Grinding Away

I am still not reaching my goals for chess study. First, I was sick - really sick - last Friday. I missed a day of work and slept all day Friday. Saturday was better and Sunday better still. The other issue is I’m still preparing for summer camps and not quiet on top of things there, plus I’m updating my accounting system for chess.

I need to get those things done and out of the way during the upcoming holiday weekend. Having missed a day of work, and having projects to make up will increase that challenge.

On the plus side, I’m getting on the treadmill more regularly, eating better, exercising better. There is room for a lot of improvement in this area but just to be doing it consistently is a start - and it takes at least a month and a half before consistent effort turns into habit.

Still, if scales are to be believed, I’m down a total of 13 pounds from my high point. That;s a positive I can build on.

More importantly, my last couple of walks on the treadmill have been pain free in my feet (a rarity) - and haven’t involved significant muscle tightening in my left calf - also an infrequent big plus. Here’s hoping this is the new norm - it makes is psychologically easier to exercise.

Evaluation and Changes

To change, we first have to recognize that there is a problem.

I knew that at some point I would need help in making change, but some of the issues were so obvious, I felt that I could address them straightaway. I had a number of issues to address, and in no particular order, I’ve outlined these below.

First, I had already been seeing a counselor to assist me with dealing with depression in my life. I knew that - while I couldn’t be more aggressive in attacking this issue all the time, I needed to be more aggressive in dealing with the depression over all.

Second, I was out of shape - my weight was high and I had no real endurance or ability to carry out physical activity. Additionally, I didn't feel I had free time to address these changes.

I knew this would be a significant challenge. I also recognized that we can’t change all things simultaneously. There are limits to emotional and physical resources, and some other aspects of my life would make it a significant challenge to make a change in this part of my life right away.

Third, I was spending too much time on work, and frankly, without enough result. I needed to get caught up at work and change my approach overall.

Fourth, our home was too large and taking up too much time for both myself and my wife. Deb was always working in the yard, or cleaning, or shoveling snow, or….and this constant drain on time made it challenging to get time for other areas.

Fifth, both my wife and I had aging parents who needed additional assistance. So any changes would have to anticipate the time they needed.

Sixth, my chess materials had become disorganized - it lacked clear organization and cohesion. Shrinking the time needed to prepare chess lessons or to study myself would always be a challenge because of the lack of organization.

Seventh, all of this along with the financial stress from 2007-2008 and the stress of working in another state for 18 months with regular commuting back, created stress on our relationship.

So, in summary:

  • Counseling

  • Physical shape/health

  • Work/life balance

  • Downsize home

  • Aging parents

  • Re-organize & digitize chess materials

  • Work on relationship with Deb

It was difficult to decide on a set of priorities for attacking these issues. I finally decided that a key was to start doing things to free up time - allowing us time to attack other issues.

So one of the first decisions for us was to downsize our home, and we moved to a town home in uptown Park Ridge. This allowed us to save a lot of time on home maintenance, while also affording the possibility of walking to work, walking to stores, etc., thereby saving additional effort. It also helped provide opportunities for Deb and I to easily do some things together and thereby easily strengthen our relationship.

With the additional time save from home maintenance and the home move, it was important to get rid of “stuff”. I got rid of some chess material I just didn’t need any more because I had increasingly focused on having things electronically. Because I had less room for chess books, I had about 50% of my library (nearly all the paperbacks) destructively digitized. (I found a firm that was inexpensive and provided a quality job - check out http://bookscan.us/index.html .)

I also had many paper files of games, newspaper articles, pictures etc. I purchased a good scanner and digitized these materials, getting rid of about four “bankers boxes” of files.

In the end, I was much more organized, and that also saved time. But the entire process of finding a new home, selling the old, and then digitizing many of my files took about 18 months. On the plus side, by being more organized, various “chess work” for coaching became more efficient. For the digitized books and magazines, I stored the material in Calibre, an e-book database. I also organized that with tags so that the digitized books and either be easily searched or browsed by tags. Below is an example of what I get if I search on “Paul Morphy”. It’s not perfect, but this process saved about 5 bookshelves of space.

morphy_example.jpg

I also started working on what I was eating and exercising, but this soon uncovered a new issue. I had arthritis in both feet, to a degree where it was difficult to work out. So I made the decision to undergo surgery on each foot. The first surgery was in August 2016 the second in December:

The first foot had surgery in August 2016, the second in December.

