ELECTRONIC T-NOTES


CHESSBASE USA'S WEEKLY ON-LINE NEWSLETTER


FOR THE WEEK OF JULY 23, 2000


THE CROSSROAD

by Steve Lopez

"I'm standin' at the crossroads, tryin' to flag a ride..." -- Robert Johnson

OK, one more rant and then I'll shut up for a while. But I think this one's important, so please bear with me. And if you're going to kick the soapbox out from under me, I'd appreciate it if you'd kindly remove the rope from around my neck first, thanks ever so much. By the way, I'm writing this editorial as a chessplayer, not as a ChessBase employee. Nothing in this article should be construed as an "official" ChessBase position. This is just lil ol' me, addressing you, my fellow chess enthusiast. I'll put my work hat back on next week.

We've heard this old Chinese blessing/curse so often that's it's become something of a cliché: "May you live in interesting times". The chess world's current times certainly are interesting and they stand in stark contrast to a better period (one as recent as 1995). It's a long story and it sure isn't pretty, so we'll have a brief general review of the events and then move on to what I hope will be a happy ending.

The period from mid-1994 to late-1995 was one of extreme optimism for chessplayers. The PCA was in full swing, with lots of high-dollar, high-profile grandmaster events, many played in New York. Chess was being featured in the news media. Even ESPN was running chess programming covering the PCA events.

Meanwhile, the FIDE reign of Florencio Campomanes was falling apart fast. The FIDE title had lost a lot of prestige since Kasparov left to form the PCA in 1993, but there was talk of new blood in the leadership as well as new ideas, such as a unified chess championship title between FIDE and the PCA. That was a pretty exciting thought -- can you imagine the publicity that would have generated for the game of chess?

Several corporations were also sponsoring or becoming interested in sponsoring chess events. Some large-scale plans were drawn up by one of these companies for a nationwide "chess in the schools" program.

It was a pretty exciting time to be an American chessplayer, especially in comparison to now, a time in which chess seems to be dying a slow lingering painful death. So what happened between then and now, for crying out loud?

Man, what didn't happen? The new FIDE president provided the pot of gold, but it certainly wasn't located anywhere near the rainbow. As time wore on, the money for a standard series of candidates and championship matches dried up and was replaced by the widely-reviled knockout tournament system that's now in place. Since Kasparov remains excommunicated from FIDE (whether or not this is by his choice is a matter of some debate), that organization's title has been devalued and is not taken terribly seriously (if noticed at all) by the Western mainstream media.

The PCA, on the other hand, was unable to find major additional sponsorship beyond that provided by Intel. They were very close to getting it on a couple of occasions, but some unfortunate incidents best left undocumented scared off these potential sponsors. Intel was uncertain whether or not they were willing to carry on the sponsorship burden single-handedly; Kasparov's 1996 match against the brainchild of IBM (Intel's main competitor) helped them decide. Intel pulled out and the PCA died quickly. With it went the ESPN TV coverage and a lot of the growing media interest in chess, except for two bright spots later.

These came in 1996 and 1997, when Garry Kasparov played chess against Deep Blue, IBM's supercomputer. Chess was again in the media spotlight. There were big plans for a major Internet chess presence, headed cooperatively by IBM and Kasparov (described in a print article in the May 1997 issue of Yahoo! Internet Life). The matches, particularly the 1997 match, were covered by major print and electronic media. Chess was going to be big. And, of course, the rest you doubtless know. Kasparov lost the 1997 match and publicly accused IBM of cheating. IBM's response was to scrap plans for the joint Internet chess presence. The media reported that the greatest chess player in history had been beaten by a machine and then they promptly forgot about chess completely.

