Let's begin with the lesser of the two, so I can save the greater for last. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D: an all-encompassing term I will use to represent all versions I played, including Middle Earth RPG) was the first huge game in my life. It swept me away, along with my younger brothers, for a good several years beginning in my early teens, and its impact is one I can still feel, especially in my writing.
My mother thought it was a terrible waste of time. I know she was wrong. I learned so much from D&D. My vocabulary certainly improved, along with my imagination. I finally found something that allowed me to indulge in the greatest fantasies of my youth, from sword fighting to knights in shining armor. D&D also pushed me a bit out of my shell of shyness, forcing me to actually socialize with other fans of the game. It was something so deeply compelling, almost magical, that we could play all day and wonder where all the time went. I'm grateful for what role playing games added to my life.
The game that transformed my life, however, was chess. I was first given a cheap plastic set when I was about four, but no one knew how to play, so all I did was push the pieces around in mock battles until someone threw the set away. I didn't notice chess again for many years, which is too bad since I later learned that I was quite talented at it.
In junior high school, a friend told me he was in the chess club and invited me to come. I did and I was fascinated to see this game treated so seriously by people. I even saw some magazines with an arcane notation, obviously used to portray moves of games played between professional grandmasters. I never imagined a simple game had a whole world revolving around it. The club required payment of a dollar per visit, however, and my family was very poor, so I couldn't return.
I was swept up in my soccer leagues for the next few years, so it wasn't until my junior year of high school that another friend invited me to the chess club and I got hooked for good. I saw people playing blitz chess, where they have to play the entire game within either three or five minutes per person. Playing so quickly seemed amazing to me, and I knew I wanted to be able to do that.
Sadly, I had joined near the end of the year, and every player in the club was graduating. Would there even be a club the next year? I spent that summer checking out chess books from the library and reading them frantically. When my senior year started, I harassed a teacher into becoming the coach (though she had no idea how to play chess) and advertised in the paper to get more players. We did get around ten players, but no one knew how to play, so I was the best player in the club. We had a blast playing in the tournaments that year, though we stank.
I continued to improve rapidly, though, and soon I joined a real chess tournament for adults. I did very well, scoring five points out of seven, and the only game I lost was one I was winning easily only to throw it away due to inexperience. From that point on I went to a dozen or so tournaments each year, improving steadily from Class C player to Class A.
How did chess change my life? I started college in computer engineering. Three and a half years into college I realized I didn't enjoy my major. I wanted to change to a career that I liked. I tried out a few different classes, and one I picked because of my fascination with the Russian chess grandmasters. I ended up loving that class, so I changed my major to Russian and Soviet Studies. I had no idea what I could do with such a major, but I didn't care. I wanted to enjoy my education.
As I drew close to graduation, a recruiter came to the university seeking Russian language speakers to work at the American Embassy in Moscow. I leapt at the chance, since it was the first sign I had of work I could do using my major, plus it meant perhaps getting to play chess in the heartland of the game.
Playing in Moscow was far more than I ever imagined. Tournaments were completely different than in America, and I was challenged far more by the strong competition. Because of the bad financial situation there, I was able to hire one of former world champion Anatoly Karpov's trainers for a cheap price. Even better, as a member of the embassy, I began receiving invitations to compete against famous grandmasters. Among them, I played against world champions Kasparov, Karpov, Anand, and Kramnik.
|Playing World Champion Anatoly Karpov|
I rejoined the Foreign Service and moved overseas again. I keep seeking out new adventures in chess, playing in Iceland and Hungary. Now I am moving to Hungary this summer, since they have one of the best chess organizers there, and I hope to play often.
I find the experience of playing serious chess very much like writing a new chapter in a book. My mind seems to vanish into a mystical zone, from which I awake several hours later, hopefully with something quite nice as the result. Thank you, chess, for all that you have done for me!