The year was 1967 and for the first time there were lots of young players around with ratings way below 1000, even below 100 (today the rating minimum is 100). In fact, one player was rated 7 and another rated 9. At the Eastern High School Open the player rated 9 was playing, and I overheard one player ask the TD (a young Bill Goichberg!), "How many rating points do I lose if I lose to a player rated 9?"
But that isn't the funniest part...
One of my friends, Tim Strauch of Central HS, was rated about 1600. In the first round, he was paired with a player rated 374 (!).
After the round, one of my other friends, Lester Shelton, and I were getting on the elevator when in walked Tim.
"How did you do against that 374 player?" Lester asked.
"I drew," said Tim, somewhat dejectedly.
"You drew?!?! How can you draw with a player rated 374?"
Tim didn't miss a beat: "Oh, his playing strength was closer to 400..." The entire elevator (full of chess players) broke up laughing.
2. This GM is a little slow...
When I was in college two of our better players liked to play 5-minute chess against each other. One - let's call him "Dave", would always play slow and deliberately, trying to find the best move. Often this caused him to lose on time. The other, "Louis", tried to budget his time correctly so that he would not lose on time - even if he had to play somewhat inferior moves. The result was that Louis usually won on time, often with a somewhat inferior position.
One day after chess club we were going to get pizza David, in usual usual inimitable manner, was saying to Louis, "You know, in that last game we played (which Louis, as usual, won on time), I had great pressure on f7. I just double Rooks on the 7th rank, and when you guard it with ...Rf8, I just push up my pawn and you can't defend f7 any more and I win!"
Louis, who had heard this a million times before, finally couldn't stand it any more. He stopped walking toward the pizza shop and whirled to confront his foe, "But Dave...," he said pointedly,"...anyone can play like a grandmaster in SIX minutes!!"
3. He got his title along the Chesapeake
This one happened in October 1966. I was playing in the Quaker City Open and many of the players were watching the World Series between Baltimore and Los Angeles in the other room. After the final game, one of the players marched into the tournament room and announced,
“It’s all over! Baltimore has won!”
Another player, obviously not a sports fan but well known for his quick and dangerous temper, walked over to the announcer and banged his fists on the table, demanding:
“What, may I ask, what has this got to do with chess?”
The announcer, who was aware of the other’s reputation, looked worried for a second, but thought fast and replied:
“You mean you have never heard of Grandmaster Baltimore?”
4. Napoleon Could Have Had it Worse
My college roommate Ken had a chess rating around 1800. This meant that he played third or fourth board on our team. However, he had suffered a disastrous tournament at Bloomsburg a while ago. Luckily for him, that tournament was being held up from undergoing its normal ratings by USCF because the tournament director had let someone play who was not a USCF member (in those days such events would not be rated until everyone was made a member).
We were sitting in the auditorium waiting for a movie to start and he asked me who would be playing what board at the next team tournament. I started listing the players, but instead of third or fourth he found himself seventh. He was concerned and interrupted me:
“How come I am seventh?” Isn’t my rating higher than so-and-so’s?"
“Oh,” I replied, “That is because they finally rated Bloomsburg.”
My roommate had a look of shock, but that did not prevent him from quickly replying:
“They rated Bloomsburg!! That is like telling Napoleon they rated Waterloo!”
5. Greasy Spoon?
When I was a teenager, we were playing in a tournament in NYC and found ourselves in a diner for lunch. Two of my young colleagues were having the dubious argument as to who was the worse tipper. The waitress overheard their conversation and came over to confront them:
"If you worked here, you would want a tip!" was her argument. This did not faze one of them, who immediately replied:
"I wouldn't work here!"
6. A Walking Encyclopedia
This happened in one of the first Philadelphia Invitational Championships. One of my friends, Jerry Kolker, who was widely feared for his enormous book knowledge, was paired with one of the favorites, a lifelong master. Jerry had prepared a dangerous book line for White which either led to a forced draw or wins the Queen. Sure enough, Jerry won the Queen and the game. When asked about the game afterwards, the master replied:
"I didn't lose to Kolker, I lost to the Book!"
