notices that I haven't been running around the house, screaming like the attention deficit kid I was always meant to be. No, now she has new mental illnesses to worry about. Grandpa explains that not only do I know how to move all the pieces, I can even castle. 

A couple months later, summer ends and school begins. My mom tries to enroll me in the school chess club but the teacher objects. The club is for kids 10 and older. "He knows how to castle.", she says. I guess that mattered, because I was playing chess with 10 year olds later that day. 

My days at the school chess club were numbered. Later that year my parents decided to homeschool me. As I write this I realize I don't know why they made that decision, but it meant less chess and more hockey for several years.

I completed my elementary education at 11 years old, and began high-school. My homeschooling ended here, and I was reintroduced back into civilization. The first year was uneventful, but in grade 10 one of the science teachers decided to start a lunch time chess club. I went every day, even if that meant playing the teacher.

I don't remember how I got it, but at some point I was given a little hand held chess playing computer. I played that thing constantly, until I could beat it on it's second highest level. The highest level didn't work, the computer would never move.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered internet chess. At first I was upset that it took me so long to discover this brilliant concept, but that was quickly washed away by the thrill of playing 6 games at once online. My first rating: 1300.

I was 13 or 14 when my parents started bringing me to the local chess club. I don't actually remember how I got there, but I was too young to drive, so we'll assume it was my parents and I should be a more appreciative person. My first Wednesday evening, I learned about two things: openings, and mental illness. 

"Nigh Dorf", "Groon field", "Sicilian". What are all these words? I started using a scoresheet during my games, and looked up each opening in a database when I got home. Soon, I didn't need the scoresheet, I simply remembered my games. I showed up to the club each week with new, powerful opening ideas, which I executed poorly. 

Unfortunately, there were problems at my chess club. I know now that there are problems at almost every chess club. Why do so many people here smell? Why is a healthy weight so rare at chess club? Everyone is unnaturally slim or aggressively obese. Do I have to shake visibly soiled hands? I choose to look at the unusually high incidence of mental illness at my (and other) chess clubs as a positive thing. Chess clubs are welcoming, accepting places. Maybe you don't fit in on the bench at a hockey game, but chess club will always be happy to have you, especially if there was an odd number of players before you walked in the room. I know now that mental illness is a serious problem, is usually treatable or manageable, and that treatment tends to fail when a patient has a poor (or no) support system. At fourteen years old, though, I chose to avoid the 'smelly' ones. This pushed me to Denis.

Denis was a retired airplane pilot. His rating was just shy of 1800, making him the strongest 'regular' at the club. He was also clean, friendly, and 'normal'. We sometimes played for 3 consecutive hours without a break or a change of opponent. My strength at the time was probably about 1600, so having a regular opponent about 200 ELO stronger than me was the best thing that could have happened for my chess. Over the next year, I progressed rapidly, studying each and every game I played against Denis with the engine. 

One day, Denis walked into an opening line I had prepared heavily. He played a dubious gambit and I was ready. "That's refuted.", I said. "Not at our level", was Denis' reply. "At your level, maybe...".

To be continued...

Part 2