The first foot had surgery in August 2016, the second in December.

I did continue to work out during my feet healing, but it temporarily slowed down the process significantly. It took over a year for both feet to fully heal. For the second foot, I also needed a joint replacement, and that has taken much longer to heal and lose some of the pain and regain strength.

It’s really just been this summer that I’ve been able to work out more normally, but that’s been fine because I’ve been slowly realizing more gains in time as things come together. Another item is that both of my parents passed away, and I was executor of their estate - that process took over a year.

So it is really just the past few months - after over three years worth of work, that I feel like my life has been reorganized. I have finally started to be more serious and focused with respect to exercise and eating.

In other words, it has taken over three years of reorganizing my life to get to a position where I can work on my health and physical aspects, and also on chess - they way that I wanted when I started this process.

There are other chess projects I have going on - we are focused on running the U.S. Junior and U.S. Senior next summer in conjunction with our Naperville chess camp, and there are some key things that we are still doing with respect to that. But serious chess study is just starting as well. More about that in my next post.

Chess Master Meets Real Life -- Losing Shape

There comes a time in the life of each talented young chess player that it really hits them - they are NOT going to become the World Champion.

Of course, we all know this, but the point is that sooner or later the attraction of chess is measured against the demands of real life. As much as we love chess, it nearly always loses this battle.

My battle came in late 1983.

After becoming a master in 1982, I had a fairly good year of play in 1983, competing in several tournaments as a master and doing relatively well. If I recall correctly my rating edged up toward 2300.

Slowly but surely, the demands of a job and real life ate away at my ability to play chess consistently and well. This led to a very up and down career. 1982 and 1983 were good, but then things tailed in 84, improved in 85, tailed again, improved again - and so on. I divorced, found love again and remarried, raised a son and got into coaching as he got into chess. As he and his friends got older and stronger, I decided that I needed to refocus again and over all, played better in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Then I hit a real dry spell - yes, I was coaching, running chess camps and playing in casual tournaments, but I didn’t play in a serious, two day or longer serious tournament for over 10 years, approaching 15 years.

Was I even a chess player any more? What had real life done to my love of chess?

But it was even worse. In dealing with my career, and several changes to my career, I had slowly let myself get out of shape.

I had lost 54 pounds in the late 1980’s, worked out regularly, and gotten in good shape by the early 1990’s. But now, I had let it all creep back on - at one point weighing 95 pounds more than my low point around 1990 - I reached 242 after a low point of 147.

I had worked and taken off 20 pounds, but struggled to keep it off. I kept working and at one point I got back down to 202 — but then slowly let it creep up again.

My shape and weight control was inconsistent from around 1999 and on.

To add to this, I went through a significant job change - where I was often commuting to and from Florida for my job and to see my wife here in Illinois. My parents were aging and ill, and when they passed, it took a year to wrap up their “easy” estate.

With the financial crisis of 2007-2008, my wife and I lost well over a half million dollars in real estate value, significantly damaging our lifestyle and retirement portfolio.

I was under strain. Work was stressful, we lived in two states, our marriage was stressed, there was financial strain, and I wasn’t doing any of the things I loved.

As a coach, I knew I needed change. And by late 2014 I had decided that I needed to pursue a path to reformulate my life and get it back on track.

I had decided to make a change, and with my next post we finally discuss the changes I’ve been working on and my next steps.

In the beginning....part II

Background and context will be important in understanding my motivation and goals, so excuse me while I go back in time a bit to provide a bit more of the overall picture.

Prehistoric Times

I grew up in Zion, IL. Back then it had a population of 17,000+. When I was one-year old my parents purchased some farmland on the outskirts of town - our land reached to the then city (town?) limits. My dad spent a lot of time working on our home. He was a union carpenter and would work at that job for over 30 years. My dad worked a lot to build a better home and to provide for his family. I had two older brothers and in 1967 gained a younger brother.

Like most in the 1960’s when I was growing up, my mom stayed at home. My father had helped my uncle with a home, rehabbing a house on our land and selling it to him, so that my uncle, aunt and two cousins lived next door. My grandparents lived next door to them! My grandfather had had a stroke around 1960 and my father built a small house for them on our land so that they would be nearby.

So family was always important and close.

