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If I Didn’t Have Genealogy As My Hobby, It Would Have Been Chess - Fri, 5 Aug 2011

I started doing my genealogy in University, but I started playing chess around grade 7. Over the last umpteen years, I have put most of my chess interests on the backburner as I instead devote my time to Behold and its development.

The one grandmaster from Winnipeg, Abe Yanofsky, who was the also the very first chess grandmaster not just in Canada, but in the entire British Commonwealth, was a major influence on young minds in Winnipeg, and as a result chess clubs became commonplace in schools in my city.

I never did get too good at chess myself. It is a game you have to spend the time at to really get better. I think I could have played at a competitive level quite easily if that would have been my hobby. As it was, I haven’t entered a serious tournament since high school.

That does not count my programming exploits, though. In University, I developed a computer program called Brute Force that played chess. Programs back there were primitive, and my program could not even beat myself. But it was at the time good enough to compete in the 8th and 9th North American Computer Chess Championships. (At the 2nd tournament, I had the honor of meeting Ken Thompson of Bell Labs, who is one of the creators of the Unix Operating System, the C programming language, and the UTF-8 character encoding. Ken was the author of the chess program Belle and was also the first to make tablebases of many chess endgames).

Brute Force development ended when I got out of University, but my interest in Chess and Computer Chess never waned.

Since then, my daughters and their friends have been involved in chess at their school and I’ve attended some of their tournaments and a few Manitoba grade championships and even the 1997 Canadian Open (which was in Winnipeg) to witness them in action. I also dabbled on Yahoo Chess playing against live people around the world for a couple of years - but that became too addictive and I had to give it up. I continued to follow the exploits of computers and in 2003 I was asked to do a Commentary on CBC national radio after Garry Kasparov got crushed by the program known as Deep Junior.

So what does that all have to do with today and now?

Well, today, I finally had the opportunity in chess that I never had before. That was to play a grandmaster. Alex Yermolinsky, an American born in the Soviet Union is a two time American Chess champion. He came into Winnipeg to play in the Abe Yanofsky Memorial Chess Tournament. Now recall that I said that I was not a tournament player, so it didn’t happen there. Instead Grandmaster Yermolinsky was giving a simultaneous exhibition. I was one of 32 players he would take on at once. He would be inside a set of 4 long tables arranged in a large square moving from person to person, let them move, and then make his. He would only take a few seconds to make his move, whereas his competitors had several minutes as the GM was moving around the other 31 boards.

So how did I do? I have played only a half dozen serious games of chess in the last ten years. My goal was simply to play respectably and not to blunder (i.e. miss something obvious). I managed at least to do that, and take my opponent to close to the endgame, and then resigning after his masterful play made my bishop almost useless and he maneuvered the gain of a second pawn.

I didn’t fare much worse than anyone else. No one beat him, 29 of us were defeated, and only 3 drew the game. One of the draws was from Christopher Delos Santos, the provincial grade 10 champion who was playing beside me. Christopher managed to fork the Grandmaster’s rook and queen with his night, and came closer than anyone in getting the win. He was the one to offer the draw and Yermolinsky, who had started to maneuver his pawns to where he might be able to queen one, did not initially take it. But he accepted it a move later when he saw it would not be easy to break through the defence his young opponent had set up.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day. I can now strike off the “play against a chess Grandmaster” from my list of things to do this lifetime.

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