The upper echelons of chess have since been in a state of major turmoil. Kasparov is still considered world chess champion by the public at large, but the federation whose title he holds has long since vanished. The debacle over the "candidates match" between Shirov and Kramnik, which Shirov won but was subsequently denied his title match still hangs over Kasparov's head like a dark cloud (and, to add insult to Shirov's injury, it's Kramnik who is scheduled to play Kasparov for the championship later this year). FIDE has a champion, but he's one crowned by a process questioned by many within the chess community and somewhat lacking in lustre to those outside of it. And then there's the very vocal minority who insist that Fischer is still the champion because he was never defeated over the board for the title. It's utter howling confusion and the sad part is that chess' upper echelon is mostly responsible for it; they did it to themselves. They had a golden opportunity to take chess to the next level and they blew it, instead knocking chess backward a notch or thirty.

Just try explaining all of that mess to someone who's not a chess fanatic.

But, in spite of it all, a curious thing has happened: sites devoted to playing online chess have started springing up like mushrooms all over the Internet. Within months after the second Kasparov-IBM match, chess started to get very popular on the Net. I conservatively estimate that there are currently about 10,000 to 15,000 people playing chess online at any given moment, around the clock, seven days a week -- and that number is growing.

So this is where we stand today, friends. Thanks to the Internet, we now have a tremendous opportunity to try to turn chess into a "mainstream" pastime/game/sport/call it what you will. We're right smack dab in the middle of a crossroads and which way we go from here depends entirely on us.

First of all, we need to get something straight. I'm constantly seeing threads on Internet message boards to the tune of "How can chess be made popular in the United States?" All sorts of ideas get proposed: creating a competitive U.S. national chess league (perhaps even a team league) organized along the lines of the English Football Association, getting chess events broadcast on televised sports networks such as ESPN, devising an elaborate scholastic chess system with the goal of developing another World Chess Champion bred in the U.S. (to launch another "Fischer renaissance"), finding corporate sponsorship for chess events, and so on.

The list of proposed ideas for popularing chess in the U.S. is nearly endless, but here's a representative sample:

"ESPN needs to put chess back on television."

"Some corporation should give us a big ol' pile of money to put on a chess tournament the right way."

"The media need to portray chess as a 'cool' activity, not a 'geek' activity."

"The USCF has to do a better job of promoting chess -- maybe give money to chess clubs or something."

Go back and read those ideas again. Are you noticing a common theme? I sure am. "ESPN". "Some corporation". "The media". "The USCF". In a nutshell, what's being said is:

"Somebody else ought to do something!"

OK, keep that thought in mind. We'll come back to it. A minute ago, I said that we need to get something straight. Here it is:

Chess doesn't need to be popularized in America -- it's already popular.

Don't stare at the screen, thinking "Steve's lost it!". What I say is true. It's a bold statement, but true nonetheless.

I'm an avid public chessplayer. I'll play anybody, anytime, anywhere. I've played chess in city parks, in pubs, in libraries, on a bench at the shopping mall. I've played in medical waiting rooms, on the beach, in restaurants. I've played in comic shops, at auto dealerships, at bookstores. And do you know how often I've heard a disparaging remark about chess? Once, in a bar, said by a guy trying to pick a fight. (The myriad instances of someone saying "Who's winning?" as I sit alone analyzing a position don't count. That's not disparaging -- that's usually just somebody trying to be funny, start a conversation, or who honestly doesn't know any better). It's much more common for me to hear something like "Hey! Chess! Cool! I used to play that when I was a kid, but I quit when I couldn't find anyone to play with anymore. Say -- whatever happened to Bobby Fischer?" etc. I never have trouble finding people who want to talk about chess -- in fact, it's extremely difficult to get them to stop talking about it.

I left ChessBase USA's full-time employ in January 1996 (believe it or not, I really needed to get away from chess for awhile) and took a job as a computer analyst for a large credit card company. I worked there during the 1996 Kasparov-Deep Blue match. Somehow word got around that I was a "chess guy" (a rumor probably started by the guy who hired me, since he saw my resumé). Every day, fellow employees (most of whom I didn't even know) came from all over the building to the computer lab to ask me what I thought of the latest game -- and none of these people were what you'd call "serious" chessplayers. We discussed personalities, chess politics, variations, software, hardware -- man, I spent more time talking chess than I spent running processes and checking for problems on those infernal Wang "dumb terminals". I'd left ChessBase USA to take a break from chess; a month later there I was, still talking about chess over and over. But I was happy to do it. I thought it was really cool that so many "casual players" and even "non-players" had such a keen interest in the game.

