Tuesday, May 25, 2010

30 Years Ago Today

While reading an article yesterday in The New York Times about the 30th anniversary of the New York Islanders winning their first Stanley Cup, I was reminded that today is the 30th anniversary of my attaining the title of national master.

Growing up, I followed the New York Rangers. I had little choice. Back then, there were just six teams in the National Hockey League. The Rangers were the only local team.

In October 1972, two big events occurred. I joined the United States Chess Federation (one month after Fischer took the world championship crown from Spassky), and the expansion Islanders joined the NHL. From day one, there was a special affinity between me and the Islanders. We both started off weakly, gradually improved, and ran into a psychological barrier. For me, I could not achieve a master's rating of 2200. For the Islanders, they could not win the Stanley Cup.

I had an additional problem. To the best of my knowledge, no one from my town had ever become a chess master, although one player nearly made it. When he quit playing chess, his final rating was 2199! He even petitioned the USCF to award him one rating point, so that he could retire as a master. But his request was denied. I started wondering if the same fate awaited me. Time and again, I tried to crack the 2200 barrier, all to no avail.

Then, on a Saturday afternoon in May 1980, I watched on television as the Islanders won the Stanley Cup. Seeing them hoist their trophy in celebration, I said to myself, "If after eight years of trying, the Islanders can win the Stanley Cup, then after eight years of trying, I can become a national master!"

The next day, with new-found determination, I played in a quad at the Marshall Chess Club. Looking at my opponents' ratings and doing mental arithmetic, I figured that if I won all three games my post-tournament rating would be 2201. But my third round opponent was going to be difficult. His rating was above 2300.

I defeated my first two opponents and was lucky enough to pick the white pawn when choosing colors for the final round. The game began uneventfully, when the incredible happened! My opponent blundered a rook, for nothing. Surely now, I would become a master.

There was one last obstacle to overcome. With 45 minutes on his clock and with ten more moves to make before the first time control at move 40, my opponent went into a deep think for 44 minutes. With a minute left, suddenly he started making moves at a furious pace. Foolishly, I did the same. We rattled off half a dozen moves at lightning speed. I reached to touch a piece for my 37th move and took my hand away at the last second. In that instant, I became a chess master!

My opponent had set a clever trap. If I made the obvious move, it would cost me a rook. The likely outcome would be a draw, and I would still not make master. As soon as I played the correct move, the 2300 player resigned immediately. He told me that, as early as move 31, he had seen the trap at move 37. But he felt that I would never fall into it, unless I played too quickly. Since I had plenty of time on my clock, his only chance was that I would blunder in his time pressure. It nearly worked!