In the Beginning
When I was six some would-be boyfriend of my sister Carolann taught my brother Brendan how to play chess. Brendan taught my sister Mary, who after constant pestering agreed to teach me. Of course we had no castling, no en passant rule and could only possess one queen at a time, however we got those things straightened out in the next couple of years. My principal opponents for the first six years of my chess career were Mary, Brendan, and a fellow named John Quirke who was dating Carolann. By the time I was twelve I was mainly playing my brother. He was still a little better than me but it was close. He had brought home a couple of chess books over the years, one by Golombek, and another by Keres and Kotov, and now the Fischer-Spassky games were appearing in the newspaper. Absorbing this stuff raised our game to a respectable level. It is hard to be precise about what strength we reached, but I think it was a decent club chess standard.
Early Competitive Days
In my last year in primary school (Willow Park) one of the teachers organized a chess tournament for us, which I won. Due to this victory I was invited to the chess club at Blackrock College, the associated secondary school. I played for their team in the Leinster under-15 league, and played in a couple of individual Leinster under-15 championships. The level of these schoolboy competitions was not so high, but I usually managed to work enough blunders into my games not to win the tournaments. My competitive career started in earnest when at 14 I began attending Dundrum Chess Club. The fellows there were very encouraging and patient. It was a big deal to me when I won the first club championship I played in. I played on their league teams during my school years. I studied chess quite a lot back then also. Their annual Dundrum Open was a tournament I always played reasonably well in but never won. One year I played Ludgate, Kernan, Littleton and Henry in successive rounds. Those seemed pretty tough pairings to me in those days.
There was a national competition in 1976 (maybe early 1977) which Bernard Kernan won, and in which I shared second. No, it was not chess! The Irish Independent and Mensa published ten brain-teasers for what they called the Irish Super-Mind competition, and solvers qualified for the IQ test "play-off".
In 1976 Tony Miles, the new World Junior Champion at the time, visited Ireland. He won the Dundrum Open and later gave a simul and lecture in Galway. During the lecture I gave him the score of a game I had just played with Colm Barry. At the time we were both about 2000 strength and of course he found many places to improve our play. When I explained what I was thinking he was able to say exactly what was wrong with the analysis that led to the inferior move. I realized what an enormous difference a good trainer could make to a youngster who was willing to learn. Of course in those days there was no such person. I saw recently that GM Baburin now has the job of national coach. I hope this includes working with the promising juniors and not just the national team. Working with the teenagers who have the time and energy to make great strides will pay big benefits.
Years at UCD
The summer before I entered University College Dublin was a good one for my chess. I played first board for the Irish under-19 team in the annual Glorney Cup and made a respectable score. Our team usually fared poorly overall, but that year we took some satisfaction from taking 2 points from England when I beat Julian Hodgson and Colm Barry beat William Watson. The 1978 Irish championship was held in Galway and was won by Alan Ludgate, but I came in second. This was a good result, but achieved in the absence of the strongest active players of the time (Bernard Kernan, Paul Delaney, Tony Doyle, David Dunne and Paul Henry).
Perhaps on the basis of this I made the national team for the first time, playing in the EEC team tournament in England. Holland, W. Germany and England (or was it Britain?) fielded strong "amateur" teams rather than their Olympiad GM squads, making the tournament more interesting. I played on bottom board, making 2.5/5, but what stands out about this tournament was the performance of Paul Henry, who had a terrific result on top board. Incidentally this may have been the most mathematical Irish team ever, as Henry and Ludgate already had doctorates in mathematics and I was later to get one.
I represented Ireland in some junior individual tournaments, one in Sweden, then the World Junior in Norway and the European Junior in Holland. In the World Junior I had a good result with 7½/13 sharing 11th place. My opponents included present day GMs Lau, Rogers, Groszpeter and Plaskett against whom I scored a win, two draws and a loss in that order. I always lost to Plaskett in these junior events.
I played in the Malta Olympiad in 1980. I was bottom board and scored well enough, but it was great to watch the likes of Tal, Karpov and Kasparov play in person. On the home front I played for UCD in the Armstrong and we won one year. We had a good team which included my friends Colm Barry and Paul Wallace. I recall we led Dublin CC by ½ point and had to play them in the last round. After the first session it was 2-2 with 4 adjournments, and if memory serves after the second session it was 3-3 with 2 adjournments, and finally we tied 4-4 and so won the Armstrong. In this period I was far more interested in mathematics than chess however, and my chess career was losing momentum. I played very little if any chess in 1981 and 1982.
Late in 1982 I went to Rhode Island to do a Ph.D. in mathematics at Brown University. For a while I played no chess there, but after about a year started to play some. There was an undergraduate student there by the name of David Greigo who was a little stronger than me in regular chess but enormously stronger than me in blitz. Sparring with David once every week or two helped revive my interest. He liked sharp theory, and after a beating I would look for some idea against his handling of the Botvinnik variation in the Anti-Meran. When I had some luck, the following week he would come back with new ideas. I never played this stuff in regular chess, but it took the GM games in Informant a few years to catch up with our blitz theory.
