Chess and Chances

by Lisa Willis

“Lisa… LISA… LISA!!!!!”

Oh, hi… I was just daydreaming a little. Years ago, when I had been playing chess for just a few months, I came across an interview with Maurice Ashley, the only African American person with a Grandmaster title. At the time, he was merely an International Master. (A little trivia: the actual title is International Grandmaster, but Grandmaster for short.)

A Grandmaster can be summed up in the following way: Remember the scene in “The Matrix” when Neo downloaded Kung Fu?

A Grandmaster is like doing that 10 times. They’re monsters on the board!

In the interview, Grandmaster Ashley said, “I wasn’t anything special, just a 1700 rating, then something just clicked!”

I’ve been waiting for my “click” for the last 30 years. I hope it comes before my back gives out, because I ain’t exactly a spring chicken anymore. When I get out of a chair my bones crack so loud it could bring a bear out of hibernation!

Many of us play, and study, hoping for that click.

Tani Adewumi, a young chess master, didn’t have to wait long!Tani discovered a chessboard at age 8, as he and his family stayed in a refugee camp, running from the terrorist Nigerian group Boka Haran. Four years later, at age 12, he was a master, and was granted entry into the U.S.

To Quote Al Capone in The Untouchables, a man ( or woman, one can only imagine how much of a sexist Al Capone must have been), and that’s what it’s like playing in a big tournament.

Inevitably, you and your opponent will reach an interesting position, the game is anybody’s to win, but you have to see the truth of a position. It’s like when you’re at the plate in baseball (a sport I love, maybe because it’s similar to chess): no one but you can hit for you. 

Allow me to elaborate. You’re playing, and you see you can mate your opponent in 10 moves. It’s forced, as we say. For 10 moves, you can force your opponent to do what you want, and it will lead to checkmate.

Or, accept your opponent has a mate in seven moves, which you didn’t notice, and lose in seven moves.

(This becoming a master thing is gonna be easier than I thought.)

So what was the truth of the position? You thought you were winning, but were completely wrong. A Master can see the truth of a position when the rest of us can’t. 

To compete on a high level, you probably need to know 10 variations and sub-variations 30 moves deep, in your head, and better than your opponent.

To achieve that level of mastery at age 12 is remarkable. To do it starting from a refugee camp in Africa is impossible—and yet there he is.A genius can be brilliant without preparation. Clearly that’s what this young man is.

And as uplifting as I find it, it’s also sad. This was just luck. Someone brought along a chess board instead of a Monopoly game, or playing cards, or anything.

In our world, too much is left to chance. Right here in San Francisco, how many brilliant people are slowly dying in the streets?

It’s really tempting to only think of the positive. But how many? How many lives, how many brilliant minds, are being wasted? How many?