Chess for American kids is on a huge roll, with US Chess just hosting the largest tournament in history at the SuperNationals. At the top, we have 90 Grandmasters, and the gold medal Olympic team. Earlier this year, I caught up with Grandmaster Nick de Firmian and International Master John Donaldson of the Mechanics Institute in San Francisco to get a sense of why chess is so hot in the US right now.
Mechanics Institute is the oldest continuously operating chess club in America. Nick played in numerous chess Olympiads and picked up plenty of tournament victories along the way. John Donaldson is many time Captain of medal earning Olympic and World Team squads, leading to a career highlight in captaining the 2016 Gold Medal Olympic team.
The Mechanics Institute of San Francisco is the Jerusalem. Mechanics Institute serves as this hub of chess culture where giants from ancient and modern times come to test themselves. Walking in the architecture, the boards, pieces, and even the air is thick with history.
While sitting with one of their members, he pointed to the place he played six rounds of speed chess with Mikhail Tal—and he won one of the games! In another part of the room, he played Botvinnik.
Below us, there is a library of books dating way back. I was thumbing through a book from about 1906. Flipping the pages makes you feel so connected to the history of the art and sport we call chess.
Seeing as how Nick and John have so much knowledge about Russian chess history and coaching methodology (and more importantly how to beat it!), I sat with them to talk a little bit about chess and facing the Russian squad at the Olympiad.
Adisa Banjoko (AB): Nick, tell me about your journey to chess and how you ended up at Mechanics Institute.
Nick de Firmian (NF): I started chess back in the old days. Bobby Fischer was king then, popularizing chess across the country and around the world. I got a bit hooked on it.
I came up to the Bay Area from college. I discovered this old institution here, the Mechanics Institute. It has been around since the gold rush days. There is big chess tradition here.
I went to different places. I went to New York. I went to Denmark. I played a lot of times for the US Olympic Team. But about five years ago, I came back to San Francisco and started our scholastic chess program with the Mechanics Institute. We’re in 20 schools and getting chess in more schools. It hadn’t been as organized, especially when compared to other areas like New York or parts of Europe. So, we are really happy with the response here.
AB: I have to say that it is an amazing place. I always knew the Mechanics Club was here. But it was not until I actually went to St. Louis (for the Living Like Kings show) that I began to reflect on the legacy in my own backyard here in San Francisco. John tell me about your journey in chess and how you got here.
IM John Donaldson (JD): It was 1972. Like a lot of people my age the Fischer vs. Spassky match drew us in. It was on TV every night. It was everywhere. Shortly after that, my friends and I saw a notice for chess club. We joined up. Those people are still my friends forty years later.
That really got me started off. I went to school at the University of Washington. I am not a Bay Area native. In the fall of 1998, I accepted the position as Chess Director here.
It was kind of a dream come true. There are not many clubs in the United States like the Mechanics. Probably the Marshall Chess Club in New York is one with similar stature.
We have tournaments here every week. We have classes here on the weekends that are free to the public. On Tuesday nights, we host tournaments over one hundred people coming from all over the Bay Area. We have one guy who drives out all the way from Fresno for the tournament. So, it is pretty exciting.
AB: It is indeed pretty amazing to be sitting here. You can feel the energy in the room. I was just talking to one of your members, Guy Robertson, about games he played with legends like Mikhail Tal and Korchnoi—right here! That is amazing stuff—to not just be looking at the photo or reading about it. You are sitting in the room where these games happened.
I want to talk with you about Russian chess. I think the Russian chess machine is still very much a mystery. It is very magnetic and psychologically threatening. You guys have been on the US Olympic Team. You have beat various top Russian players, and I want to hear about that experience. I am curious to know how you guys prepared for them during your Olympic 2016 win.
NF: The Russians were always the best—from WWII all the way to the turn of the century. Even later until a few years ago, simply because it was their culture. They had a lot of state support. They would get great talents and really develop those talents.
I remember first meeting people and, even back then, it was still the Cold War. And you were a little suspicious. But then you got to know people, like Boris Spassky. He is one of the most wonderful people you will ever meet.
Just warm, friendly. In fact, when he played Bobby Fischer, people were very surprised at what a great guy he was. They thought, “Why should we nuke this country?” [chuckles].
AB: Tell me John, when the Americans are going to be playing Russians? What do you know going in?
JD: You know, first off, they will be one of the top teams. They were at the recent tournaments in Baku and Azerbaijan. Even though the names of the countries may change, they still have that great tradition. They still have a huge amount of state support. Maybe not from the government now, but by rich oligarchs. It is in their culture. They are always going to be one of the top teams.
