A Most Extraordinary Event

Sep 7, 2009, 2:51 PM |
Mike Thomas was gracious enough to give me a ride to direct the tournament at the Barnes & Noble. His lovely daughter, Katie, was with him. 'Gentleman' David Blanton was there upon our arrival, so that was three of the four needed for a quad. As the round time neared, someone mentioned I may have to play. About this time, a family, father, mother, two daughters and a son, appeared. The little red haired boy walked right over to our tables, got up on a chair opposite Mr Blanton, and moved the king pawn to e4! David responded with e5 and the little fellow made his second move, Nf3, immediately. The game was on! I asked his age, learning he was only five, not even in school! He continued to produce moves, good moves, at a rapid pace, all the while talking, obviously brimming with confidence. Upon further questioning I learned he actually had a USCF rating! He had to ask his father, who held up fingers, which I took to be '337', but after consulting the USCF, found it to be '887'! It took us a few moments to ascertain  the little fellow was there to play in the quad! That meant there were enough players, and, more importantly, I would not have to play.
With Katie saying she wished to play Max, I had to stop the game in order for the first round of the quad to begin. Max gave his ascessment of the position, with him having a rook with Mr Blanton having two bishops. I was astonished at his judgement of the position, which could have come from someone much older and accomplished. I could see in David's face that he was as amazed as I. 
When the tournament began I had a chance to talk with Max's parents, Rob and Shelley. I heard Max learned to play by watching as his sisters took lessons at a school program, with Ryan Velez involved. When it was mentioned that Steve Dillard had written about Max on the Kentucky chess association website, (www.kcachess.org), under Awards and Recognition, in the post: August 31, 2009 I went over to my chess bag, producing a copy of the post. I made a copy of it because I have a young student with parents from Gary Kasparov's country of origin, Azerbaijan. His mother wants him to learn chess, but, although he seems bright enough, his heart is just not in it. I wanted them to read it, in hopes it could possibly kindle a spark. I have tried just about everything else...
Max did not fare well versus the veteran Mike Thomas in round one, while David beat Katie. As I talked with the parents, I watched the beginning of the second round. I had to get up to look at the position when I saw Mr Blanton hunkered down right out of the opening, looking distressed. And the look was with reason! Max had won a pawn right out of the opening! Later David said, "He won the opening." But, alas, Max did not win the game, and was none too happy with the result! I suggested they go over the game after Max took a break. The reason I asked David to go over the game is that Max is so young, he cannot write down the moves! His mother mentioned getting him one of the devices (I took it to mean a Monroi), but that, as she put it, "It's so expensive."
Meanwhile, Mike dropped a rook to Katie, I later learned. When I saw the position, Katie was up an exchange for a pawn, with a good position. Unfortunately, she proved how hard it can be to win a 'won' poisition, something with witch we can all identify!
I mentioned several books for Shelley to read, including KING'S GAMBIT, by Paul Hoffman; THE ART OF LEARNING, by Josh Waitzkin; THE KING'S OF NEW YORK by Michael Weinreb; and CHESS BITCH by Jennifer Shahade.
I was amazed at how quickly Max played good moves in his last round game with Katie. When he threatened Nc7 she moved her King to d7 and he immediately moved his Knight to d6, threatening the unprotected pawn on f7, and with that, the rook on h8. I was distracted and, when I looked back, Max had lost a won game! Obviously, not all moves produced quickly are good!
Mike dropped a Knight to David and it was not looking too good, but the Gentleman failed to take a pawn, thereby getting the Queens off of the board, and Mike's threats to David's King were too strong. Mike Thomas won the event, but Max won our hearts! I passed Gentleman David Blanton on the way to the men's room and he had this big smile on his face, saying, "I like this kid!" I walked on thinking, "We all do!"
