“I Blame Kurt Vonnegut.”

A few weekends ago, I did something I had long doubted I would ever do again. I participated in a chess tournament – for the first time in almost six years. And I blame Kurt Vonnegut. The connection is that the historic building (pictured above) where the tournament was held, The Athenaeum, was designed by Vonnegut’s architect grandfather. Also, the leader of our local Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club is a director of The Athenaeum Foundation. So, when I got an email soliciting participants in a tournament held there, I figured “what the heck” and entered on a lark. I didn’t expect too much, even though I was a respectably-rated player back in the day. I was the fifth highest-rated player in the tournament, which featured no masters, but included four other players rated in the “expert” category.

The tournament was a “quick” event (for chess tournaments, anyway) where each player had 30 minutes of thinking time to budget for the whole game. I was still incredibly nervous due to my rustiness, but I was paired with a fairly weak player in the first round and won fairly easily after some sloppy early play by me. In the second round a faced a stronger opponent, but he was ‘cooperative’ at a crucial moment and committed an error which allowed me to emerge victorious. The third game was a struggle. I faced a high schooler who had won a scholastic tournament held at the same location earlier in the day. I mishandled the opening variation I chose (one which I used to be quite familiar with) and was immediately in a dangerous situation. I held things together by a hair though, and the game ended in a draw.

That result left me temporarily in 2nd place with 2.5 points out of 3. One player had won all three games and thus had 3 points out of 3, no one else had more than 2 out of 3. So, mostly by good fortune, I found myself playing on the top board for the final round with a chance to actually win the tournament(!) if I were victorious. I wish I could tell you that is what happened, but I went down to defeat against a player with a slightly higher rating than mine. I didn’t go down without a fight, though, and he was complimentary of my play afterward, graciously marveling at the fact that I played so well (as he thought, anyway; he didn’t see some of my earlier games) after not having played in a tournament for so long.

At this point, I hope that this was a one-off appearance on the “tournament scene” and that I haven’t re-activated the “pernicious” chess virus as described by a former World Champion.

Mikhail Tal: “When one of us first plays chess, he is like a man who has already caught a dose of microbes of, say, Hong Kong ‘flu. Such a man walks along the street, and he does not yet know that he is ill. He is healthy, he feels fine, but the microbes are doing their work… a few days pass, and suddenly you involuntarily begin to sense that, without chess, there is something missing in your life. Then you may rejoice; you belong to that group of people without a natural immunity to the chess disease…”

I met the former world chess champion Mikhail Tal in Chicago in 1988. It was the site of that year’s “National Open” chess tournament, and he was the star attraction, drawing many to enter the tournament with the slight hope they might be paired with the legend. I drove up from Indy with two of my chessplaying colleagues, one of whom had already achieved a master rating in the United State Chess Federation. And this guy didn’t even enter the tournament, he simply stood on the sidelines and watched each of Tal’s games from start to finish, absorbing whatever he could. Sadly, I did not get paired against Tal and had to slug it out with other ‘amateurs’ for the six rounds, but I did get to meet him and shake his hand, and it was exciting to be a fellow participant with him in a tournament.