LIFE IN THE CHESS WORLD, THE EARLY YEARS
I started playing chess seriously around the fall of 1973 at the world famous Berkeley Chess Club. I was very excited about this, since I had lived my whole life in Sacramento, and had never encountered such strong competition. The B players were tougher than I thought.
I still had not seen a master level player at the chess club, someone I could look up to. The masters and experts tended to avoid the local club scene, but played for money on the weekends and for rating points. Why:, this was so, I could not at first figure out until a few years later. I became a master in 1978, and just like the rest of the masters, I stayed away from the local club scene, preferring to risk money and rating points on the weekends or in big tournaments.
The first few rated games I played at the Berkeley Chess Club were exciting and fun. I didn't have a car in high school, so I had to take the bus, and the first time was very difficult, since I didn't know where to get off the bus in Berkeley.
After a few crushing losses to B players, it became apparent that I would not hold my 1733 rating. It slipped down to 1670. Slowly, the wins replaced the losses in 1974. I learned that it took the rating system months to catch up to current results. I played whenever I could, even on weekends.
The experts and A players at the Berkeley Club were rare, just as now. The ratings have become inflated, but the number of truly good players always remains low. The majority of players were in the B,C, and D classes. I really looked up to experts Padric Neville and Steven Cross who strutted around proudly. It was very difficult for any of the regular B players that I knew, to cross the magic 1800 barrier.
It became clear after awhile, why it was not easy to attain an expert's rating. You had to be in the top 3% of all rated players. Just a look into the annual USCF rating supplement showed how few experts and masters there were. Some of the advanced players looked with disdain at anyone rated below 1800. It was most disconcerting to be considered a "fish" a derogatory term for a weak player. I worked hard on my game, studying Fischer's games and how to bust the dragon variation.
By 1975, I had a solid repertoire. I played l.e4 exclusively, copying Fischer, and played the Queen's Gambit Declined and Petroff's defense with black, 2 solid equalizing lines without much complexity. I tried hard never to get into trouble in the opening. When I got stronger, I started playing more sharp, double-edged lines like the Nimzo-Indian, the Benoni, and the Sicilian Dragon.
Sometime in 1975, I really started clobbering B players in the club. It took my rating a long time, however, to go up. But I could feel my strength when I played them. Though my rating hadn't caught up yet, I knew I was an A player. By February of 1975 I was rated 1784, but by June of 1975, it was 1801, but I knew I could go up another 200 points. My goal of reaching 2000 was reachable.
It was during the summer of 1975 that I began making my mark on the chess world. In Fremont, I faced a steady diet of A players, one after another, a new experience for me. Not too surprisingly, I got a plus score of 21/2 out of 4. They wouldn't let you play up a class, so there were no B players in my section. I also got to watch the masters playing in the same room. You can imagine my surprise when Peter Prochaska, rated around 1895, lost to me from a slightly inferior rook ending. Prochaska was very mad after this game, and withdrew from the tournament. In the 2nd round, I drew from an inferior rook ending a pawn down. I was a terrible endgame player, it was all calculation.
At the Stamer Memorial in San Francisco, I faced a very tough field, 3 experts and a master. I scored an excellent 2h out of 4, and people were saying about me, "He's a budding expert." I didn't lose any games, and I had master David Blohm busted in the last round. My endgame technique left much to be desired, however. Though a pawn up against Blohm, I couldn't convert a won rook ending. I could already see signs of future abilities developing, when expert Dan Switkes went down to me in a long double-edged rook and knight versus double rook ending. Later, as a master, this long technical type of game became my trademark.
In February of '74, I got my first taste of experts, masters, and senior masters at the annual Berkeley People's Tournament. I had never seen players that strong. I wanted more than anything to be playing where all the other strong players were. Their games were on display, and they had a special roped off area. I remember the exciting moments before the first round in the morning listening to young expert Martin Sullivan talking to A player Kerry Lawless. "Once you get your expert rating, you should always keep your expert's rating." Walter Browne wasn't there, but senior master James Tarjan was the star, then just 22 years old and destined to be a grandmaster. He beat Sullivan with black in a closed Sicilian where he stuck Marty with an isolated F pawn, and said to him in the post-mortem, "Black's better." Masters rarely ever said, "I'm winning here," but they often said that one or the other side was better! I quickly became accustomed to the new lingo, and found that I was learning more from the post mortems than from the games themselves. Masters also tended to be more objective in their analysis.
These glimpses into the past represented the future of U.S. chess for the next 10 years. By 1984, Tarjan was a grandmaster, and though just 32 years old, had accomplished just about everything he could, and there was no where to go from there, so he decided to quit chess and become a librarian. Jay Whitehead was just 12 and cocky, bordering on arrogant, but even at that age I could see the great love and intensity he had for the game, qualities you couldn't teach, which would propel Jay 8 years later into the U.S. closed championship. Older brother Paul was no less talented than his brother, and within 5 years, would beat Tarjan in the last round to win the American Open. But intense flames sometimes burn out under the pressure to support oneself. Jay became a serious backgammon player a few years later, joined the Hare Krishna organization, and quit chess before he turned 30. Paul got married in the 1980's, took a job tutor-ing young children, and was never heard from again. Perhaps the American professional chess player is an endangered species.
I remember respected master Takashi Kurosaki losing to an A player, then winning his next 3 games, and Gary Pickler losing after a time scramble with master Dennis Waterman in a Bishop ending a pawn down. During the time scramble, Pickler claimed a draw by 3 time repetition but Waterman said, "No, later", with 1 minute on his clock.