Friday, July 13, 2007

Greg Kaden's Questionnaire Answers

I have no idea whether readers of the blog who are not club members are finding these chess bios interesting, but I'm learning so much about people I thought I knew... but apparently, not that well. In any case, I'm heartened to see a number of different members participating, and for that, I have BDK to thank for his questionnaire. Who's next?

Here are Greg's responses (which he e-mailed to me):

1. How long have you been playing chess? Have you played it consistently since you started, or were there lulls in your play? How did these lulls affect your performance?

I have been aware of chess as long as I can remember because my father used to play regularly at the BCC (he is around 1500 strength) and we had all kinds of cool chess sets around the house. Eventually I grew tired of having mock battles with my father's Revolutionary War chess set and asked him to teach me the rules, primarily, as I recall, so that I could one day go to tournaments with him. I was seven when my father taught me the moves and some basic strategies. When I say "basic strategies", I don't mean the four-move checkmate, which he never showed me. That omission became an unfortunate problem for me at my first tournament, the Northeast District Lower Elementary (K-3) Championship at Austin Prep in Reading, MA. There, my opponents were all too eager to teach me the four-move mate, and I summarily lost my first three games in a grand total of 12 moves. I somehow managed to win my fourth game and then lost two long games to Ken Wright, who at the time was probably the best elementary school player in the state not named Patrick Wolff. All told, I finished 1-5, good enough for last place, an initial rating of 621, and a mountain of frustration for having failed to win a trophy. Despite my disappointment, I was encouraged both by my performance against Ken and by the fact that I was the only second grader in the tournament and my opponents -- all third graders -- would not be eligible to torment me again the following year.

The next year, I took advantage of the depleted talent pool to win the Northeast Districts and then the State Finals, in each case with a perfect score. This time, I got two huge trophies (which my parents are still after me to remove from my childhood bedroom) and a revised provisional rating of 1037. My mother sent a note to the local paper reporting my accomplishment and before I knew it, I was the subject of a feature story hailing me as an "8-year-old chess whiz." Grossly exaggerated and embarrassing though that article was, it attracted the attention of a college student in my hometown who was looking to make some extra money. That enterprising student -- NM Lou Mercuri -- called my parents and asked if they would be interested in hiring him to give me chess lessons. So began a series of lessons that continued on and off until I was about 15.

At some point during that 7-year span (probably around 6th grade), I realized that I really didn't enjoy chess very much. It certainly wasn't "cool" (and I thought I was all about being cool back then) and playing in tournaments didn't seem like a very fun hobby-- to me it resembled
voluntarily taking an exam, and I was already getting enough of those in school. Also, my father was starting to phase himself out of tournament chess, which had been my primary impetus for wanting to learn how to play in the first place. Yet, out of a combination of inertia and perceived parental expectations, I continued to take lessons from Lou and attend a handful of tournaments each year (typically the obligatory scholastic tournaments and a few of the larger local adult events, such as the Newton Open and Pillsbury Memorial). But that was all I did. I refused to read a chess book under any circumstances (because that seemed an awful lot like school) and also declined to do any of the homework problems Lou assigned me (again, that's too much like school). Casual games, even with my father, became few and far between.

Despite my appalling lack of interest in chess, my rating -- if not my ability -- improved rapidly. I broke 2000 for the first time at age 13, and reached a peak published rating of 2190 at age 16 (I had been rated even higher at one point unofficially, but my rating dropped between rating supplements). Shortly after reaching my peak, I obtained my driver's license and promptly quit chess "for good" except for a random event every year or two, typically a cameo appearance for my high school or college team.

Soon after graduating from college, I decided to give chess a try again. At first, I seemed to enjoy the game a lot more than I did when I was a kid. However, there were still many other things I preferred to do and, in any event, I discovered that my aversion to studying chess had followed me into adulthood. To top it all off, I had long since stopped taking lessons from Lou. The results were predictably disastrous. I lost something like 150 rating points in about two years, despite playing in only a handful of events.

After that ill-fated comeback, I again quit chess "for good" when I went to law school in 1996. Between 1996 and 2005, aside from an occasional off-hand game, I didn't play any chess at all. And I certainly didn't miss the game a bit, especially after other life events (law school, work, family, etc.) intervened. As my schedule got busier, I tried to find time for just one hobby. For me that hobby was….drums. I took lessons, watched instructional videos and practiced regularly on an electronic drum set that my wife got me for my birthday. A fact about that drum set is of special relevance to my most recent chess comeback -- it took me the better part of a weekend to set it up and get it working.

