Hello, and welcome to the first edition of Over the Board. In this monthly Chess^Summit exclusive I will go one on one with players, personalities, and writers from around the world. We’ll discuss their lives on and off the board and get advice on how to improve.
For this inaugural edition, I have the great honor of doing an extended interview with a player and writer I greatly admire, Mr. Chris Wainscott. Chris has written for Chess Life, Chess Life Online, and American Chess Magazine while also maintaining his website ontheroadtochessmaster.com. Like myself and many others, Chris began to pursue his chess ambitions later in life setting his goal to prove you can achieve a title, something I know he will do. Chris has done a lot for the sport and is a very talented writer, we discuss a great deal and cover a lot of ground in this unabridged interview.
Wainscott v. Wallace – photo credit Allen Becker
Chris, what first sparked your passion for chess? Do you have a first chess memory?
The passion came later, but my first chess memory is from the age of four. It was 1977 and the Fischer Boom was either dead, or at least in its death throes. My mom and some friends of hers decided they wanted to learn, so they bought this cheap hollow plastic set that came with a folding cardboard board and were teaching themselves the rules.
Like so many kids I wanted to do what they were doing and so I pestered them to teach me as it looked interesting. I liked games in general and this one just had that ‘something’ that made it too tempting to pass up.
They taught me, and within just a few playing sessions I was beating adults. That gave me a special connection to the game.
For the next decade or so my chess career was confined to the occasional one-off game, mostly with either my mom or my grandfather. Occasionally I might meet some kid at school who also knew how the pieces moved and play them as well.
The passion came in 1987 when at the age of fourteen I learned that my ninth-grade history teacher, Charlie Vetter, was also the guy who ran the school’s chess team. It had never occurred to me before that there could be such a thing as a chess team.
Shortly thereafter I played in my first tournament, which was the Texas Junior Championships. I came in fifth, losing only to the prodigy David Peterson, who went on to be featured in the Chess Kids documentary a few years later.
Of course, my result speaks a lot more about the relative weakness of the field than any strength of mine. Keep in mind that in 1987 scholastic chess was nothing like it is today. Not to mention that the event was held in my hometown of Midland rather than in a major population center.
So, what prompted you to write about chess?
I have always thought of myself, at least vaguely, as a writer. When I was a kid I used to write stories that I would read as a sort of one man play for my family. I’ve written a lot of (unpublished) stories and fragments over the years.
I read Botvinnik’s essay which is in the beginning of his 100 Selected Games book in which he gives the advice that players should analyze their games critically and then publish the analysis to subject it to criticism and correction. His viewpoint was that airing your work would both force a person to be completely subjective as well as helping to improve since you’d get feedback from others.
So shortly after setting the goal of getting to 2200 I decided to start blogging. I did this since at first, I’d say to myself ‘I should do X, Y, and Z’ but didn’t necessarily follow through with those plans. I figured that if I openly wrote that my plan for the month was to do something, and then followed up along the way and recapped at the end I would have to hold myself accountable if I failed.
You can still see the early blog here: ontheroadtochessmaster.blogspot.com
At some point during the year or so this blog was active I decided that it never hurts to ask when you want something, and so I emailed Chess Life editor Dan Lucas and told him I wanted to write a column for the magazine. He let me know that there were no openings for columns, but that he’d happily give me space for a feature. So my first paying gig as a writer was the January 2014 issue of Chess Life which featured my article on improving as an adult.
Around a year into blogging, my friend and mentor Sevan Muradian asked me to blog for his website ChessIQ. That lasted a couple of years until his untimely death in February 2016. Now I write for my own blog, ontheroadtochessmaster.com as well as a regular assignment covering University Chess for American Chess Magazine. I also still contribute to Chess Life and Chess Life Online at times.
Now I saw in an article from Quality Chess that you stopped playing from 1992 until 2011. Can you share what caused the break and what brought you back into the game?
The stock answer to this question always seems to be something about a job and family causing life to get in the way, etc.