I learned to play chess in 1968 at age eleven, when I received a chess set for my birthday. I liked that Spock played on Star Trek and so asked for a set myself. At first I played my two older brothers. One was in college, the other was in high school. I can remember playing each of them over the summer whenever I wasn’t playing baseball with my friends.

That fall I had a 6th grade teacher who spent a great deal of extra time with me - teaching me to put together mechanical calculating devices/computers, reading books, being taught extra math. He was a special teacher and mentor to me. I specifically remember reading Frankenstein with him, and when we reached the part of the story where the monster killed Viktor’s wife my teacher asked me “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to let out all your anger in one violent act?” His name was Eugene Newbury. His fiancée, Anna Mondragon, had met him in college in New Mexico, and they both came back to his home town of Zion to teach. I met her a few times, and although she taught in a different elementary school, she taught in the same school as my aunt’s mother. Their wedding was scheduled during the Christmas break, and I had been invited to the wedding. A little less than a week before Christmas, and two weeks prior to the wedding, my teacher brutally murdered his fiancée. A few days later, I with much of the rest of the country would watch Apollo 8’s trip to the moon with the crew reading from Genesis on Christmas Eve.

The events of that December would impact me for many years - and oddly, in my thirties, I entered a section of correspondence chess only to find that one of the competitors was my former (and still incarcerated) teacher.

A few months later, in March of 1969, my eldest brother perished in an single car automobile accident. And a few months after that I testified in my former teacher’s trial. The period of 1968 and 1969 were amazing years. We journeyed to the moon (several times!) There was Woodstock, and the Chicago riots. Politics, music, art were all changing. And I had personal challenges in an era where my middle class parents didn’t really know that I needed assistance in dealing with those challenges.

So why is this important? Besides these events impacting me in terms of who I was and was to become, they helped chess become important in my life. I began to read old classic chess books at the library. As I went into Junior High we developed a chess club, and I met other players. (Oddly - one, the son of the principal at my elementary school, would years later become my step brother after my mother passed away and my father remarried.)

Chess became a steadying force, a way to make friends. I began to run tournaments. I learned about US Chess and joined and shortly thereafter found out that Bobby Fischer was on quest to the world championship. While I enjoyed the Fischer boom, I was not drawn to chess because of him - my timing was coincidental.

In high school, I played chess frequently and progressed from a first rating of 1368 to a rating in the 1600’s. During junior high I had also found that a neighbor high school kid played - and lost 100 games to him - at odds - before winning one. When he got his first rating it was nearly 1900.

Chess became an important part of my life, socially, for fun, and also developmentally. I started directing tournaments so that I could organize and play in more events. Eventually I found that organizing two chess clubs - one in Zion and one in Waukegan - made it too difficult to focus on improving - so I enlisted the help of one of our club members to become a TD — Tim Just. Of course, Tim went on to become a National Tournament Director and author of the last two editions of the US Chess Rulebook.

Becoming a Master

With Tim taking over a lot of work of the chess club, I was able to focus more on my development as a player.

Going back to high school - these early years of “scholastic” chess - somewhat different than it is today - were very important to my development. I scored 3-2 as a Freshman, and 4-1 as both a Sophomore and a Junior. The tournaments were quite different from year-to-year though. As a Freshman the tournament had 110 players and was played in the old Chicago Chess Club on S. Wabash in the Chicago Loop. As a Sophomore there were 450 players - thanks to Fischer, and I believe it was in the old LaSalle Hotel (now gone.) As a junior there were 350 players. By the time I was a Senior the tournament had reverted to around 100 players - and the Fischer boom was gone. But as a Senior I had managed to score 4.5 out of 5 in the April 1975 tournament, and tied for first with Tim Kras and David Sprenkle - both of whom also went on to become masters.

I continued to play heavily in College, winning one ACU-I Regional tournament and making it to the national finals (where I was crushed) and the next year winning the regional tournament but losing out on tie-break. I also practiced regularly at our local chess club, which had moved to Grayslake and now served all of Lake County, IL.

Finally, in 1980, I had a bit of a breakthrough and crept up to the Expert level, attaining a rating of 2022. I thought I would level off a little bit, But I was in for a surprise.

