Saturday, June 20, 2009

Meet Ray, He’s my dad.

In case you are wondering how I got to be such a chess enthusiast, you needn’t look much further than one click up the genealogical tree in my family. Being father’s day, I thought I’d take the time and tell you the story of Ray, my dad.

Ray grew up in a small town in Maine and was the youngest of 4 children. Since his three older siblings were much older, there weren’t many shared interests. This meant my father had to find things to entertain himself with.

Ray heard of one person in town who proclaimed to be a checkers champion who he sought to learn the game. If I recall my father’s version of the story correctly, he won the second game. Impressed with his talent ( or fearing further embarrassment), the alleged checker champion steered Ray towards a more challenging game, CHESS!

Eager to learn, Ray found a local bookstore that carried some basic chess books. With the money he made as a young teen working at the family bakery, he picked up a couple of these books to get started. He began playing with his friends and anyone who showed an interest.

He found a few friends in High school to play. He yearned for better competition and discovered Postal chess to be an answer. He’d get several cards going in the mail playing several games. This was a great period for him to hone his skills in the days before the internet and ICC.

As a young man in the late 1950’s, he was a newlywed. He found the local chess club in the city of Portland, Maine to fulfill his growing passion for the game. My mother would rather see him head off to a chess club on a Friday than hanging out in the bars, which was never the case for my dad. The only time he’d hang out in a bar was on a Saturday morning, as their bookkeeper. After all, he was a CPA.

The early years of raising a family and moving to a small town in Maine gave him limited chess options other than the postal games. I was the youngest of three. Once I reached school age, I remember him teaching my sisters to play chess. Unlike Lazlo Polgar making a psychological study out of his children, Ray merely provided us the opportunity. As I watched my oldest sister attempt her best game at dad, with knights developed off the edge of the board and nothing in the center, she was in tears by the end of the game and swore it off. I, on the other hand, was eager to dive in. I didn’t care if my pieces were taken immediately off the board. I’d only come back for more.

It was about this time in the late 1960’s that he started up a chess club in small coastal college town. The pool of players came from the local Naval base, the college and several small hamlets in the area. What amazed me was the fact that chess was the great equalizer no matter what walk of life you were.
Through our house, over the years, I’ve met plumbers, doctors, carnival workers, teachers, students, and military personnel all with a common interest in a game that lasted two millennium.

My passion for the game grew as my father’s involvement for the club grew. I was eager to come to the club, but using reverse psychology he’d say simply “ Not yet, these guys are tough. When you are ready, I’ll let you know.” Ray was patient with this exuberant youth. He started to hand me the very same books that he learned from. I recall fondly, the book by Al Horowitz, “ How to Win in the Chess Openings”. Before this, my game resembled toy football players on a vibrating table that would fall off the edge of the board. Ray, got me started down the right path by learning some basic concepts of opening play and making his copy of Chess Life and Review ( before the USCF called it Chess Life in 1980) available. He advocated playing over annotated games as the real meat to learning the game. I was naïve and wanted to simply play. But still, I was not ready for the club.

The Fischer versus Spassky match of 1972, was brought into our living room through PBS and the genius work of a couple of men, Shelby Lyman and Michael Chase. The first ever real-time American televised coverage of a world championship match was being kibitzed by my father and I in our living room with portable chess sets on our laps.

One summer day, as I played Dad handicapped by the Red sox playing in the background, I ended up not losing! The draw was my qualification to allow me to attend the weekly Club. I started going on a regular basis, even playing in team matches against other towns like Portland, Saco, and Lewiston. He encouraged me to start a chess club in the high school and even chauffeured the rag tag team to a couple matches.

Not once in my growing up did Ray ever force this game down my throat or tell me to “concentrate”, or “ how could you play such a stupid move”. These are comments, I have heard chess parents tell their kids at recent events as I watched the enthusiasm get sucked right out of these kids. Rather, he cautioned me that “ these guys at the tournaments are playing for blood.” And “ Expect to get your face rubbed in the mud by these guys ( at the club), that’s the best way to learn.” He was there for the post mortem, never shaming, always encouraging, with a “ better luck next time”.

He was there for me when I won the top student in the state in 1979. (BlunderProne shown in a vintage photo with trophy on right) Not once did he rub it in my face that there were only two of us competing for the same trophy in the Maine State Championship that year. Rather, he was proud and let me feel good about the accomplishment. He bragged to all the club members of this accomplishment. He made me feel like I was part of something special.