In the summer of 2005, we were having some painting done in the basement where the drums are kept. I came home from work one day eager to play along to a couple of Led Zeppelin songs only to find that the painters had moved the drums and, in doing so, had inadvertently (I can only assume) disassembled the entire kit. Faced with the prospect of a two-day re-assembly project, I glanced idly around the room and noticed a book on the shelf next to my old Crim Pro textbooks -- The Mammoth Book of the World's Greatest Chess Games by Burgess, Nunn and Emms. I'm still not entirely sure where the book came from, though I think that it was probably a gift from a well-meaning relative who remembered that I played chess when I was younger. Instead of putting my drum set back together, I quickly thumbed through the book, put it back on the shelf and left the basement. I repeated this process for what seemed like several weeks: going to the basement eager to play drums, finding, to my disappointment, that they remained disassembled (to my continuing surprise they never seemed to assemble themselves), thumbing through the chess book, putting it back on the shelf and leaving the basement. Eventually, I stopped thinking about the drums and began going to the basement solely to look at the chess book, which I was enjoying in a way that I had never enjoyed chess before. Before long, I was back at tournaments, taking monthly lessons with Lou and even leafing through a chess book from time-to-time.

Despite the long layoff, I think I am a better player right now than ever before, even at my rating peak. I am still a very weak player, to be sure, but at least now I am finally enjoying playing and learning about the game. That alone has helped my play significantly and has more than compensated for my diminished (and now almost non-existent) ability to come up with some of the creative tactical ideas that led to my most successful results as a youth.

2. Aside from playing games, what is your primary mode of training?

Monthly chess lessons and reading books on tactics or general principles (ideally ones that I can read on the commuter train without a board, such as Emms' puzzle book and Soltis's Turning Advantage Into Victory in Chess).

3. What is the single most helpful method of improvement that you have ever used?

Without a doubt, chess lessons. As noted above, I gained over 1500 rating points in an 8- year period by doing nothing other than taking lessons and playing a few tournaments each year. Given my steadfast refusal to study chess books as a kid, I'm not sure how I would have improved without the lessons.

4. What is your favorite opening to play as white? As black against e4? As black against d4?

Everyone has been dodging this question, and I suppose that I will too. I will say this though: I have always played 1. e4 and the next time that I answer 1. d4 with 1…d5 will be the first time.

5. Who are your favorite chess players and why?

Rashid Nezhmetdinov: His famous win against Polugaevsky is one of the main reasons I kept going back to that book in my basement (where it appears as game no. 40).

Lawyer Times: A model of consistency, success, and sportsmanship.

6. What is your favorite chess book?

Mammoth Book of the World's Greatest Chess Games -- The book that got me really interested in chess for the first time since my father taught me the moves. Entertaining and well-annotated games.

Play Like a Grandmaster by Kotov -- The only chess book I have ever read straight through more than once. Lucidly written and worth checking out despite the author's apparent -- and possibly unhealthy -- obsession with Botvinnik.

7. What book would you recommend for a friend who knows only the rules of chess?

I never read chess books as a novice, but I recently leafed through Susan Polgar's A World Champion's Guide to Chess and it looks like a very good book for beginners.

8. Do you play in in-person tournaments? What is your favorite tournament experience?

Yes. Work and family (wife and daughter) obligations permitting, I try to play at least once a month at BCC, Metrowest and/or Waltham.

A couple of favorite tournament experiences come to mind: First, the two 4-game matches I played as a member of the Collins' Kids against members of the Icelandic youth team, first in Reykjavik then in the U.S. and my 2-1 score against Hedinn Steingrimsson, then the Icelandic chess prodigy du jour and now a strong IM. Second, my T-2nd finish at the 1987 U.S. Cadet, where I defeated future GM Kraai, among others, and caused the only blemish on the record of the tournament winner, a 77-move draw against future GM Ilya Gurevich.

9. Please give us a link to what you consider your best two blog posts.

N/A. I am a blog neophyte.

10. What proportion of total chess time should be spent studying openings for someone at your level?

Much more than I do. It is very tough for me to follow opening books on a train, which is where I do most of my chess reading.

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