A year later, I was assistant parts manager at an automotive dealership (a vocation I'd previously had back in my 20's and enjoy a great deal) during the second Kasparov-Deep Blue match. I kept a chess book and pocket set on my desk ready for those rare times when I wasn't busy. Guess what happened? The same thing as when I was a Wang computer geek: auto technicians, salespeople, customers, vendors, factory reps, even the dealership's owner were asking me myriad questions about chess: "Why do you think Kasparov lost to that computer? Who's this 'Tal' guy you're reading about? Whatever happened to Bobby Fischer? Hey, can you teach me to beat my uncle? Do you know Bruce Pandolfini?" and on and on. It continued for the next year and a half (we even had a small chess club that met occasionally at lunchtime, for which I kept several cheap chess sets on hand stashed under the parts counter) until I came back to ChessBase USA full time in 1998.

I've been an unabashed pub chessplayer for the last twenty years. Whenever I feel the need for a frosty one, I head down to the local watering hole with a set and chess book tucked under my arm. I grab a brew, set up the board, and start studying games. I'm almost guaranteed to get a game against someone within thirty to forty-five minutes. And I've played everywhere -- corner joints with dartboards and pool tables, "brass rail joints" (you know the ones -- tons of brass rails and potted plants everywhere), sports bars, biker bars. On one occasion a particularly dangerous-looking fellow walked over, took a long look at the board, then stuck out his hand and introduced himself as "Montana". He asked to play and I motioned toward the chair across from me. As we played, he related the story of how he'd learned to play while in prison (I didn't ask why he was there; I figured I was better off not knowing). Montana wasn't a bad player, either. We played several more times in the succeeding weeks and often had an audience for our games. I found out later that the joint's owner is a chess freak and keeps a set or two behind the bar. In fact, whenever I stop in these days, the first thing Ed the bartender asks me is "Been playing any lately?" Two years ago, in July, I had several patrons ask me (independently of each other) why I wasn't in Philly -- these folks were "casual" or non-players, yet they knew about the World Open!

I could go on at length with story after story about games I've played in public places: the little kid who timidly approached me in a restaurant and shyly asked me if I'd teach him to play, women who have flirted with me in bars by telling me that they're tired of the "idiots" they're involved with and are now looking for "a man with a mind" (stop laughing, please), elderly guys who challenge me to games in the park. Man, I've met little kids, old folks, and everyone in-between, male and female, from every corner of the globe: Iraq, Russia, Germany, Colombia, Denmark, England, India -- more countries than I can ever remember. Blue-collar folks, white-collar folks, unemployed people, millionaires, the homeless. It's been great. Chess really is a universal game that cuts across all of those artificial boundaries we set up to segregate ourselves from our fellow human beings.

The interest in chess exists already; I've seen it firsthand. We don't need to kill ourselves trying to "popularize" chess. If you consider chess to be a sport, it's probably the second most popular one in the world (right behind soccer). So what's keeping huge numbers of people from embracing the game wholeheartedly?

There are several factors to look at here. The first thing we need to examine is the definition of a "chessplayer". I know a few players rated over 2200 who think that a person's not a chessplayer until they reach a 2000 or 2200 rating. Other people believe that someone's not a chessplayer until he or she joins the USCF and plays in a tournament or two. Some poor misguided souls believe that women are disqualified from ever being considered chessplayers, just because of their gender (never mind that Anjelina Belakovskaia, Anna Khan, or Pia Cramling could kick their butts in a heartbeat). And some people just have this vague nebulous idea that anyone who doesn't spend hours poring intently over a battered copy of MCO, who doesn't know the names of at least thirty different openings on sight, who doesn't know how to mate with a Rook and King against a lone King, and doesn't truck on down to the chess club at least every other week isn't really a chessplayer.