7. They Don't Always Get it Right
In the 1991 US Action (G/30) Championship, the tournament was so strong that I, a master, was in the bottom half of the draw. In one game GM Larry Christiansen was playing GM Alexander Chernin (?) and, alas, found himself with just a king against Chernin's king and rook. He could have resigned, but Chernin had only about 30 seconds left on his clock (this was before/without time delay or increments) so Christiansen played a few more moves.
There are two ways to mate with a king and rook against king: the box method and the opposition method, both taught to beginners. Chernin started playing the opposition method, but when it came time for him to lose a tempo, he forgot and instead repeated the position! By then a fairly large crowd had gathered and Christiansen stopped, looked up a Chernin with a big grin and said,
"Wait a minute! You're a Grandmaster!?!?!"
The crowd had a big laugh. Chernin turned red, but had the presence of mind to look closer at the clock and realize that 30 seconds was a LOT of time, so he took a deep breath, and proceeded to mate Christiansen quickly and easily.
Note: I told this story to GM Christiansen in 2002 and he said it could not have been Chernin, so either I identified the Russian name wrong or had a mistaken identity, but it is still a funny true story.
8. Those 1600 Players
When my son Delen was in 11th grade, he got his rating up to a peak of 1800. Just before that, he was playing in the Under-1800 section of a tournament in Washington DC, and was 4-1 going into the final round, needing a win to pick up a bit of money. He was rated in the 1700's and paired with a player rated in the 1600s.
After he had been playing for about 90 minutes, he got up to get a drink of water and I asked him "How is your game going?" (Note: This is legal as the information about his game is going one way - I am not allowed any feedback, especially if I have seen the position.)
He looked at his watch and said "I can't believe we have been playing this long and that 1600 has not dropped any material!"
About 45 minutes later he got up again and I asked "How are you doing now?" My son grinned and replied "Now he has!"
Delen went on to win and get a small cash prize.
9. I've Got One Word for You: "Plastics!" When I was in college we had a terrific branch campus team, where our 3rd board on a three-man team was far better than the first board on any other team. But the other players had no idea how good we were nor how bad they were - relatively.
One time, my 2nd board player, who was rated about 1900, was playing a relative beginner on a second board match. After he won the game easily, his relatively naive opponent challenged him to another game, which he duly won just as easily. A third challenge was issued and a third game won without any trouble.
"Wow", said the defeated player to our bored second board, "That was amazing! I have rarely lost two games in a row and you beat me easily in all three games. How did you get so good?"
Our second board, who was quite clever, thought this might be a good opportunity for some fun: "You see those plastic chess pieces we were playing with?"
"Well, my father carves them for a living. So when I was a baby he used to take some of those carved plastic chess pieces and throw them in my playpen, so I have been practicing with them every since I was born!"
"Wow! No wonder you are so good!"
10. Well, I Learned a Lot!
Although IM Donald Byrne was never my full-time instructor, I had the honor of going over many games with him and getting the benefit of his sage advice.
Except on one occasion.
I was showing Professor Byrne a game where I had reached ~move 10 and had three candidate moves: 10.Re1, 10.Bg5, and 10.O-O. I told Professor Byrne I was not sure which of the three was correct.
"Oh, that's easy" he said, "Play 10.Bg5!"
Now we were getting somewhere - I could learn why to play this move at this time. "So why 10.Bg5?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know? But surely there must be a reason why 10.Bg5 is played first."
"All I know is that in this position you play 10.Bg5 - I can't explain it!"
So much for learning how to play those positions. And he was both a top player AND a professor!
11. This time...! When I was in college the top chess team in the state was my Penn State team - 2nd was the University of Pennsylvania. Both team's captains were the first boards - me for PSU and Pete Meschter for UPenn. I was slightly the higher rated player, at Expert compared to Pete's 1900. Pete was a great guy so naturally we became friendly adversaries.
In the 1971 PA State Championship, the round had been going on for about an hour. I was strolling around watching games, waiting for my lower-rated opponent to move. Pete was also walking around.
Pete spotted me, came over and asked, "How's your game going?"