What has changed in the last maybe decade is that other countries have been coming up and being able to challenge them. For instance China, Ukraine, Armenia—a small country that punches above its weight—and also the United States. When we won the Olympiad in Baku, it was the first time in a long time the US had won.
AB: When was the last time?
JD: The last time was 1976. Albeit, at that time, it was held in Israel. Countries from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union did not participate. If you want to go back to a time where Russia and the United States actually competed, the answer to this is the first time.
AB: How did you prepare?
JD: One of the ways that chess has become a bit more democratic is that it used to be that the Russians had all these expert trainers. They had all these tremendous financial resources. They really had a total commitment. But now what has happened is that computers play a large role. So, a lot more information is available on a small laptop than going through rows and rows of books.
Now you can carry six million games in a laptop, and it weighs one or two pounds Before you would need thousands of games… Or having several trainers to compensate for that sort of knowledge. So, you see strong players coming from all over the world—and definitely in the United States.
AB: How did you get into the Olympiad for the first time?
NF: I had to qualify by being one of the top five players in the country. Back then, it was top six. I was happy that I made it. I was 23 years old at the time. I was the fifth or sixth player on the team. For about twenty years, I continued to play on the team. It is always a great experience. You’ve got your team mates, the camaraderie, the rivalry with the other teams, especially the Russians. You are off in some exotic spot in the world.
AB: What was one of your favorite places to play?
NF: Hmm. It is hard to say. Iceland was one of the great spots. Because they love chess there.
AB: Can you tell me about the pressure of playing the Russians? How do you prepare?
NF: You put everything you have into the game. You prepare months before. You prepare days before when you see who your opponent is. You go through one hundred of his games. Then you try to save your energy. You try to sleep in late, until noon. You are thinking of it a lot like a boxing match. Then, for about four or five hours, you focus. At the end, it often comes down to just your physical stamina.
AB: This makes me think of Mikhail Tal. How great he was on the boards but how poorly he took care of his body. These days you see a lot of modern chess players working hard to be physically fit because of the stress of the game. How much do you think the focus on physical fitness has changed in chess?
JD: Definitely, it has changed. When I first started playing in the 1970’s, you would go into the chess club, and there would be almost zero visibility. Many people were chain smokers at the time. You would come home and your parents were wondering if you picked up some bad habits [chuckles]. But that changed by the 1990’s.
Chess in many ways was more colorful back then, Tal being one great example. He burned the candle twice brightly. He slept until noon because he always stayed awake until the morning hours. Now, if you look at most of the players in the top, they make it a habit to eat properly, get regular exercise and have specific regimes that they do. As Nick said, when you are playing a game, physical endurance plays a role—Because often times the game is decided in the fourth or fifth hour. It is critical that you do not have a drop in energy at that time.
AB: Before he became President, Donald Trump made some statements about how the US did not have any great chess players anymore. I think that was right after you guys had won the Olympiad, right?
JD: It was. It was about a month after.
AB: How did you feel when you saw that?
NF: Well, I remember back in Trump Tower about 20 years ago, they actually had the Candidates Tournament. I remember we only had one American in the quarter finals. He was actually thinking 20 years ago. He was out of date.
JD: Things have changed. I already mentioned that we have three players in the top ten in the world. Not only that, we also have the highest rated player in the world under seventeen. Jeffery Xiong from Texas. So, there is a radical transformation in American chess. We have many more players ranked in the top 100. We also have a strong pipeline of strong junior players coming up.
AB: When I think back to being young (I’m 47), everything was about Fischer and Spassky. Chess was much more mainstream than the present. As strong as we are today, as great as we are doing today, the appreciation is not there the way it used to be. How is it that we seem to be technically better but not as known? Is that because we don’t have a world champion or is it something else?
JD:I think you partly answered your own question. Definitely, not having a world champion makes it hard. America likes winners. Being a World Champion is easy to understand, even if you are not an active chess player.
The other thing is if you go back to 1972 it was a special situation. It was the height of the Cold War. That tension is kind of hard to replicate. In ’72, chess sometimes led off the news report.
I think, also, there are so many more things competing for people attention. Cable TV, and cell phones have radically dispersed people’s attention. But I would say chess is doing very well.
One of the things I see today is that we have a lot more kids playing. We see that at Mechanics with the growth of our scholastics program. We see it at the SuparNationals. We see it in the number of kids we see at our programs on the weekends here. The last few years I think parents have come to understand that chess is kind of an unqualified good, if you will.
Adisa Banjoko is the author of Bobby, Bruce & the Bronx: The Secrets of Hip-Hop Chess and Head Instructor of the Chess & Jiu-Jitsu Program at Hip-Hop Chess Federation. Follow them on Instagram @realhiphopchess