Friends, we really need to cut out that "high horse" crap (or is that "high horsecrap"? Oh, whatever). It's exclusional as all get out. A chessplayer is anyone who knows how the pieces move. And anyone who doesn't is a potential chessplayer. If we keep up this elitist attitude about what constitutes a "real" chessplayer, we're never going to get anywhere. I've seen some folks spout this exclusional talk, then turn right around and complain that chess is "unpopular". We need to encourage people to play, not scare them off by seeming elitist or trying to make the game sound more complex than it really is by hitting a poor newbie with a ton of chess jargon that we subsequently refuse to explain when asked.

The fact is that a lot of people are interested in chess, but we're just not reaching them. And do you know why? Three reasons: 1) they can't find us; 2) because we're not really trying to reach them; 3) on the rare occasions when we do try, we scare them away much of the time. By "we", I'm not talking about the USCF as an organization here. I'm talking about us: you, me, the other folks down at the chess club -- you know, the "serious" (cough, cough) players.

I've been a member of a few chess clubs in my time. Let me describe a couple of them to you.

One club was a group of guys who met at a public library years ago. These were primarily elderly men, around 1500 rated. A couple of them had pretty bad hygiene -- when they stank up the joint, it wasn't just with their questionable moves on the board. Nobody was what anyone would call "friendly". If a stranger walked up to a table to watch a game, he or she would likely be snarled at (that is, if they weren't just completely ignored). God help the poor newbie who made the mistake of speaking: "SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" accompanied by an indignant/furious glare was the typical response. Occasionally a hardy soul would ask to play a game. If the new player would lose, the "old hand" would make some pretty condescending or belittling remarks: "Of course you know you misplayed that opening. The whole point of the Ruy Lopez is to put pressure on the e-pawn, but you're obviously unaware of the nuances, since you're such an abysmally weak player. You ignored the pawn and lost -- so, of course, you were punished and justice triumphs". Or else they'd just simply tell the new player that he or she sucks and leave it at that. If the new player won, the "old hand" would grumble and curse loudly while slamming pieces back into his chess bag, and then storm out of the place in a major huff, while the new player would sit there with a stunned look, as though saying "What did I do???"

Another club met in a restaurant. New players were greeted as they came by and asked if they'd like to play a game or if they'd be more comfortable watching for a while. If they chose to play, there would often be some light conversation during the game: "Where are you from? What do you do? Have any family?" If the new player lost, the "old hand" would take the time to gently and helpfully point out mistakes and ways to improve their play. If the new player won, they were heartily congratulated and invited to play another game.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of a casual chessplayer. You already realize that you don't know much about chess, but you're curious and you'd like to learn more. It would be helpful if someone would point the way and help you out. Which group would you rather play with? If you said "the first club", go to the back of the freaking class. Sheesh.

Both of those groups were/are real-life chess clubs. I was a member of both. I joined the first group and took a boatload of abuse from the members, even the ones who were no better at chess than myself. I also learned nothing about chess, but did learn plenty about human nature. The second group was a real pleasure. I might play an Expert in one game (and get a ton of useful advice afterwards) and then play a beginner in my next game (and try to pass on some advice of my own). My chess skills improved dramatically. We had all kinds of people there: businessmen, housewives, little kids. I ran USCF rated tournaments for this second club (with trophies and souvenir books) and had informal matches for the non-USCF members at the same time so nobody would feel left out. On the other hand, when I asked the first club if they wanted to have a rated tournament, they just sneered at me and said, "Why? You trying to get our money?"

There's a lesson here, but I won't beat you over the head with it. Let's just say this: you get what you give. The second club was in a town of about 20,000 people and we'd get 25 or 30 people showing up on chess night. The first club was in a town of 35,000 people and would typically get 4 or 5 players, maybe 8 on a "good" night. You do the math.