Then I grew up and moved out. Ray kept the club going until his retirement when it got to be too much for him to keep up. He maintains his title as Maine Chess Association’s treasurer ( to this day). I had since moved out of Maine and could not keep the club going. What did keep going was the spark of enthusiasm for this game.

I did the same for my kids, as I learned from my dad. I provide the opportunity but I don’t force it down their throats. Even though my youngest daughter loses more games than winning, she still comes back for more because she likes the same things I like about this game. The experience of meeting people of all walks of life sharing a common bond to a game that has outlasted gameboys, play stations and Frisbees.

In 2004, at a local event, a little known fact occurred that went under the radar of the local chess media. Three generations of chess enthusiasts attended the same tournament. We may not be a family of masters but we are a family of enthusiasts.
In Ray’s words:

“ The beauty of this game is that the answer is always right in front of you. It’s your mind against your opponent’s. There’s no luck, no dice to be thrown, no cards to be drawn. It’s your own fault if you lose and it’s your skill and ability if you win.”

Say hi to my dad. He lurks here and lives vicariously through my blog these days. I love him. Happy Father’s day, Dad.


Unknown said...

Goerge, this was a great and honorable post to your Dad! Thanks for letting us get to know Ray. You got yourself a great DAD. Reading between the lines you can see the overwhelming pride and love you have for your father. The great thing is, with such a post, I bet your Dad is just as proud of his son!

Anonymous said...

Great story! Thanks for sharing it with us. Happy Fathers Day to Ray and all the Dad's out there.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Awesome father's day post. Made me nostalgiac as for a few years as a kid I lived in Cape Elizabeth (before moving to Amesbury MA).

BlunderProne said...

My Dad says "Hi" and wanted to correct some facts since I was fishing for these through my mother. But still, the story remains the same.

His fact corrections:

"It occur to me that I never told you how I got hooked on the 64 squares. When I was about 7, uncle Harold showed me how to play checkers. Uncle was an outstanding checker player in his days, however, he was useless as a teacher and the only reaction I would get from him was a deep laughter when he trapped me into a forced multi jump (captures). I loved this board game, but he was unbeatable. As a kid I use to get games that included chess pieces, but no one to teacher me the game. In those days (in the 40's) chess was not a household word. the game was simply unknown in the neighborhood.

Chess was introduced to me by Clarence Bisson, a local boy who was at West Newbury, Mass the same time I was. I came back home to BSH and he went to Billerica for a few years and the summer before my freshman year he showed my how to play. He claimed to be the champion of Billerica. I was fascinated with being able to play on all the squares. Checkers had been my only exposure. The "champion" skipped the "castling" and "e.p." rules saying that it was rarely used. I beat him on the third game. That's where you mixed the history in your post.

After exhausting Bisson who refused to play eventually, by then, I had wood splinters in my teeth and eventually found other enthusiast to spar with etc etc."

From the patzer said...

Nice to meet Ray. He sounds like a wonderfull dad. I wonder if he plays on the internet nowadays?

es_trick said...

Is it just a coincidence that the youngest child of a youngest child of a youngest child form the chess genealogy in your family?

And what a great tribute to your dad!

My dad played chess with me exactly once, when I was in 2nd grade, at the dinner table after the meal. He beat me handily, and then critiqued my game to my mother, and whoever else was still in the dining room.

By the time I got to HS, and was really into the game, my parents were divorced. A couple of times he got me on the phone, and wanted to share some of his rediscoverd interest in the game. I was probably much better than him at that point, but my mom has said that if he'd still been in the house, he would have been competing with me, entering tournaments and trying to have a higher rating.

My regards to Ray.

likesforests said...

Your Dad sounds like a cool guy, and it was very nice of your to write this up. That's exactly how I hope to pass on my passion for the game to my children. High school state champion, huh? Now I don't feel so bad about being rated a bit less than you! ;)

Chess? said...

That was your greatest post to date.
Cheers to you and your dad.

Pawn Shaman said...

Truly great post. You should consider submitting it to a chess magazine.

Anonymous said...

This is a perfect post. I agree with Pawn Shaman. Heck, this might have gone in Chess Life without a drop in writing quality.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ray.

Polly said...

I'm a little late replying to this, but awesome post! By any chance did your dad play in the 1975 New England Open in Portland? That was my one tournament in Maine. I was in college at the time, and some kids and I came from Burlington to play in the tournament. To save money on hotel expenses we camped. What a mess. It rained the first night! I gave up camping after that.

My dad never played chess. He taught me bridge and backgammon. He never took an interest in learning chess. Nobody in my family played.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ray I glad your so foundly remembered by so many of us.You very much deserve all the praise you get.roger morin