My Chess Journey

by Mark Pifer

My first memory of the game of chess is of walking into my grandparent's living room and seeing my younger brother on the floor with many little toys before him. Of course, I wanted to play. I was around 8 (best guess) at the time. There was a checkered board and many little figurines to play with and my brother and I did so for many joyful minutes. After a short while my grandmother came into the room and saw us playing with her chess board. She smiled, then sat down and showed us the moves. A magical universe opened up to us, with rules and patterns. We were fascinated and played against each other for hours afterward. I distinctly remember my grandmother bragging that my grandfather could beat another player in just four moves! She never revealed the moves to me, but the day I was taught scholar's mate:

1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nc6 3.Qh5 Nf6? (a common error) 4.Qf7 mate!

I immediately remembered my grandmother's proud face as she spoke of her husband's chess prowess.

It was many years and one divorce later that chess entered my life again. After my parent's divorce I went through some fairly standard angst and met a young rogue by the name of David Tindel. David was a troublemaker and an avid pot smoker and soon I joined him in his adventures. While stoned you can convince yourself that you're quite the deep thinker and David and I were no exceptions. His parents were amateur chess players and had a board around the house. David knew the basics and had some training from mom and dad, and, more importantly, LOVED beating me. When he pulled the set out, my mind raced back to my grandmother's living room and I was excited to play. I started every game off the same way. I moved my two rook pawns out. I Then I moved my rooks out. I would then move my rooks to the center where they soon perished to my opponent's better arrayed forces. David took great pleasure in my pain and never gave me the smallest hint of advice. I lost my first one-hundred or so games of chess in a row, but loved every minute of it. David and I fell out of touch a few years later when he moved to another school district. It soon was so that we saw each other less and less until it was a fairly rare occasion when we spent time together. My association with David Tindel would leave me two habits that my parents (who hoped I might become a doctor or do something useful with my life) were never pleased about. Not only did he brainwash me with the game of chess, he also turned me onto the highly addictive role playing game Dungeons and Dragons. I dropped the pot smoking and the petty theft he got me into after we parted ways. But Chess and Dungeons and Dragons stayed with me for the rest of my life in one form or another.

A few years later I found a new friend, a giant of a boy, also named David, David Wortham, who, after some time, told me he was a member of the high school chess team. He asked me if I ever played and I told him "Yes, all the time!" He invited me to the club to test out my chess skills. (This was 1982 and I was 16 years old (much too old as it turns out to have been able to ever be a top player, but at the time, I didn't know or care about such things.) I remember vividly our first game together. I opened with my rook pawn and David lifted an eyebrow. I brought out my rook and the eyebrow lowered into a frown. I moved the rook to the center and he chopped it off before my hand left the board. After gobbling both of my rooks, he unceremoniously crushed me like a bug. I was used to losing (especially to someone named David) so it was no big deal. Unlike the first David, however, this one stopped me as I was setting up for the next game and told me a little secret. He told me the value of the pieces. A Pawn was worth one point. A Knight and a Bishop were both worth three points. The Rooks I was so callously throwing away were worth five points. The Queen was worth nine points and the King, of course, was worth the game. He told me to make sure that I was either making an even trade or gaining in points each time captures were happening on the board. Something in my mind clicked and I won the next two games in a row against my gracious teacher and was hooked for life… A year later, when I was 3rd board on my chess team David Tindel came by the house. I hadn't seen him in over a year and he had heard that I was into chess. He reminded me of my record against him and promptly challenged me to a game. I think he had a girl with him to boot (but that memory is a bit vague.) My lifetime record against David Tindel turned out to be 100 losses and 1 win, because he refused to play me ever again after that. Indeed, other than glances of him around town, I never saw him again after he left my house that evening...

By my senior year in 1984 I was the first board (top player) on my chess team. I won the district title as best all around player and defeated my first chess master who was giving a fifty-or-so-board simul (playing opponents all at the same time on 50 different boards by moving from one board to the next) to every player in the district and I was full of myself. I got my picture in the school newspaper and a little trophy. I was certain that the next stop was crushing Anatoly Karpov (World Chess Champion at the time) and collecting my accolades. I heard about local rated tournaments and was told that if I wanted to chase Anatoly I would have to get through those folks first. I brought my girlfriend with me knowing that I would crush my opponents with plenty of time to spare to take her out on the town (and she kind of demanded to come along…) I sat down to play my first official opponent, an E-player (the lowest listed) and promptly lost my first official tournament game of chess ever. I was mortified. Seated at the head of the room was an International Grandmaster named Peter Biyiasas. I was at the very bottom of the food chain and was determined to claw my way up…

I soon found that the highest division was what was called the "Open Section" and that's where GM Biyaisas and IM Elliott Winslow used to play. I then found that "Open" meant anyone could join and soon I and my 1200ish (very low) rating joined every tournament for close to a year in the Open Section, much to the chagrin of many of the other Open Section players as the easy points players would get off me would land them in higher placings in the tournament giving them an unfair advantage against the other players who had to win against legitimate opposition. I had a few close games against some experts and A-players and many of the "big boys" were commenting on my play, but my rating had gown DOWN that year because I had lost all my games (something I was used to with David Tindel) but my thought was, "Why play the weakest players when the strongest players would teach me the most?" I showed up at a small tournament and the Open Section players began groaning about me before I even made it to the registration table. The tournament director decided he didn't want to deal with the griping and told me that I couldn't play in the top section because this time it was broken down by ratings and called the "Master/Expert" section (who knows if this came about because of me!?) I said "Can I play up at all?" and he reluctantly let me play up as high as the "B" section, which I went on to win easily. It seems that all my Open Section play (along with a lot of private study) was paying off and my rating started to move upward for the first time, and did so regularly for a few years. I chugged along and raised my rating to a respectable level and found myself at a local club every week called the Kolty Chess Club (named after Grandmaster George Koltanowski, who was a local hero and wrote a chess column for the San Francisco Chronicle.)