I said a short while ago that we're really not trying very hard to reach people. In the examples above, the second club made the extra effort (and their efforts paid off) while the first club didn't try -- in fact, they barely acknowledged people who weren't already part of the "clique". This kind of club is its own worst enemy. That sort of behavior actually reinforces the media's negative attitude about chess (you know -- all of those stereotypes of chessplayers as people with zero charisma who are borderline psychopaths, sociopaths, or simply just unpleasant geeks).

Blame the media for the stereotyping (and guys like the ones in the first club I mentioned for reinforcing it), don't blame the public. The average "person in the street" actually has a lot of respect for the game. Many baby-boomers played chess during the Fischer era. I hear a lot of the old chess grognards complaining about lousy things are now compared to the Fischer years, about how great things were back then, how popular chess became in such a short time, about how chess players used to get respect. OK, granted, the game was pretty popular then. "Popular" connotes the idea that a lot of people were playing and/or following chess. So where are all of these people now? Did they emigrate to Mars when nobody was looking?

Hey -- news flash -- they didn't go anywhere; they're still out there. And a lot of them are looking for a game.

I talk to a lot of people in the course of a typical day at ChessBase USA and most of them are not what you might consider "serious" players in the classic sense (i.e. people who've been playing for 30+ years, who eat, drink, and breathe chess); many of them are returning to chess for the first time since the 1970's and there are also a lot of younger people being introduced to the game for the first time. But I frequently (and depressingly) hear a lot of the same comments and questions over and over again:

"I was thinking of joining a chess club, but I can't find one."

"I was thinking of joining a chess club, but I'm nervous about it -- I hear stories about how a lot of the players at them are really rude and just plain weird." (I hear that one a lot -- entirely too frequently, in fact).

A variation on the first one: "I was thinking of joining a chess club, but I don't know how to look for one. Do you know how I should start? I checked the phone book..."

And on and on and on, depressingly, endlessly. The callers and questions themselves aren't depressing -- what's depressing is the fact that those comments and questions are even brought up in the first place. It shouldn't be so stinking hard to find a chess club. And there's no way that anyone should ever feel nervous about joining one. The fact that people do feel nervous about it is a pretty sad commentary on the reputation of chess clubs in this country. People shouldn't be afraid that they'll be laughed at, insulted, mocked, or ignored when they go to a chess club. They're already nervous enough, wondering whether or not they'll "measure up" and unsure of their own abilities. They shouldn't have to worry about the behavior of other players on top of it all.

All right. I hear you saying, "I understand, Steve. So get to the point already."

Chess is an infernal mess right now. Some people think this guy's the champion, some people think that guy's the champion. The world no longer truly has a really effective single governing body for chess. Even national federations are being torn apart by endless internal squabbling and are in danger of bankruptcy -- in fact, some countries have trouble scraping together the bucks to hold an annual championship.

Chessplayers who are waiting for some magic deus ex machina to swoop in to suddenly save chess and make it "popular" are doomed to be disappointed. ESPN's not going to help us, the USCF isn't going to help us, corporations aren't going to help us.

But, hey, guess what? We don't need them. The answer's right under our noses, literally.

Back in the early 1980's, soccer in the United States seemed to be dead. The NASL folded, TV networks stopped broadcasting soccer; for all intents and purposes, soccer was finished, at least as far as the media was concerned. But then something extraordinary happened. Regular people, just ordinary folks (particularly kids) started playing the game in droves. AYSO (American soccer's equivalent of Little League) flourished. Starting in 1990, the US Men's National team was regularly making it to the World Cup. In 1991, the US Women's National Team won the women's version of dang thing (repeating the accomplishment in 1999). The US hosted the Men's World Cup in 1994 and in 1996 we had a new national professional soccer league launched here, namely MLS. While it's true that soccer still has a long way to go in the US, it's in great shape right now. And it all started with a lot of people, just regular folks, kicking the ball around in yards and empty lots.