I played the occasional weekend tournament in Rhode Island or Massachusetts. At the time no GMs lived in the area but occasionally one would show up looking for Grand Prix points and some pocket change. In such tournaments I played GMs Quinteros, Dzindzichashvili and Bisguier, scoring a win and two draws. I never won the tournaments however, there were too many good players, titled or not. The young Patrick Wolff always beat me. In 1984 I won the Irish Championship while home on vacation. As I recall I led from the start and don't think I was in much trouble in any of my games. I think it was this year that my family could boast three Irish champions, my brother Brendan was decathlon champion and my father was the amateur over-65 golf champion.
I took 1985 off from my studies and returned home. That year I gave some effort to chess. I think I won most of the tournaments I played in Ireland, including sharing the 1985 championship with Mark Orr. I wasn't really having a great tournament and had to win my last two games to have a chance. In the eighth round against Dave Smith I ruined a great position before time control. The game dragged on in a major piece ending where I had the upper hand. Midnight arrived and there was no win in sight. I got a coffee and psyched myself up for a night of maneuvering, preparing to move a pawn once every fifty moves if needed. Right after I decided to play to the death, Dave's position collapsed. The next day I won a blunder filled game against Colm Barry to share first.
In tournaments outside of Ireland I did fine but had no outstanding success. I did score my best win ever with the black pieces when I beat Lev Gutman in the Lloyd's Bank Tournament. I believe his title was confirmed later that year, so morally it was a GM scalp, but perhaps not technically. A loss to a certain Vishy Anand a little later in the tournament put me out of contention for an IM norm. That year I also got the pleasure of having a two game match with Lajos Portisch. Due to the initiative of David Drakeford, Dundrum Chess Club got to represent Ireland in the European Club Team Championship and we got an away match against MTK Budapest, formidable opponents indeed! We had a great holiday visiting Hungary, Austria and Yugoslavia. Portisch offered me a draw after 20 or so moves in one of the games, which I took. No great achievement on my part, but he was ranked 6th in the world at the time so I didn't feel too bad about it.
In 1986 I returned to the US to resume work on my Ph.D. I played a little chess that year. One notable encounter was in a tournament in Philadelphia grandiosely named the World Open. Somewhere in the middle of the tournament I was paired with Walter Browne. Initially I felt a little nervous as obviously this game would be watched by many people and I did not want to be the victim of any brilliance. I opened 1.d4. My famous opponent clasped his head in his hands, and after a period of apparently intense concentration whipped out 1...Nf6 and slammed down the button on his clock. This struck me as so absurd that I relaxed greatly and played a solid game, drawing shortly after time-control. Walter explained that he did not wish to analyze after the game in any depth, as he really needed to conserve his energy!
I learned to play Go in 1986. It is a popular game with mathematics people and a number of the professors and graduate students at Brown played. I became pretty good but did not play any tournaments. An average game lasts over 100 moves for each side and it is more complicated than chess (it is played on a 19x19 board, I imagine 19x19 chess would be quite taxing also) so it takes a lot of energy. With the possible exception of one or two games in 1987, I did not play chess again until 1990.
I moved to Texas in 1988 to join the faculty at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, 30 miles south of Austin. I was fairly active in the years 1990-1991, played a little in 1992 and then practically no chess until 1996. I have not played in any big tournaments in this period, just a number of week-end tournaments in the state. In Texas there are three or four players who are clearly a little stronger than me, and a bunch more who I consider of comparable strength, so if a tournament here has a good turn-out I am not the favorite but always have some realistic hopes of winning. Sharing first place in the state championship in 1990 and in 1991 are my best accomplishments in this period. While my opposition may have been a little stronger than in the Irish championships I won, weekenders are not nearly as meaningful a test of strength as one round per day long tournaments.
I married Roxanne in 1991 and my daughter Alanna was born in 1992, so chess faded into the background for quite a while. I decided to make yet another come-back in 1996, but so far it has amounted to less than 20 rated games.
Internet Chess Club
In 1996 I joined the ICC, and I play there very often. Most of the people logged on to this chess server are in the US, but I have played people from all over the world. Last time I looked the ICC has over 8000 registered players with blitz ratings, and there are lots of IMs and GMs. Sometimes you chat with your opponent after a few games. I had a funny exchange with some GM. He knew who I was, but said we never met. "I have visited your country", was all I could get out of him and he would not reveal his own identity. I don't know yet if this activity does much for one's regular chess, but my blitz has improved from rather poor to reasonable. So far I have not played any Irish players on the ICC, but I would enjoy doing so. So come on, try the ICC (my handle is "Curtin") or let me know where you play on the net. Maybe we can arrange an Irish Internet Chess Championship.
I don't anticipate playing in any long tournaments in the near future, but I will try to play one or two weekenders a year. My next outing will probably be the Texas Championship in May (3 months from this writing). I will be on the ICC occasionally depending on how busy I am. It is hard to foresee having time to work on improving my game but I still get a kick out of playing and plan to have chess as some part of my life for a long time.