Shelley sent me a video of Max today I would like you to see:
It has been a long and winding road that has brought me to Louisville, a city with the motto of 'Keep Louisville Weird'. Guess that's why I seem to fit right in! Most chess trainer's would salivate at the prospect of having a student like Max, thinking only of self-aggrandizement. I would love to train Max, not because of what it could possibly do for my reputation as a chess coach, but because of his wonderful personality and infectious enthusiasm. It is obvious he loves whatever it is he does! Yet honesty compells me to admit I am filled at trepidation at the prospect; not feeling worthy. You see, I only attained the rank of expert. I can teach the basics, and feel my understanding of the game is much higher than my rating, because, as one grows older, as GM Viktor Korchnoi said, "Elo points have as much to do with energy as with knowledge." I fear what I taught someone like Max would have to be 'unlearned' later! Max is like a flower that needs to be nurtured, with only the best care. The better his trainer now, the better he will be in the future. I base that on what former US Chess Champion Stuart Rachels has said previously about his work with IM of GM strength Boris Kogan.
The road to Grandmaster is long and arduous, with many pitfalls. Many try and most fail. Chess has been called an art; science; and sport. My friend Michael Decker, former Champion of my home state, Georgia, once wrote a paper in which he posited chess is a language, in that it must be learned young. After watching many youngsters go into the playing room and return after making the first move that popped into their little heads, I said that only ten percent should even be playing a tournament. That, to the people who derive their income from teaching, and selling equipment to the parents, did not go over well. The thing about Max is that the first move that pops into his head is, most often, a good one. Once he learns to sit and think, the sky's the limit for him! I hope I got him off to a start by telling him to ask himself the three questions every chess player should answer before making a move. One: Why did my opponent make that move? Two: What move do I want to make, and why? Three: Am I leaving anything en prise?
I would like to bring to your attention an article by GM Jonathan Rowson in the 2009/5 issue of the best chess magazine in the world, New in Chess, entitled, THOSE WHO CAN, TEACH. He reviews the book, THE CHESS INSTRUCTOR 2009, published by New in Chess. It is a book on my list if, and when, I have the money to purchase it. It would appear to be essential for every chess coach. GM Rowson writes, "I learned chess at the age of five, and we now know that not only are many young children capable of complex logic, but some children reach international standard before they reach double figures. However, such instances are still fairly rare, and I think Richard James makes a very important point that much effort can be wasted in investing chess resources into children who are not yet capable of complex logic, because they are very unlikely to be charmed by the game for long, and will invariably give it up."
I mentiond Mozart to Max's parents and Rob said, "That makes my flesh crawl." I cannot help but wonder about reincarnation when I see someone so young play as if it is the most natural thing in the world; as if he were 'born' to play. I have absolutely no doubt Max is exceptionally extraordinary. I can only hope the chess community recognizes this and can find the 'resources' required to see this flower grow!
I cannot help but think of the young Matthew Puckett. I watched him beat GM Sam Palatnik with the Leningrad Dutch at the House of Pain (the Atlanta Chess & Game Center) while working there, and then stop playing. During that weekend I had a chance to talk with his mother, who told me they were not of the circumstances as Stuart Rachels (his father was a professor of philosophy and wrote books that have been quoted by many philosophers, including Peter Singer), but were 'blue-collar'. She went on to tell me that Matthew had to win to continue to play. I thought that was a tremendous pressure to put on any youngster. It was with pleasure when I went to the USCF ratings page and saw Matthew returned to chess in 2007 after a six year hiatus, climbing back over the 2200 barrier! How many promising youngsters fall by the wayside for lack of 'resources'?
As a fan of baseball, I previously had the thought that I will not be around to see the career of today's future stars. The same applies to chess players like Ray Robson, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the US Masters in Hendersonville, NC, while living there. In a decade, Max will be the same age as Ray now. The odds are that I will not be around then; something with witch we must all comes to terms if lucky enough to live past 'middle age'. Although the fact saddens me, I take pleasure in 'now'. It was a most extraordinary event!