If you don't see the connection, I can't make it much plainer. Chess federations are falling apart, yet chess on the Internet is becoming more popular every day. Literally everywhere I go with a chess set, regular ordinary people are talking to me about the game -- about Kasparov-Deep Blue, about Internet chess, about Fischer's whereabouts, about the Polgar sisters -- and asking to play a game with me. You can't watch more than a hour of TV without seeing a chess set, either used in a program or in a commercial. So I'm convinced that the proverbial "grass roots" approach is what's going to get us out of this mess we're presently in.

Nobody's going to swoop in and save chess. We're going to do it ourselves. And it's easy to do. It doesn't have to be anything organized or elaborate. Just play the game where people can see you. Chess has spent way too much time being locked away behind closed doors, at clubs that meet in out of the way places. It's time to get this thing back out in front of people where it belongs. But ESPN's not going to do it -- you and I are going to do it.

Public parks are great places to play; you get fresh air, sunshine, the sound of kids laughing, and you're almost guaranteed to get a game. Trust me, I've done it a zillion times. Pubs and bars are good places to get a game. I'm not advocating alcoholism (you can drink sodas instead, you know); the point is that these are places where people commonly gather. Hey, they shoot pool and throw darts in bars -- why not play chess? And I think you'll be stunned to discover (as I was) that a lot of bars keep a chess set or two (as well as backgammon and other games) on the premises for the patrons' use. Public libraries are good places to stir up interest. Maybe there's a fountain on the square in your town where the downtown businesspeople take their lunch breaks, sitting on the edge of the fountain and reading the paper or eating a sandwich. Instead of sitting in your office on your lunch break with the door shut, hunched over a chessboard while you try valiantly to memorize a few dozen opening lines from ECO, head on down to the fountain with your set and your ECO. I'm willing to bet that you'll get a game so fast it'll make your head spin.

OK, now comes the part where I might seem to get a little ugly. I apologize in advance for any offense delivered, none's intended. But there's some important stuff that needs to be said.

The vast majority of chessplayers are pretty well-adjusted socially. Not everyone can be a bon vivant but most of us are at least adequate, if not necessarily proficient, at the social graces. I'm not talking about knowing which fork to use -- I'm talking about the really basic stuff like "Pleased to meet you" and "You play a good game". Most of the people reading this column won't need the following advice; please don't be offended if you're one of the folks that doesn't need it. But a few others could benefit from some tips (remember that first chess club we were talking about a while ago?).

The main rule of thumb all of us need to remember is to be nice to people. If you're sitting on a park bench, reading a chess book and studying a position, don't act annoyed when someone interrupts you to ask for a game or to talk with you about chess. Smile. Talk to them (and don't talk down, for crying out loud, no matter how stupid you think their questions or comments may be). Say "Hello" (and, by the way, "What's your rating?" is NOT now and has NEVER been an acceptable substitute for "Nice to meet you").

Don't refuse to play someone just because you think you're a better player. Back when I first got serious about chess, I was desperate for a game against a human being after months of playing solely against computers. The only time I ever got to see a human face across the board was when I played in rated tournaments. To my delight, I discovered a Chess Life tournament announcement for an event to be held just six blocks down the street from my house. I called the number given in the ad. The first thing the guy on the other end asked was "What's your rating?" When I told him, he discouraged me from coming to the tournament, saying that the half-dozen or so regular players each month were all too strong for me and that I'd only get creamed (and I'll bet he still wonders why he only got six players at his tournaments). I noticed from the address in the announcement that the guy lived just three blocks from my home. I asked him if we could get together for a few games sometime. He replied somewhat haughtily, "I'm rated much more highly than you -- playing you would only hurt my game and wouldn't do either of us any good". And that was that.