My case was completely different. In 1992 I moved from Texas back to Arizona where I had lived for several years previously. I was 19 at the time, and within a few months of being back in Phoenix I wound up a drug addict.
After spending a few years completely out of my mind on meth I got my life together in 1996, but by that time chess had more or less passed me by. It just wasn’t something I thought about much. I didn’t play but maybe a half dozen casual games during my break.
Then, in late December of 2010, I was visiting my grandfather and while digging through boxes of old photos he happened across one of my scoresheets from the late 80’s. I felt something stir deep within the primal part of my brain and I remembered how much fun I had in the five years I had spent as an active tournament player from 87-92.
I recall texting my then girlfriend, now wife, and saying something like ‘I think I’m going to start playing tournament chess again.’ She replied ‘again? When did you ever do that?’ A few weeks later in January of 2011 I resumed playing and haven’t looked back.
Do you feel chess is different now than it was in 1992?
There are so many ways in which it’s completely different. The biggest of course is access to information. For those who didn’t come up in the internet age it’s probably not something easily grasped, but access to information was incredibly hard when I was first playing.
I can recall going to the Midland Public Library with a notebook and copying down games out of books. Or digging through microfiche copies to find game scores from articles in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times.
This is how my ‘database’ was compiled. Nowadays when it’s so easy to decide you want to look at the games of any player and with a few strokes on your keyboard, you can look at pretty much anything. All those memories feel like a dream.
One really funny way in which things changed was the advent of the digital clock. I say funny because of course when I started playing again I immediately bought a board, set, and clock. I was so proud of the fact that I owned a shiny new battery operated analog clock. Then I got to my first tournament and saw the digitals, learned about delay, and realized my brand-new purchase was obsolete right out of the box.
Of course, some things felt exactly the same. I was delighted to find that Vishy Anand was the world champion when I came back. I’d enjoyed his games when I was younger.
I think Vishy Anand is timeless, he still has plenty of championships in him. I greatly enjoy your Quality Chess Challenge and agree their vast content is just incredible. We are coming up closely on February 13th, one year from when the challenge started. How do you feel this challenge has impacted your game? Are there any specific books from Quality Chess that really made an impact?
The Challenge started from an offhand remark by a friend of mine, NM Richard Martin, who said something like ‘Quality Chess’s products are so good you could probably get to master just by studying them.’ So I messaged Jacob Aagaard, who I’m Facebook friends with, and mentioned this to him. He had some interesting insights and input.
I decided to give it a year and so I posted in the Chess Book Collectors Facebook group that I was going to do this. The ‘Challenge’ portion came up when Belgian player Johan Verduyckt said he was going to do the same but using only New in Chess books.
While the Challenge part has kind of died since life got in the way for Johan and he hasn’t been able to play much, the event itself has been both fascinating and frustrating.
Fascinating because QC does, in my opinion, put out amazing books. They are instructive and entertaining at the same time. I really feel that I’ve grown a lot in my understanding of the game during the past 11 months or so.
Frustrating because I am a chess book collector, and so for the past year or so I have acquired a bunch of books that I haven’t really looked at much.
I should point out that one thing I noted going in to the challenge was that I had no intentions of being overly dogmatic. So, there are a few non QC books I’ve used when I didn’t have a QC alternative to use. So I’ve used books on tactics by both Susan and Lazlo Polgar, along with Minev’s book Practical Rook Endgames.
As for books from QC that have really made an impression, I’d say Questions of Modern Chess Theory by Lipnitsky, Soviet Middlegame Technique by Romanovsky, Positional Play by Aagard, and How I Beat Bobby Fischer’s Record by Judit Polgar have helped a lot. The most useful though has been the Yusopov series. If I have one regret from this project it’s that I didn’t really make time for a lot more Yusupov.
I also enjoy your chesstempo challenge. Could you tell us a little more about that?
I kept seeing George Takei posting these ‘100 Days of ____’ things on his Facebook page which would show how someone improved greatly at something after 100 days of doing it.