I replied "Oh, I started a premature attack and now I am paying for it - my game is terrible."
Pete gave me a friendly sneer and said "You always say that and you are always doing well! I'll check for myself."
So Pete wandered over to my game to take a look. After looking at my position for a minute or so Pete returned to where I was standing and said "This time you're right!"
12. My First Grader is Too Young I once got a phone call from an anxious chess mom:
Parent: "My son is a chess genius! He beats everyone in his 1st grade class and even his father. Should we take him to the Main Line Chess Club?"
Me: "Great! Sure, we would be glad to have him. However, keep in mind that the Main Line club is mostly adults and a few older kids. Much better is to take him to the local kids tournaments so he can play with players his own age."
Parent: "Oh, we could not do that - he is not ready for tournaments."
Me: "Well, perhaps if we called it a 'festival', you would come. In any case, why don't you bring him to the state scholastic championship in a couple of weeks and he can play for the state first grade championship?"
Parent: "Oh, I could not do that. He is much too young!"
[I pause, exasperated, then try to pinpoint the illogic of her resistance]
Me: "You are right! All the other 1st grade players are 17 or 18 years old. Their parents have had them flunk 11 or 12 times so they would be old enough to win the state 1st grade championship."
[Long pause] Parent: "...Oh, I see what you mean..."
Needless to say, I have never heard nor seen this chess genius (and the mother is probably to this day not too happy with me).
13. I've Got a Long Drive...
When son Delen was about 13 he was playing in the World Open. It was the final round and he had 5.5-2.5 in the U1400 section. A win meant decent money but a draw wasn't worth much at all. Wise dad advises son, who has the White pieces:
Dad: "This is the kind of situation where you never take a draw; you play until two kings are left on the board because a draw doesn't mean much."
So naturally my son gets a superior position and offers a draw in 18 moves which is duly accepted!
Dad: "Why did you take a draw?"
Son: "I was tired and it was a long tournament..."
So I try my son's adult opponent, who had the same reason not to draw:
Dad: "Why did you take a draw against my son? Neither of you can win much if you draw, but a winner would make several hundred dollars."
Opponent: "I felt his position was a little better and I had a long drive home after this round."
A year later I get a tap on the shoulder:
"Are you the Dan Heisman whose son I played in the final round last year?"
"Well, I thought about what you said all the way home and for the entire year. Of course you were right about not taking the draw, and I have been kicking myself for doing that ever since!"
14. In my short time left... In 1969 Jon Peters, now LA Times columnist IM Jackie Peters, was a rising young star in New England. In those days the ratings were a little lower, so Jon, then about 18, had a high expert's rating. Becoming an expert was a very big deal, indeed.
I was a year older and had several opportunities to become an expert, but each time my game result was a little short. If I needed a win, I got a draw or loss, if I needed a draw, I got a loss.
This time it was the Merrimac Grand Prix and I was having a good tournament - so good that I was paired with young star Peters (see my book The Improving Annotator for the entire game). By the way, a certain well-known character from New York - also an "A" player, was calculating his chances of winning the "A" prize and, when he got to my name, he proclaimed (with me standing right there):
"Well Heisman, he doesn't have a chance - I am not worried about him!"
Back to my Peters game: I got a bad opening but fought back and we both got into time trouble. I won a pawn but that was not a big deal in the given position.
With both flags hanging, I made my move and said: "In my short time left, I offer you a draw!"
Peters could not thing for very long, so he almost immediately moved and made the friendly reply "In my short time left, I decline!"
So we scrambled on, but he blundered and I sacrificed the exchange for a checkmate! My friends scrambled over and asked what happened and I started to explain the position. But while doing so, my mind all of a sudden remembered the big position and I interrupted myself, and yelled
"I'm an expert!!" PS: I won the "A" prize, too.
15. What if you can't leave the board?
A master friend was in time trouble and needed a TD, but he could not stop his clock and leave the board to get the TD because he feared his untrustworthy opponent might illegally re-start his clock. His "elegant" solution, which worked perfectly, was to yell
...as loud as possible from his board.