In November 1980 I played in the Janesville Chess Association Anniversary Open. Janesville, WI may seem like an odd place for a large tournament, but it’s location made it drivable from several midwestern cities - Peoria, Bloomington and Champaign from the South, Des Moine and Davenport, Rockford, Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, LaCrosse, Rochester and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

So over 300 players would come to Janesville. In in this year I started off with wins against a 1600 and an 1800 - and then played IM Morris (2400) in round 3, and won in 21 moves on the White side of a Fischer/Sozin Najdorf. In round 4 I won as black against SM Curt Brasket of MN, and in the final round drew NM Henry Meifert — thereby taking first on tie-break over GM Bisguier, SM Martinovsky and Expert Mario Spinosa. My rating shot up to around 2160.

And for the next year - I struggled in tournaments. I’d get five good positions in a tournament and score 3-2 over and over again. NM David Sprenkle once wrote that I had a “proclivity for accidents”. Indeed, in one tournament, after drawing GM Soltis in round 1, I proceeded to miss a mate in one against NM Tomas and went on to lose the game.

To this day I still use this game in instructing students.

Finally, in 1982 I started becoming more consistent. I eventually had a streak of 11 games against masters without a loss, and in the first Midwest Masters in December of 1982, I started out ranked 29th, but finished tied 3-5, cracking 2200 for the first time.

With this background and ancient history out of the way, the next post completes the background, brings us up to date, and defines the current goal.

In the beginning....

This journey actually began years ago - it is only recently that it occurred to me to write about it.

Where to start this story? Well, let me share why I decided to write about this journey, and then go back and tell you more about the journey up to this point. This is the point at which as a chess player - or as a person getting in shape for any endeavor - you can appreciate, and perhaps learn from someone trying to achieve a specific goal.

These first two blog posts provide a lot of background - if you are more interested in where its going from here - I suggest starting with the third post.

Why Write?
I decided to write about this journey for a few reasons…

First, this is a difficult journey. I wanted to record it because it may help others who wish to do something similar.

But also writing down one’s thoughts is clarifying. It helps a person to process, to learn, and to grow through one’s experience.

Another point is that blogging will help keep me accountable to myself in this journey.

As I thought about doing this, I recalled that decades ago, when I was first trying to become a master, I would often publish chess analysis either locally, or regionally in magazines like the Illinois Chess Bulletin or Badger Chess (the Wisconsin chess magazine.) Today fewer of these magazines exist, and so its harder to find a place to publish.

As I considered whether to write, I knew that at times I would have to deal with issues that are difficult. But I recalled the story Jan Timman told at the in the Preface to his book The Art of Chess Analysis: “Far more useful was Botvinnik's advice to analyse games at home and then publish the analysis. As he put it: 'During play your analytical work is continually being tested against your critically-minded opponents, but in home-analysis it is very easy to be unobjective. To fight this tendency and to get away from poor analysis it is useful to publish your individual analytical work. Then you are subject to objective criticism.' “

Accountability is a necessary component to success, and if I wish to improve then its important to subject myself to this same objective criticism - not just with respect to my games, but also with respect to my entire process of improvement.

And so, due to Botvinnik’s advice, here I am writing about the process.

It isn’t JUST Botvinnik, though. To achieve a difficult goal requires a team. Key to my team is my wife Deborah, whom many of you in the chess world know. She has been at my side through chess coaching, state and national championships, and running chess tournaments and chess camps, and Deb’s support is crucial to this journey.

Another key member of my team is my physical and wellness coach - Emily Emanuel, founder and CEO of Hit the Floor Fitness. A key member of my team, Emily’s background may be found here for those who are looking for a trainer.

In dealing with my challenges, I have found it useful to also engage with a psychological coach. Dr. Jill Narcisi, who has been helping me to deal with unresolved blockers from my past as I work to move ahead.

The area where I haven’t engaged anyone specific yet is chess itself. Obviously, I am a coach, and can do some degree of self-evaluation. However, at some point I need a coach to help direct me and keep me honest in my approach to training. I anticipate that I may tap several people in this area - GM’s Alex Yermolinksy, Greg Kaidanov, Greg Serper, Yury Shulman, Alex Goldin, Dmitry Gurevich, Irina Krush and many others are all friends whom I expect to reach out to at various points along the way.

So that’s the set-up, the plot, some of the main cast of characters. In my next post I’ll share how I got to the point of deciding to make this journey and what the starting point was…

Until then — good chess!

I hope that my readers, especially those in similar circumstances, can learn from my experience and that it helps them in achieving their own goals.