I decided that it would be interesting to do 100 days of tactics on chesstempo. I am a firm believer in the value of tactics training, although I also understand that since tactics flow from a superior position just studying tactics alone without working on the other parts of my game would do me very little good.
My initial intent was 100 days of one hour a day of tactics. However, I’ve realized that I need to change that since one hour is eating up too much of my study time. I’ve been thinking about how to modify that, and it’s likely that I’ll change it to 30 minutes a day and roll out the revised version over the next few days.
In fairness to the concept I’ll start over from scratch. Although I should point out that I’ve gained 30 points or so in the couple of weeks I’ve been doing these.
There’s an awesome picture on your website where you are seated between Aronian and Carlsen. What was that like and what kinds of conversations did you have with the players?
2013 Sinquefield Cup – Nakamura, Aronian, Wainscott, Carlsen, and Gata…looking up
That picture was taken the day before the first round of the inaugural Sinquefield Cup in 2013. The photo shoot was pretty much just an assembly line where they were moving people through pretty quickly and so I didn’t get much more than a ‘hello’ out of it.
Something amusing about that photo is just before taking the photo the photographer said ‘look up’ and while four of the five of us looked at the photographer, Gata seemed to take it literal and is looking at the ceiling.
At the time while I of course knew who those guys were, I didn’t actually know any of them. Since then that’s changed a lot. Gata was a friend of a friend, and I had the chance to have dinner with him later that night. In the ensuing years there have been a couple more dinners and some great conversations.
I’ve also been able to spend time in a social setting around Lev Aronian after the past two Sinquefield Cups. Once at the club, and once at the ‘Chess House.’ Watching Lev play bughouse is otherworldly. He’s also the funniest GM I know and what makes that so amazing is that he’s cracking jokes that are perfectly on point in English, which I think is his third, or maybe even fourth, language.
I was very moved by your November Article where you discussed the Sevan Muradian Memorial and the incredible generosity of Hikaru Nakamura. As an outsider, I was very touched and, as a huge fan, it made me love Hikaru even more. What did it mean for you personally to be involved in this?
The late Sevan Muradian – photo credit Betsy Dynako
Hikaru and I have been friends for a couple of years now. When we first started talking one of our early conversations was about Sevan. Hikaru had known Sevan fairly well and had only nice things to say about him.
After Sevan’s death there was a strong desire within the community to hold a tournament in his name and to donate the proceeds to his family. So some friends and organizers held an event in Fall of 2016 and raised some money.
The decision was made to hold this as an annual event, and at some point leading up to it I realized that there was a chance for us to harvest some resources we hadn’t thought about.
Between myself and event organizers Glenn Panner and Daniel Parmet we know several dozen GM’s, including world champions and other elite players. I had the thought that we should try to get some merchandise signed so we could have some sort of raffle or silent auction to help raise some additional funds.
I reached out to Hikaru and asked if he’d sign a couple of boards for me and he immediately agreed. I sent him the boards and one day I got a message from him saying he had gotten the boards and signed them and that he hoped we raised a lot of money.
He then said he’d like to match whatever was raised up to $3,000.00. I was simultaneously stunned, thrilled, and proud to be Hikaru’s friend.
It was an unprompted and amazing act of generosity. As Hikaru was playing in St. Louis at the time I immediately emailed Jenifer Shahade and let her know about it so they could talk to Hikaru on air during his post-match interview at the Showdown the next day!
It should be pointed out that Susan Polgar and Paul Truong also donated. Both were good friends of Sevan’s.
So which players past or present are heroes or inspirations for you?
WGM Sabina Foiser and her fiancé, GM Elshan Moradiabadi are both huge personal inspirations to me.
Just look at last year, Sabina loses her mother and then within just a couple of months puts up the best result of her career. I can’t recall anyone more deserving of something who was so unassertive about it. A friend and I had dinner with her and Elshan the night she won, and she was beside herself with happiness but also completely humble. It was amazing to watch.
