Volume 39, Number 7, July 1984
- IT'S NEVER TO LATE -
Siff: Getting Stronger Every Day
On a Saturday night in November, Boris Siff was eating with good friends in a Chinese restaurant when he collapsed. Earlier that day he had played some of the best tournament chess in his life.
An ambulance quickly transported the 72-year-old Siff, who suffers from leukemia, to a hospital in San Jose, California. Despite his doctor's advice to stay put, Siff was back at the tournament chessboard nine hours later. With a couple of shots of cognac to settle his nerves, Siff that Sunday defeated senior master Elliot Winslow to win the Lockheed Employees Recreational Association's annual tournament.
This is the brilliancy prize game for the Lockheed tournament. Boris played it in round 4 against a well-known local master Dennis Fritzinger. On move 8, Boris tried what he believes is a novelty. "I thought I would try it out, which is my style. Dennis thought a very long time and made a crucial decision, a decision some people think was wrong. When I got a chance to attack, I attacked with youthful energy. And I got some satisfaction out of the game because it was a good fight."
SICILIAN DEFENSE (B50)
1. e4 c5
Siff's remarkable 6-0 record in the tournament (with wins over grandmaster Peter Biyiasas, national master Michael Tomey, national master Dennis Fritzinger, and two experts) earned him enough points to reach the ranking of senior master for the first time in his life. A subsequent setback brought him down below the 2400 level before his senior master rating could be published. Currently, his rating stands at 2399, which means that only one other player over 65 - Sammy Reshevsky of Spring Valley, New York - has a higher rating than Siff.
"There are few people that old who play tournament chess at all," said Randall Hough, technical director of USCF. "To have results like this, it's really extraordinary."
Then consider Siff's leukemia, which keeps his body from getting enough oxygen. Marathon chess slugfests have left Siff gasping for air. Not to mention that Siff had open heart surgery eight months earlier. Or that doctors removed his spleen in January.
Most survivors of such a long list of physical maladies would be satisfied just to be alive. But Siff, who has played chess since his childhood and has been at master strength for 30 years, feels his chess life is just beginning. For the first time in his life, Siff is settling down and working hard on improving his chess. And unlike most players, Siff seems to be improving with age.
"Don't give the idea that chess is an intellectual game," he said over some more cognac in his humble home in Campbell, just west of San Jose. "It's more a game of passion than intellect."
Chess has been Siff's passion since high school days in the Bronx. He was the only child of his Russian emigrant parents. The family barely subsisted from the little money Siff's father made retouching photographs.
For four years, one of New York's finest private schools, the Dalton school, granted Siff a scholarship. He joined the Empire City Chess Club on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. He became a member of the close circle of New York's chess fanatics.
Chess soon became "an escape from a world I couldn't function in," Siff says. "It was hard for me to function in the social world."
Siff knew the chess greats of the 1930s, including Reuben Fine, Arnold Denker, and Isaac Kashdan. Denker, a national champion in the 1940s, wrote about Siff in his book My Best Chess Games, 1929-1976. "He had a very enterprising style and was very original in his approach to the solution of opening problems," Denker wrote. "In this respect I am inclined to believe that he was far ahead of the times. For some reason, probably the demands of business, he has completely disappeared from the field of tournament play. While this is pure speculation on my part, I have always felt that with a few years of tournament experience, Siff would have contributed a great deal to the theory of the openings."
Denker, who is now 70, used to be the second-highest-rated player age 70 or over. He has slipped a notch. Siff has taken his place. The two old rivals met in 1981 for the first time in about half a century at the U.S. Open in Palo Alto, California.
"He was always a very, very quiet, shy retiring young fellow with a twinkle in his eye and a good sense of humor," Denker said in a recent telephone interview. "But he always had tremendous originality and tremendous talent, I thought. I expected he would do better in chess than he did over the years.
While Denker continued to aggressively pursue tournament chess in the 1940s, Siff faded into obscurity. In the 1950s he played in a handful of tournaments, and won the championships of Boston, New England, and Florida. His infrequent tournament appearances merely confirmed a potential Siff has never reached. He thinks the tournament victories in the 1950s lifted him to master status, but he never checked.
Siff has never married, but his passion for two "long-term" girlfriends for years exceeded his passion for tournament chess. His trade was machinist.
"I was never a good machinist," he laughs. "I was interested in the problems, but I was more interested in permanent solutions in recurring problems than getting the product out."
Between the Bronx and Campbell, Siff has lived in Boston, Miami, Dallas, St. Petersburg, San Francisco, and San Jose. He retired in 1976.
Siff's roommate now is Hadji, an 18-year-old Burmese cat that doesn't like to be petted on the back. Hadji has two sharp fangs and huge, menacing claws. On Siff's lap, however, Hadji is pure pussycat.
The walls of Siff's home are barren white and yellow. Three tattered chairs surround his kitchen table. His living room isn't much more luxurious, sporting a lawn chair and a card table with a lamp affixed to it. On the table, of course, is a chessboard.
As a machinist, Siff made enough money to get by. But money and Siff have never mixed well. For 18 years, Siff used to make and then lose hundreds of dollars in card room.
"I was never very good at making money," he said. "I was a very bad player. I'm grateful to Len for getting me out of that."
"Len" is Leonard Sprinkles, A San Jose attorney who, two years ago, aspired to improve his chess game. He heard about Siff from legal partner Tom Maser. The two got Siff to quit cards and return to chess.
"He's kind of the mentor of the local chessplayers." Sprinkles says of Siff. "His energy is unbelievable. He has the energy of somebody 30 to 40 years younger."
Siff teaches pupils like Sprinkles his chess philosophy, which emphasizes original approaches to battle opponents.
"I believe an idea has vitality," Siff said. "I am essentially a positional player. I like to look at a position as if I never saw it before. At the board I'll decide to try an idea, and the only requirement is that it's one which I can't bust myself. I'll play it even if it hasn't been played before."
An original move "is a greater strain on the opponent than on the person who introduces it," Siff said. "It's a shock to him. He cannot simply use the other ideas that other champions have played. He must come up with new ideas. Many people find that difficult to do."
Opponents must choose between spending valuable time attempting to recognize Siff's idea or plodding n with their own strategy. Even for the best of players, Siff's originality is unsettling.
In his only bid at the U.S. Open, Siff lost only one of 12 matches in 1981. Since the startling Lockheed tournament victory, Siff's health slipped once again. He felt lethargic. When he picked up his monthly five-pound block of federal government surplus cheese at the nearby senior center in January, it felt heavy in his arms. The short walk home exhausted him.
Doctors realized his spleen was keeping oxygen-filled red blood cells from entering his blood stream. So they removed the spleen in January.
Now Siff says he feels "like Arnold Schwarzenegger." His newly found strength excited him so much that one day he called all his friends. One afternoon he even lugged another five-pound block of cheese as he wandered around a local shopping mall.
Siff these days is obsessed with chess, and regrets that he wasted his prime years. For the first time in his life, he is studying his own previous games in an attempt to find better ideas.
"I feel better, much stronger. I'm more ambitious. I'm going to improve my chess. I intend to become an international grandmaster by the end of the year," he says with a twinkle.
The next time Siff plays in a tournament, however, he may not celebrate later at a Chinese restaurant.
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