This weekend marks the 51th edition of the National High School Championship. This year’s tournament promises to be one of the largest in its history – indeed, as I write these words, registration has been closed as the playing field has swelled to a hard cap of 1700. CLO will cover the event over the weekend, and readers should also check US Chess social media accounts for on-site, up-to-the-minute reporting.
The first National High School Championship, held April 11-13 1969, was a more modest affair. Chess Life reported in June 1969 that 370 players from “21 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico” converged on the McAlpin Hotel in New York for eight rounds of action. The inaugural winner of the event was a “John Watson, a senior at Brownell-Talbot High School, Omaha, Nebraska” who finished with 7.5/8 points.
John Watson, Cover May 1969 Chess Life
Chess Life report on 1969 NHS (1)
Chess Life report on 1969 NHS (2)
Wonder what ever happened to that guy?
John Watson, 1967 NE Centennial. Courtesy “The Gambit,” photo Elly Didrichsons.
The bespectacled kid from Omaha went on to become International Master John Watson, author of over 30 books, including the critically acclaimed Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy and Chess Strategy in Action. Watson is best known for his work on the openings, with pioneering titles on the English and Chigorin to his credit, and his four editions of Play the French have taught at least two generations of players how to combat 1.e4.
Watson has had success as a teacher and trainer, helping GM Tal Shaked to the World Junior title and NM Abby Marshall to become the first girl to win the Denker Tournament of High School Champions. He has recorded hundreds of instructional videos for chessclub.com, and his “Chess Talk” interview series for ICC was an important precursor for today’s chess streamers and podcasters.
But people forget that Watson could actually play the game too. We only have one game from the 1969 National High School Championship, and while it’s far from perfect, it does show the early Watson’s tricky tactical style at work.
The 1969 US Open was held in Lincoln, Nebraksa, a short trip down Interstate 80 from Omaha. Watson was top Nebraska player, scoring a respectable 7/12. His game against P.Cook is a melee that works out in Black’s favor.
Before leaving professional chess for a ‘real job’ in engineering, Watson had no few successes in tournament play, earning his IM title in 1982. His win in the 1980 Bar Point International is perhaps his best result, along with a first place finish in the 1981 American Open. Watson never completely left the tournament arena, and despite some health challenges, he has in recent years returned to active play.
Perhaps his best win since his comeback was at GM Gawain Jones’ expense at the 2015 Gibraltar Open.
Watson has also been a regular at the U.S. Open, one of the only one round per day events in the States. His 2017 Norfolk victory over IM Rolando Nolte is a solid, workmanlike attack.
IM John Watson, author of the renowned books "Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy" (1999) and "Chess Strategy in Action" (2003), among other 30 titles.
Watson’s most recent major event was the 2019 Bay Area International. His final round win over Mike Arne, the last of his games currently available in MegaBase, shows his skill in playing IQP positions.