Elshan, who was born in Iran, has had to endure so many things, and is often looked at as an outsider everywhere he goes. Yet he’s one of the most hopeful and pleasant and polite people it’s ever been my pleasure to know. I wish the two of them happiness for the rest of their lives and beyond.
Hikaru is another hero. I was a huge fan of his play long before I ever met him, but having seen him do things like match the funds for Sevan’s tournament and his recent trip to Africa where he spent time with a bunch of kids there and is now sponsoring training for a couple of them has made me glad to know him. It’s always inspiring to see people who understand how blessed they are who make sure to give back.
Yasser, of course, deserves a special place in everyone’s heart. To paraphrase Maureen O’Hara when she went before Congress to persuade them to honor her friend John Wayne – ‘I beg you to strike a medal for Yaz, to order the President to strike it. And I feel that the medal should say just one thing: Yasser Seirawan, Erudite.’
Getting to know Yasser a little over the past couple of years has been great. The fact that he’s also a Dallas Cowboys fan is just icing on the cake!
From the standpoint of chess inspiration, of course Fischer. You have to separate the man from the player, but his games and work ethic stand on their own.
My all-time favorite player is Kasparov. For one thing, I love his saying ‘Hard work is a talent.’ Also, his approach to the game was, and is, unparalleled. I don’t think that anyone has ever worked harder at being the absolute best than he did.
One player who I’d like to give a shout out to is the Russian teenager Vladislav Artemiev. I’ve been following his career for a couple of years now, and I’m really struck by his competitiveness. He grew up, and as far as I know still lives in, Omsk, a town in Siberia. OK, granted you’re not as limited these days by your location since coaching can be done through Skype, etc. But as far as I know he works only with a local coach.
Last year he crossed the 2700 mark, though he is just below that now. He’s also been one of the top blitz players in the world for some time.
Chris at SPICE 2017 – photo credit Paul Truong
What article have you written that means the most to you and why?
My obituary for Sevan, published on uschess.org. This was written just a few days after Sevan’s death. The emotions from everyone were still raw and unprocessed. It was easily the most difficult and most rewarding thing I’ve ever written.
The most prestigious thing I’ve written would be the July 2015 cover story for Chess Life ‘A New Golden Age for American Chess.’
That piece on Sevan is such a touching and wonderful piece of writing. So what do you think makes an interesting article?
I think it’s important to be inspired. As a writer it’s too easy to force yourself to write about something that doesn’t necessarily inspire you. Maybe it’s something you’re doing for the money or for the prestige or whatever, but if you don’t truly believe in what you’re writing then it will reflect in the finished product.
I agree, inspiration and belief in your content are huge priorities. So, what advice do you have for other chess writers?
Don’t be afraid to kill an idea. If you’re writing a non-time sensitive article on a topic that interests you but it’s not going well, it’s OK to take it out back and shoot it. Or at the very least set it aside and come back to it later.
As an example, I am writing an article about the Log Cabin Chess Club, which was one of Fischer’s early outlets for improvement. The leader of that club, E. Forry Laucks, was both a tireless chess promoter and a reprehensible Nazi sympathizer. This is truly a fascinating topic.
I pitched the idea to a publisher and they gave me the green light. However, the research is hard going. There’s just not much information out there than can easily be corroborated. The information that can be verified tends to be repetitive. So to get 3,500 words has been a real challenge.
The original deadline for this piece was around three or four months ago, but I knew that the publisher didn’t have a set place where they intended to run it. So rather than force it and use unverified information, or worse yet filler, I’ve just set it aside. I still look for information sources and have gathered some, and I feel that when I go back to finish this that the final product will reflect the time and love that it took to properly craft it.
I’m presently 30 years old and my personal goal is also to become a titled player. What advice would you give to aspiring adult players who want to improve?
Don’t listen to the haters, of which there will be many. I was told in 2011 when I was rated just below 1500 that if I was lucky and worked really hard then perhaps someday I could gain 100-150 points. Peak to trough the gain has been over 400.
