Monday, December 24, 2012


I celebrated my birthday last month by treating myself to a trip to the Second Annual Michigan Chess Festival, held at the MET hotel in Troy, Michigan. I lost rating points and did not win any prize money but I will always have fond memories of my first visit to Michigan because it represented one more milestone in my evolution from a mindset based on willpower to a mindset based on what Garret Kramer calls Stillpower. Kramer emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between "life" and "life situations." Kramer explains, "Your life is a constant. While most of us think that external circumstances actually happen to us, in truth they don't. They're just happening. All life situations are just happening. Granted, we play a role in the outcome of whatever it is we face, but regardless of our role or whether we're happy or disappointed, the nature of all circumstances or results in life is unbiased. This basic understanding is essential to your quest for success." I went to Michigan with the mindset that my life is good regardless of how I perform in the tournament and that I would savor every moment of my trip regardless of what happened on or off the chess board.

Until very recently it would have been difficult for me to enjoy myself at a tournament if I did not play well--and I set a very high bar to define playing well, which can turn life into a joyless all or nothing proposition. This time I did not allow my performance to affect my mood during the weekend; although I did not play as well as I wanted to play, I learned from my two losses versus Grandmaster Ben Finegold and National Master Seth Homa, I enjoyed GM Finegold's Saturday lecture about GM Hikaru Nakamura and I had an interesting conversation about chess, poker, backgammon and other subjects with Senior Master Fred Lindsay, a bookseller who I have known since my chess career began in the 1980s (I also bought some cool items from Lindsay, including an English translation of GM Miguel Najdorf's Zurich 1953 book).

Both before and after the tournament I spent some quality time with my friend Erika Klotz, a Troy native who showed me around town. My pre-tournament mindset often involves isolating myself so that I can visualize playing well without being bothered by any distractions but in Michigan I took a different approach; I enjoyed a nice Friday dinner with Erika at Noodles & Company--I'd never been there before; the chicken soup is very good--and after the short drive back to the MET we found a quiet corner in an unoccupied ballroom so that I could teach Erika some chess basics. I have been teaching chess since 1999 but I rarely teach complete beginners so I do not have much experience showing someone how the pieces move; it is fascinating to see the game through "beginner's eyes" and this is also a good way to look at life: to perceive each moment as something new, exciting and wonderful.

Erika learned very quickly and thus was able to follow algebraic chess notation well enough to play through one of the most famous miniatures in chess history, Paul Morphy's 1858 "Opera Game" versus Count Isouard and the Duke of Brunswick:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Bg4 4.dxe5 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 dxe5 6.Bc4 Nf6 7.Qb3 Qe7 8.Nc3 c6 9.Bg5 b5 10.Nxb5 cxb5 11.Bxb5+ Nbd7 12.0–0–0 Rd8 13.Rxd7 Rxd7 14.Rd1 Qe6 15.Bxd7+ Nxd7 16.Qb8+ Nxb8 17.Rd8# 1–0

The final position is a picturesque model of artistic harmony combined with brutal efficiency; Morphy sacrificed virtually his entire army in order to deliver checkmate:
Siegbert Tarrasch once said, "Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy." One of the great joys of life is to savor the creations of a genius' mind and you don't have to be a genius to appreciate Mozart's music or Morphy's moves because the touchstone of genius is simplicity: think Richard Feynman and his demonstration about the O rings after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Morphy's Opera Game has that touchstone of genius, so it is a pleasure to share a glimpse of that kind of genius with someone who previously did not know anything about it.

Perhaps inspired by the experience of sharing Morphy with Erika, I secured victory in my fifth round game with a nice tactical shot: in the position shown below I played ...Bh3+! If White takes the B then Black forces mate with ...Nf4+ followed by ...Qh5+ and Qf5++; White instead lost the Exchange after Kg1 and he resigned seven moves later.

Instead of lamenting the blunders that transformed my fourth round game from a win to a draw to a loss, I focused on being grateful for the opportunity to play in this fun tournament and I enjoyed finishing the event on a positive note with a crisp win.

Before I drove home on Monday, Erika showed me around Troy. We first visited the Somerset Collection in order to see the Sorvikivi Floating Stone Fountains (one of them is pictured below, courtesy of Detroit).

The next stop on the tour of "The City of Tomorrow, Today" was the Troy Community Center, home of the Ayrton's Head sculpture that used to be located in front of Kmart's world headquarters:

Beneath the sculpture is a Craig Pangus poem that provides a stark description of the way that conflicting thoughts and emotions can affect a person to the core of his soul:

Michael Ayrton passed away at the age of 54 just four years after creating this piece. J.C. Leissring considers Ayrton to be a very underrated artist and I feel a keen fondness for/kinship with unappreciated artists, including George Ohr: "The Mad Potter of Biloxi."

Erika and I enjoyed a peaceful walk on the nature/fitness trail at the Troy Community Center before heading over to an even better trail at the Lloyd A. Stage Nature Center; here are several photos that Erika took during our visit there:

Here is the only photo that I took on the trail--and the three bright red sunspots make it clear why I focus my energies on writing, playing chess and teaching chess as opposed to photography.

Trees are an important and beautiful part of the ecosystem; this peaceful image of a tree bathed softly in sunlight reminds me of a poem that I wrote as a 10 year old (in February 1982) titled "The Tree in my Backyard."

The poem appears in the New American Poetry Anthology (issued in 1988 by World of Poetry Press) under the title "Perspective":

In late spring
The cool winds blow
On my favorite tree
As it gives me shade from
The bright spring sun.
And I climb to the very top
To see the world
From a different spot.

Erika later summed up our time on the trail perfectly: "Life was as it is supposed to be. Fresh air, simplicity, nature, beauty, and a human connection." In the song "Need You Tonight," INXS declared, "All you got is this moment"; another way of putting this is "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift, that is why its called the present." Sometimes we get so caught up in the process of living that we forget to actually live, to experience each and every moment to the fullest without worrying about what just happened or what might happen next. It may be true, as Prince sings in "The Ladder," that "Everybody is looking 4 the answers/How the story started and how it will end" (Prince prefers that "for" is written as "4" in his lyrics and it is important to respect an artist's wishes when citing his work)--but the mystery of Life as well as the mystery of a particular life cannot be solved by the human mind; we each simply must do the best that we can in each moment.

In his speech at the 1993 ESPYs, Jim Valvano said, "To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special."

John Wooden put it even more simply: "Make each day your masterpiece."

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