Thursday, July 12, 2007

Jason Rihel responds, too.

Greg K. asked for other members to answer these questions, and since I sometimes post here, I will.

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 learned the moves from my parents when I was 5 years old, but I wasn't beating my parents regularly until I was probably 10. I remember once when I had started to get very good (I had borrowed a tactics book from the library, and I won at home with my arsenal of pins and forks), my brother and I played a game that he won. He then declared himself champion of the house and retired! (That old trick...) This was unfortunate, because I grew up in West Virginia, where chess events were sparse. Too young to drive, I had to rely on my parents to drive, which they were not inclined to do much.

I got the tournament bug when I was 13 years old, and a Chess Life magazine promotional appeared in my mailbox (I'm not sure how I got it.) Lev Alburt had just won the US championship, and he was on the cover. I went over all the games in that issue over and over, and I soon subscribed. I dreamed of beautiful intermezzos and stunning smothered mates, but didn't have anyone to play.

One day, in the tournament life section, I saw an event listed-- in WV! I convinced my mom to drive me to Fairmont, WV, and we stayed the weekend. I was a small 13 year old, and I made quite the sensation. I won the unrated prize, lost only one game of five. My first rating was over 1700, and I thought I was the be-all end-all of chess prodigies. That soon dipped to settle around 1600 for my first year of tournament chess, as the reality of tournament inexperience sank in.

Gee, there are so many stories about playing in WV, but I guess I will hold off. I won the top under 21 prize at the state championships 3 times in a row, and I was in contention for the overall championship once, when I was paired with an older expert who whomped me in about 18 moves on the last, prizemaking day.

I started a chess club in high school, and when I graduated, I permanently "borrowed" one of the club's chess clocks.... oops. I went to college at WVU, and I became a tournament director, a chess coach that met with over 100 kids in after school programs a week (in classroom settings), and the president of the WVU chess club. We had a vibrant little group, and I played a lot. We even found sponsorship to support our travels to the Pan-Am Collegiate championships, even though we always could only get 3 players to come, forfeiting board 4 every time. My first draw against a master, IM Michael Mulyar, of Yale, came from one of those Pan Ams, when I was almost 1900. Little did I know that it would be many many years before I could claim points off a master again, and that I was stuck in the 1800-1900 range for nearly a decade.

I went to grad school at Harvard, and my chess dropped off considerably, although I still played. My rating hovered around 1900 the whole time, so I guess this "lull" didn't hurt my performance exactly. It just kept me from improving any. Now that I am a post-doc at Harvard, I have made more time for chess, and maybe I'm even improving....

Anyway, once I started playing, I have been playing pretty steadily. I love the game, the stories, and the characters (oh the characters!) Ask me about some of them at the BCC sometime.

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

I do tactical problems. I try to look at some problems every day. I hate studying openings (so boring!), but I go over the ones that I play when I annotate my tournament games. I have also been taking chess lessons from FM Chris Chase, who is guiding me through tactical and positional problems, and we go over master games.

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

I balked for years from taking lessons, but my formal lessons have helped me the most. Since starting lessons last Fall, my rating quickly improved over 100 points to the expert level. If you look at my history, you will see that I have been at 1800-1900 most of my life, so at 30, this improvement is pretty substantial.

I should point out that I tried the Knights La Mazza 7-circles program, too. I used Emm's Ultimate Puzzle Book for my problem source. I did the first 4 circles, and then quit. I found the problems were so familiar after a time that I would just rattle off the right idea from memory, and less from true understanding. To get done with hundreds of problems a day, I would also start to ignore any important side variations, and this just didn't seem worth the time anymore.

So, I still do tactical problems, but now, I try much harder ones that require a lot of visualization of variations, and picking the right move orders, etc. So, I spent the same time as the 7-circles program, only on one or two problems.

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

I hate the study of openings, so I tailor this to my mood. Since Greg K. is my opponent next week at the Reubens-Landey, I will leave it this vague, even though he must know what I play by now..... If I still play the same thing...... If I am not lying right now.....

5. Who are your favorite chess players and why?

Kasparov, because he was a badass. Morozevich because he is super-nuts creative over the board. Topalov, too, because he can lose 3 games in a row and still win the tournament.

6. What is your favorite chess book?

I have a first edition of Fisher's 60 Memorable Games that my fiancee got me the day I defended my PhD thesis. That wins, hands down.

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

I think the series Play Winning Chess by Yassar Seriwan is very good. He had 3 or 4 books in that series, and all are great for beginners. In one book, he takes 10 master games and goes over the motivation/ideas for each move. Everything I know about the Dragon comes from that book, actually!

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

I have played at the BCC for a long time now. My favorite tournament experience was playing in the Final Four of Chess with the Harvard team when I was in graduate school. We were totally destroyed by the experienced UTD and UMBC teams, but it was cool to be playing behind velvet ropes in the Chess Hall of Fame Museum, in Miami, FL. It was kind of flukey that we qualified at all, so we enjoyed it. And because of it, my picture and autograph are forever enshrined at the Hall of Fame... the only way I could ever make it there--through a fluke. Hah! The tournament made the local Miami sports news. At the end of the story, the sports anchors relaxed, but the camera didn't cut to commerical yet. One rolls his eyes and turns to the other and says, "You've got to be kidding me!" Oh well.

I also believe it marked the first and only time that I made the pages of Chess Life for anything (even though I lost all my games).

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

DG will need to help with with this, since I haven't mastered the posting tools here. My recent story about the terrible time trouble troubles netted 40+ reader comments, so I guess that hit a nerve. I once wrote an article in the WV newsletter about a tournament in which I beat a 2100 player in round 1 and then lost to a 1000 rated player in round 2. If I could link to that, I would...

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

Way more than I do! To make master by beating masters, you need to know your openings fairly well. How often do I drift into passive positions against masters because of bad opening play? Answer: plenty.

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