I couldn’t agree more, there are many people telling me the same thing. So do you have a routine or schedule for training? Any specific tools or apps you use that you would recommend?
I try as best I can to do some work every day. I analyze my games, and usually put the results on my blog. I’m a big believer in tactics books, and in ‘solving’ in general. I think that active training such as analyzing my games and solving puzzles has led to my growth as a player.
When I train passively, say by watching a video or GM commentary, I think there is still some value, but nothing like that achieved by active training.
Now, about how much time a day would you say you spend playing or working on your game and what do you work on?
It varies a lot. On a good day I get at least an hour. Some days more, often less.
I play a rated game each week at the Southwest Chess Club on Thursday. I intend to play at least one weekend tournament a month this year since I know that I need to play a bit more than I do now in order to improve to where I want to be. The goal for this year is 1900.
Luckily for me, my wife said at the beginning of the year that she hopes I’m not gone over the weekend ‘more than once a month’ so I’ve decided to take that literally and work on playing in one event each month.
I don’t really work on openings much, but I am trying to get better about that. When I say ‘much’ I really mean ‘at all.’ I spend maybe 1-2% of my time on openings. I’d like to increase that to at least an hour or two per week.
I do play over a lot of GM games, so I’m trying to be more engaged in that process as I know that I have a real weakness with planning and structures.
I do spend a lot of time on tactics and endgames. I’d say I’m probably 30-35% on each of those areas.
That’s reassuring, I spend most time analyzing and working on tactics. What do you feel is the biggest key to growth as a player?
Total immersion. There is no substitute for improvement at anything that beats it. Chess is a fascinating game and really diving deep into positions will pay off.
Are there any roadblocks or plateaus you’ve experienced on your journey?
If you look at my ratings graph, you’ll see that I have had wild swings of 150 points in either direction quite often.
I have plateaued a number of times, although it no longer concerns me since I see it as just part of the process.
Interestingly, the biggest roadblock is one of my own choosing, and that is the fact that I decided to become a writer. If I could take the hundreds of hours I’ve spent researching and writing and give those hours to improvement as a player I have no doubt that I would be much stronger than I am now.
I have no regrets about that though. Let’s say I had already hit my goal of becoming a master but I had never written a thing. Who would know? Who would care? I’d be a weak master, and while personally that would be quite fulfilling, it would have cost me a lot in the way of friendships and experiences.
I had met so many people and made so many friends in the chess world, and almost none of that stems from me as a player.
I understand the feeling. I love chess and writing but often have a hard time balancing them. So when you do have down time, what are your interests outside of chess?
Dallas Cowboys football. Although it’s getting so much harder to watch football these days knowing the kind of harm these guys are doing to themselves. I met John Urschel at the Chess House last year and told him how glad I was he had the sense to retire.
I also enjoy music. I may be 1800 at chess, but I’m like 2600 at being a music fan. I listen to everything from the Grateful Dead to Slayer. Some favorites include John Lennon, Black Sabbath, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, and Sade. I also play some guitar and mandolin.
Nice! I’m also a guitar player…I’d say NM strength. So what projects are you currently working on?
I mentioned the Log Cabin article from earlier. I also have an interview with GM Awonder Liang which should be on uschess.org by the time this interview runs. I’m also working on a piece about the recently concluded Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championships. It will appear in the next issue of American Chess Magazine and I’m going to take what I hope is a novel approach and cover a story that is rarely if ever covered. So stay tuned for that!
I will! So Chris, If readers would like to get in touch with you, what are the best ways to contact you?
Email is good. firstname.lastname@example.org Or you can follow me on Twitter @cwainscottmke
Thank you, Chris, for your time, openness, insight, and a fantastic interview. Next month I will interview a good friend of mine who is a “mad man” of television, stage, and movies. He also happens to be a great chess player who’s helped me out a lot and has some great stories. See you next month on Over the Board.