Wrong approach, pal. People like the poor 1100-rated schmuck who called you all those many years ago need to be encouraged, not discouraged. This is exactly the attitude that prevents some chess clubs from attracting new members. People want to play chess -- they really do! But they don't want to play if it means that their ability (or lack thereof) is going to be the object of someone's derision. Encourage people. Play with them -- even if it's a little kid who learned the moves just last week. Say encouraging things about their game -- tell them the things they did right in the post mortem instead of just hammering them with their mistakes. By all means, tell them what they did wrong (this is how people improve), but be gracious about it. Be helpful. Prod them to read some chess books -- and please don't start them off with a recommendation to read a Dvoretsky book that's light years over their head! That's a bit heavy for a beginner, you know? A person has to learn to crawl, etc. etc. and all that clichéd stuff. Chess for Dummies, a Pandolfini book, or one of Seirawan's Winning Chess books will do nicely as a start. And on the subject of being nice to folks, you don't have to be patronizing while being helpful (people can recognize that when you're doing it and they hate it), just be pleasant.

Don't refuse to play someone because of your personal prejudices. I'll be blunt -- I don't give a damn what color someone's skin is, what religion they are, what country they're from, what gender they are, what their sexual preferences are. I'll play anybody. We're talking about a short game of chess here, not some sort of lifelong commitment. If you have personal prejudices, I'm sorry. Please put them aside for a half-hour, OK? Play the game. Don't be insulting. Don't be condescending. Just be civil. Nobody's asking you to marry your daughter off to a purple bug-eyed Satan-worshipping heathen pod alien from the planet Pervo (or whatever other specific ethnic, racial, or religious group hacks you off) -- just play a little chess.

If you lose, don't get angry. Congratulate your opponent. He or she could be the next Fischer. And even if they're not, you'll have the chance to make a huge impression, particularly with young people. I once taught a one-day chess class at a local junior high school. I had around two dozen kids in the class; six or so had never played chess before. So I reviewed the moves (on a computer screen using Fritz -- I'm no fool, I know what kids like: computers, baby!) and taught them some elementary tactics and simple mates. I then split the kids up into pairs and let them play. One shy little 13 or 14-year-old girl was "odd man out", so I asked her if she'd like to play a game with me. She was one of the kids who'd never played before and was afraid of losing. I gave her Queen odds and the White pieces and we started a game. It took forever to play, as she was still a bit unfamiliar with the rules. So I patiently helped her out with the moves and allowed her a generous number of takebacks. After a couple of hours, I realized that I was completely busted. I tipped my King, held out my hand to her, smiled, and said, "Congratulations! You've just won your first game of chess!" The startled look on her face was absolutely priceless. Her friends were awestruck: "You beat the chess guy!" Sure, I gave her generous odds and a ton of takebacks, but that didn't matter a bit to me. It didn't wound my pride at all -- I was pleased that these kids saw her victory as a major accomplishment. I was really proud of the kid.

Evidently, she was too. Several months later, as I was walking out of a local department store, I passed this same girl and her family as they were on the way in. The girl spotted me and didn't say a word, but her face instantly lit up with a beaming million-dollar smile. She remembered, you see. And she was still proud of herself. Does she still play chess? I don't know. I don't remember her name and I doubt that I would recognize her today. It doesn't matter. A young girl thought she was a champion and the only cost to me was an afternoon spent at the local junior high. The smile I got outside of K-Mart was the best repayment in the world.

Friends, we're the best publicity chess has. Kasparov can play all the exhibition simuls we wants to against sports figures and musicians, and that's great. But Garry (unlike Santa Claus) can't be everywhere at once. We can. We're the ambassadors for chess. Get out there and spread the word, especially in areas that don't have a chess club. Do you know how chess clubs get started? Two guys meet at each other's homes to play chess once a week or so. One guy mentions it in passing at his job and a fellow employee says, "Hey, can I come over and play sometime?" After a while, these three guys decide that they're sick of playing each other exclusively, so they "go public" with it. They take the games down to the local library, city park, or the corner pub. Soon other people are playing and, the next thing you know, they have a chess club. It's that simple. If you don't have a second player, just go out by yourself with a chess set to a public place. Get a bench or table at the park, a spot at the library, a corner table at the pub, and study your copy of Lasker's Manual, Chess Life, or MCO there. You may not get a game the very first time out, but you will get one soon -- trust me. And who knows where it can lead? The small chess club at the car dealership I mentioned got started when other employees saw me and a technician named Butch playing speed games at lunchtime.