It disturbed everyone in the room, but got the job done, and I did not blame him one bit. As a TD, I would not punish a player who did so out of this (admittedly rare) necessity.
16. Justice is served a round late
At the World Open a few years ago, one of my students, about 12 years old at the time, was playing in the U1800 section against a college age kid who was openly trying to disturb every opponent (I will spare you the gory details, but it was truly the very rare case of a player doing everything possible to distract his opponent).
Against my student he got away with his blatantly illegal activity because the TD did not understand or believe the 12 year old, who had properly complained.
However, in the next round the college student was paired with an adult immigrant from Russia. After similar shenanigans by the college player, the Russian insisted a TD oversee the game. So, at last, the TD's now understood what the unruly college student was trying to do, so TWO TD's sat by watching the game.
The players got in time trouble and the college student tried a more subtle cheat by not placing his piece directly on a square, but rather on an edge and then hitting the clock, starting the Russian's clock. The Russian, very short on time, did not move but properly hit the clock back and asked politely for his opponent to adjust his piece to a square.
Instead of properly correcting his move, the college kid hit the clock right back and said "Your move".
The Russian immediately hit the clock back and then the college kid hit it again.
The senior TD stood up, pushed the pieces to the center of the board, pointed to the Russian, and said "You win". The college kid protested, but justice prevailed.
You might say the punishment did not fit the crime but, given what had already transpired, it was a clear case of the straw that broke the college student's back.
17. When You're Losing...
The year was 1968. We were on our way to a match with Wilmington Chess Club. NM Rich Pariseau was driving and a local expert asked him "Rich, how would you play in a game where you were down a piece but did not resign?"
"I would throw all my pieces at his king. If it works, then I win. If it did not, then I was losing anyway!"
18. There's a New 19th Move...!
The date: July 1966. Event: My First Tournament. I do not know a Sicilian Defense from Gone with the Wind. But I am young and eager. I arrive in coat and tie at the tournament site two hours in advance. Hardly anyone is there. Eventually some players start to filter in, including a player of unknown name who was about my age. We begin chatting:
Player: "Have you seen the new 19th move in the Poisoned Pawn Variation of the Najdorf Sicilian which Larry Evans played against Robert Byrne the US Championship?"
Me: (who doesn't know who or what these are): "No, could you show me?"
Player: (goes to set up the pieces but then thinks better and stops): "No, I'd, better not. I might have to play you in this tournament." (!)
I kid you not!!
19. Jay is busy
I was spectating at a tournament and the sight of super-active IM Jay Bonin reminded me of my opposite experience. So I said to my friend:
"You know, I think I am the US-born master with the fewest number of USCF-rated slow games in a lifetime, only about 350."
Jay overheard this and turned around: "I play that many in six months!"
20. That's a good reason not to resign!
Fact: At the PA State Scholastic Chess Championships once a player's game is over he cannot stay in the room and must leave until the next round.
Fact2: The USCF rulebook states that if a player is facing checkmate and refuses to move it is considered rude to just sit there until his time runs out.
At the 2007 PA Scholastic Chess Championship a player was facing checkmate but refused to resign. I told him that the rules said he could not just sit there and wait.
But he protested that if he resigned we would kick him out of the room and he could not see how his teammates were doing!
I replied that this was the best reason I ever heard for not resigning, but he still could not just sit there!
21. Following General Principles
Intermediate players often don't improve because they don't apply the things they already know because they are too busy doing things that are clearly less important (to stronger players). Here is a good example:
Me: There is only one open file, so you should now double your rooks on it.
Student: I know. (But his move is not putting his rooks on the open file)
Me: Hmm. Why didn't you double your rooks on the open file?
Student: I wanted to do X first.
Me: Well, if you don't double your rooks on the open file, your opponent will do so first and you won't be able to oppose him.
Student: I know; that's how I lost.
22. The Grandmaster said...
My new student had a position in the opening where he had pawns on d4 and e4 and his opponent had pawns on e5 and d6. In this position he was ahead in development, so I suggested he play dxe5 to open lines.