I was a chess loner. I saw all chess players as the enemy and rarely sat around chatting before or after tournaments and never "hung out" with chess players between tournaments. It's part of my temperament. I'm too empathetic a person to play my friends hard when they are crushed personally by the loss of a game. I feel their pain too strongly. Bobby Fischer might have enjoyed "watching 'em squirm," but it wasn't pleasant for me. Nor could I ever find a way to see my friends in the eyes of Arjuna, the noble warrior from the Bhagavad Gita, who slew his family members to honor their decision to fight. It's one of the reasons why I gave up over the board tournament play (the other reasons I'll explain later.)

I started placing fairly well in the top section of the club and was sitting around after a game with a few players in a "post mortem." This was a ritual that was common in the pre-computer era of chess where the two players would go over the game they just played and analyze it. I hated post mortems but sat through them until my opponent was satisfied, often giving off intentionally bad suggestions for moves so they went away feeling they had "lost to an idiot" and needn't bother studying my games for future encounters. It was during one of these sessions that a group of players had gathered to put in their two cents about my recent game, when one of them asked me, "What are your plans as a chess player?" They were all older men than I (I was about 19) and I replied, "I want to be world champion…" After the chorus of laughter subsided, one of them decided to take pity on me, a kindly man named Flyn Penoyer, who told me that if I was serious I needed a chess coach and sent me to whom he said was "the best in the country" (and this boast was not far off the mark, if at all), a little man with bottle neck glasses named Richard Shorman. I had two other teachers in my chess past, Boris Siff and IM Marc Leski, but Boris became too ill to continue working with me and Leski and I didn't get along. So, I excitedly heeded Flyn's advice and headed to Lockheed Martin where there was a weekly chess class offered by the guru himself. Who knew what I was signing up for at the time, I certainly didn't…

Richard is a private sort of person with an aura about him. I know this is an oft used phrase, but Richard is one person for whom this phrase is not an exaggeration. When he was silent you felt compelled to silence. When he spoke you felt compelled to listen. And when he leveled a disapproving stare at you (which he did many times to me) you felt small and meaningless and longed only to get into his good graces again. By the end of the first lecture I attended, I was hooked. I took my chance and waited for the others to clear out (this process took awhile because everyone wanted private time with Richard) and told Richard of my ambitions. Unlike the others he did not laugh. He smiled a knowing smile and told me "Well, then I guess you'd better start doing your homework…" This ominous phrase seemed simple at the time, but with Richard the term "homework" had its own definitions. "Homework" to Richard really meant "as much material as you were willing to absorb before he saw you for the next lesson." When he handed you an assignment and you came back to him the next week with it casually completed and a bored expression on your face, this was a challenge Richard took seriously. And your next assignment was double the size. You soon learned to complete the assignments and bring yourself into him the next week like you'd been dragged twelve miles by a frightened donkey, but, even then, he saw through such ruses. You see, Richard knew something that I didn't know. If I was able to complete the assignment in one week, it meant that I could handle more material. I didn't figure this out until a few years later and never let on to the fact that I did. Of course, Richard knew I knew the moment I knew. It got to the point where I was studying chess eight hours a day, five days a week, and played tournaments on the weekends.

Of course my play was getting stronger by the week and I soon took down my first Master Class player. I even got one of my games published in the San Francisco Chronicle in GM Koltanowski's column. Things were looking up and this was the most serious I ever took the game of chess in my life. The top player around town (GM Biyaisas was heading to retirement from chess around that time) was a player with a rating in the 2500's (GM's had these ratings, but in order to get a GM title you'd have to play in sanctioned tournaments and get results called "norms"; of course, this cost travel expenses, etc…) named Craig Mar. Craig was a lean, gangly and friendly sort of fellow, but held himself with a sort of "holier than thou" attitude among chess players. No one faulted him, as in fact, among the locals he was, indeed, holier than we… He had a kind of bounce to his step which would get more pronounced when he made a statement that he thought was clever or insightful. He was a colorful figure with many dimensions and he was always friendly and kind to me. But he was the biggest fish in our pond and the only real local stepping stone to the big time that you could count on playing against (IM's and GM's would show up from time to time, but Craig was a local.) After I beat my second Chess Master Craig came up to me and said, "There's no doubt you'll be a master very soon…" and I about fell over. I doubled my efforts and studied so hard that my eyes ached. Richard obliged my appetite for material and never ran out of things for me to study. The game was beginning to "make sense" especially after I devoured the games of Paul Morphy and got my tactical training from Irving Chernev's "1000 Best Short Games of Chess" and my general chess knowledge from Reuben Fine's "Chess The Easy Way," all bibles in the Shorman school.

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