Be friendly when you get a game. At least be polite. It comes naturally for some folks; for others of us it takes a little work (especially for me; I'm actually a bit shy around strangers, believe it or not). But don't undermine your own goals. It makes no sense to go out and try to get a game with a stranger if you're going to be rude. Nobody wants to play a butthead, and acting like one just reinforces that media stereotype we've come to know and loathe.

This grass roots thing can work. We don't need to finds ways to get people interested in chess -- they're already interested. What they need is a chance to actually play. Not everyone knows about the local chess club, about the USCF, about Internet chess sites. We need to tell them, to show them. And a simple way to do it is by starting small: one on one, mano à mano. Give them a chance to play and you give them an incentive to continue playing. And when they get more comfortable with their game, take them down to the local chess club. Steer them away from the buttheads there (every chess club, even the ones with a great atmosphere, has at least one) and point them toward the friendly, helpful players. Give them advice. Tell them where to buy chess books and equipment. Talk about the game, tell them stories about the current top players and great players of the past, hit 'em with some funny anectdotes from club and tournament experiences you've had. Eventually they'll ask about rated chess and the USCF. And that's when you've hooked 'em.

As I said last week and earlier in this rant -- err, editorial -- we're now standing at a major crossroad. The explosion in the number of Internet chessplayers shows that there is a renewed interest in chess, despite the fact that organized chess seems to be falling apart at the seams. We're in the best possible position to be "chess ambassadors" now that there seems to be a void at the top. Just like soccer in the U.S. in the early 1980's, it's time for a grass roots movement to take up the torch and move chess into the next century. I'm not looking to overthrow the USCF -- I want to help it grow. They're not in a position to spend big bucks right now to promote chess. Promoting chess is our job and it won't cost a penny. It just takes a little time and individual effort from as many of us as possible

The more cynical reader will no doubt think that my not-so-ulterior motive for promoting chess is to eventually make more money for myself by selling chess software. Hey, that'd be nice, I won't deny it. But I don't plan on being in this business forever. I'm only 40 and I have a lot of other stuff I'd like to do before I keel over. Chances are pretty good that when a grass-roots chess movement takes root and grows into something big, I'll be busily occupied by writing historical articles or be back pushing spark plugs and distributor modules. Chess itself, though, is a permanent part of my life. I've been playing since I was 4. My interest in chess wanes at times, but I always come back. I'm just trying to make sure that I'll have something really good to come back to after the next time my interest flags a bit.

We have it in our power to get this game noticed. Forget the media, forget corporate America, forget the big plans. It won't happen, so it's time to quit anticipating that "someone else" will do the work, the way we anticipated it back in the early-70's and the mid-90's. Congress isn't going to pass a law making [insert the date of your choice] "National Chess Day" and thus send people flocking to sign up for USCF memberships. The US Postal Service isn't going to release a stamp with Paul Morphy's picture on it (besides, to most people he'd be just another proverbial "dead guy on a stamp" anyway). Forget the newspapers -- they'll just stick your chess story back on page 87 right below the lost dog announcements (if they bother to print it at all). We (the average Joes and Janes with our 1100 to 1900 ratings) are absolutely the best hope for getting this game noticed and attracting new players to it. We'll do it by getting out there where people can see us, talk to us, and play with us, by bringing chess to them instead of waiting for them to come to us.

It's not hard. We just have to start doing it. So now, as your mom used to say when you were a kid, "Go play outside".

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes. If you love gambits and sacrificial play, stop by my Chess Kamikaze Home Page and the Yahoo Chess Kamikazes Club.