But my student protested "But I took lessons from a grandmaster and he said that in general when you have pawns on d4 and e4 and your opponent has pawns on e5 and d6 you have a space advantage, so you should not play dxe5 because after ...dxe5 in response the pawn position is symmetric and you have lost your space advantage."
I replied "Well, that is true in general but in this position you are ahead in development and need to open up the position, so that guideline "When ahead in development, open the position" takes precedence over the general guideline given by the grandmaster about capturing on e5."
At the end of the lesson I asked new student if he wanted another lesson and he said "Yes". So I suggested Saturday at 2 PM, but he said, "I can't do that - I have another lesson with the grandmaster" (!)
Uh oh! I thought. I didn't realize he was still taking lessons from the grandmaster! Oh well, at least we can clear up one thing:
"OK, when you see the grandmaster, show him that game and see if he agrees that you should capture on e5."
Then my student said something that left me dumbfounded:
"Oh, I already showed the game to the grandmaster and he also said I should have captured on e5." !!
I was shocked. "Then why did tell me the grandmaster said that in general you should not capture on e5 when I said to capture?"
"Oh, well he had also said to capture and that it was more important than the general rule, but I was not entirely clear why, so I thought I would ask you and I thought your explanation was better." !!
I was talking to Arnold Shafritz tonight and someone asked how to spell his last name. He said "S-H-A" and "Fritz"
I said "Like the chess program? Maybe you should change your name to Arnold Sha-rybka"
24. "Don't Let Bobby..."
When I was in college I was reviewing a position with coach IM Donald Byrne. He showed me a late endgame with three pawns for each side on the f-h files plus a couple of minor pieces and asked me to evaluate the position.
"It looks dead even" I said.
"Look again." I looked again.
"It still looks dead even."
"You're kidding, right?"
"No, it looks dead even."
"But White has the bishop-pair" the coach warned.
I boldly replied "Yes, but all the pawns are on the same side of the board and bishops are better when there is play on both sides. Here the action is concentrated in one area where the knights are just as good."
"Don't let Bobby hear you say that!" was the famous player's advice, referring to the even more famous Fischer, of course. "He will get this position at 11 PM and make you play until 5 in the morning. Then you will get up from the table and say 'Wow! The bishop pair was really strong.'"
I never forgot his advice, and when one of my students does not believe in the power of the bishop pair (worth, on the average, about half a pawn - see L.Kaufman's article), I tell it to them, and they usually don't forget, either.
25. What would Nimzovich do?
When I was in college one of the members of our chess team was a graduate student rated about 1600 who was a big fan of Aron Nimzovich.
One day he graciously invited me over to his home to play a game. After we had played about 16 moves, I attacked one of his pawns, which could only be saved in one way. If he had done so I would have a good game but nothing special. Instead, to my surprise, he left the pawn for me to take, which I happily did. After that, my game was completely won and I traded down to an easily won endgame and won.
After the game we reviewed it and, when we got to the part where I attacked the pawn, I asked him "Why didn't you save your pawn?"
His surprising answer was "Nimzovich would not have saved the pawn!"
My reply was easy: "You can argue whether or not Nimzovich would have ever allowed himself to get into a position against me where he would have to save that pawn but, if he did, I can assure you he would have saved it! It was your only move, and any good player, much less a grandmaster, would have played it. Nimzovich would not have abandoned the pawn because it was necessary; after you lost it, your position is just lost and I am easily winning."
Moral of the story: You can worship any number of fantastic players throughout history but, if there is only one easy move to save the game (or to win it), then all those players, regardless of style, will play the easy move or else they would not be fantastic players.
26. Nimzovich again!
True story from our club tonight (Mar '23): In the club 10 min event I saw a 1900 player playing Nimzovich's pawn sac line in the Advanced French. So I said "That line's in 'My System'" and he replied "Oh, you play that too?
Bonus: "Bishops Away" from Mad Magazine Sung to the tune of "Anchor's Away"
Bishops away, my lads! Bishops away! Bring out your knight and pawns and keep your queen in play-ay-ay-ay Castle your king, my lads! Don't Hesitate! Whoops! Guess I told you wrong He's got you there He's got you there Checkmate!