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Rossolimo glanced in my direction as the door to the street closed behind me. Whatever small sign of recognition he may have shown was blurred by the twisting of his body as he scooted his custom-made, wheeled chair from one side of his chess studio to the other.

Two men sat at nearly opposite ends of the roughly square-shaped arrangement of tables in the room, concentrating intently on the chess positions on the boards in front of them. If one didn't know better, one could erroneously conclude that the dark-suited figure in the chair shuttling back and forth between the two men was a messenger of some kind.

I sat down at a chess board a couple of seats down from the man on my left, whereupon the cadence set by the wheels on Rossolimo's chair changed to accommodate a stop at my board to make a move before pushing off to play moves against his other two customers.

Nikolay Rossolimo had been a chess grandmaster for almost as long as I had been alive, and was known as a player of the old school. Here and there, the walls of his studio were decorated with oversize diagrams showing critical positions from games of his that had won prizes for what chess players call "brilliancy."

He embraced an ethic of beauty in chess play, and elegance, which made him somewhat of an anachronism among the leading lights of the game, who even then harvested wins with all of the soul of a combine moving through a wheat field, and it was that ethic of beauty that drew me to him and his studio during the time that I knew him.

Rossolimo was born in Ukraine in 1910. In 1929, he emigrated to France, where he lived until 1952, when he pulled up stakes again and came to the United States. Given the overall appreciation for chess and the prospects for a grandmaster to make a living at the game in the US, Rossolimo made ends meet by waiting on tables, driving a hack, and playing the accordion. Meanwhile, on the side, he ran a chess studio on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village.

There, he'd play you for a couple of bucks an hour, along with others who wanted to whet their chess skill on the unyielding stone provided by Rossolimo's game, and it always seemed to me he raised no more of a sweat playing against ten people than he did against one. I had been coming to the studio, on and off, for almost three years, whenever I had enough gas money to drive into Manhattan.

That day turned out to be fairly slow. After some time, only Rossolimo and I were left in his studio, reviewing the game I had just lost to him. It seemed the right time to ask a question I had wanted to ask for some time.

"Nikolay Spiridonovich," I began, using Rossolimo's patronymic, "I have given some serious thought to becoming a master. What do you think, do I have what it takes?"

The figure in the chair opposite me arched his eyebrows and smiled easily as he leaned back in his chair and raised his eyes from the board to look at me. "Tell me more," he said. I did, and for a few sentences, I had stars in my eyes, just as I had since becoming obsessed with the idea. But as I spoke, I began to feel tendrils of doubt probing the chinks in the armor of my belief.

"I know I'm not any kind of prodigy," I said, finally running out of steam. "But I love chess, and I do pretty well in my games," I said, quickly adding, "though not against players of your caliber, of course. Not now, not yet." That last sentence came out by itself, and it sounded presumptuous as I said it; I felt like a schoolboy.

Rossolimo's eyes looked steadily into mine, as if my soul was a chessboard and he was calculating variations and evaluating the overall position of the pieces on it. Then he spoke.

"I think a man can have whatever he wants," he said, "if he is willing to pay the price."

"I am," I said, believing it to be so.

"Ah, but do you know what that price is?" he said. Whereupon, he rattled off a number of factors, some of which I had considered, most of which I had not. Was I willing to drop out of school, if that's what it took? Was I willing to abandon my friends, if that's what it took? Was I willing to play tens of thousands of games – in tournaments and in offhand play - and study shelves of books on theory, and do so in my spare time because I'd need a full-time job to put bread and butter on the table? And finally, was I willing to risk never being rewarded in any substantial way for my devotion to the game?

"In the end, if you are willing to pay the price," said Rossolimo, "then what you suggest is almost certainly attainable. But let me add this. It is a happy thing that you love chess. And so, if somewhere along the road you take, you find that your love for chess is dying, and that playing the game involves more toil than satisfaction, more duty than enjoyment, then turn back!" He leaned forward in his chair and grasped my forearm. "The price will have become too high, and is not worth paying."

As things eventually turned out, I was not willing to pay the price. And realizing that somehow made my status as a non-master, and my disappointment, easier to bear.

* * *

I was interviewing for my job in the Soviet Union at about the time Rossolimo began play in the 1975 World Open, which had become (and still is) one of the premier tournaments in the country. Over 800 players entered, and when the dust cleared, 65-year-old Rossolimo walked away with 3rd prize and $1000. Commentators approvingly noted that his play during that tournament displayed the romantic verve and eloquent, clean combinational play that had characterized the games of his early career. Very soon after, Rossolimo was dead, of head injuries suffered after a fall down a flight of stairs in his apartment building on West 10th Street. The news came as a profound shock to me.

It has been nearly 35 years since Rossolimo died, and from time to time, I fondly recall that afternoon in his studio, and how - over a chessboard - I was taught a most valuable lesson in life.

P.S. I still love the game.


Date: 2010-06-06 11:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theafaye.livejournal.com
This reminds me a little about that legend of the best pool player (or whatever game is used in the tale) where the price for being the best is to be the best and play whoever wanted to challenge, even if your delight in the game has long since passed. It's a valuable lesson that not everyone realises and I'm glad that you've retained your love of the game because for me, if it's not fun, then it's not worth it.

Date: 2010-06-06 11:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Amen to your last!

Cheers...

Date: 2010-06-06 02:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] furzicle.livejournal.com
I have something to admit: I'm not terribly fond of chess. I certainly admire someone who is, however. I think for me it has to do with lack of a commitment to giving my all to solving a problem. I'm rather the same way with difficult puzzles. I just become too impatient and want the dang thing solved right now.

Now if I were to put a little time into learning how to play, that is, learning a few strategies, etc, I suppose that I would be much more enthusiastic. After all, it is a lot of fun to win. And I always enjoy knowing the trick to something.

My son Eric is very fond of chess. When he went to Iraq it was one of the things he got into, along with stargazing, boxing, and sing-a-longs, all homespun entertainment that doesn't require any specialized equipment. But how did he first get turned on to chess? Because the local tournaments put on for kids always included pizza. And he loves pizza as much as anything else out there!

Date: 2010-06-06 04:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Well, you may recall that one of the formative influences on my chess "career" was how close my interest in the game put me to Good Humor ice cream!

Cheers...

Queen Pawn to Queen Four = QP4

Date: 2010-06-06 08:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] qp4.livejournal.com
I actually paid that price for a few years. About 60 hours a week at the board or books. I dreamt in notation.

Didn't make it to master though.

Re: Queen Pawn to Queen Four = QP4

Date: 2010-06-09 03:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Funny, I dreamt in notation as well, which was particularly awful because at the time, I was making the transition from descriptive to algebraic.

I lasted about 6 weeks.

Cheers...

Date: 2010-06-08 12:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alephz.livejournal.com
Really well-written and a lesson I daresay we could all use at some point in our life. Thumbs-up!

Date: 2010-06-09 03:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thank you, and thanks for the kind words!

Cheers...

Date: 2010-06-08 01:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] notbatman.livejournal.com
I've always wished I were better at chess. I'm good enough to get by, but not great by any measure. My father and I used to play, it was always so peaceful and thoughtful. This has the same sort of quiet peace to it that makes me want more.

Nowadays I still wish I could make the time to play (and find someone to play with) but I haven't put enough effort in.

Date: 2010-06-09 03:51 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Allocating time is, I think, a cross between art and science.

Cheers...

Date: 2010-06-09 02:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gratefuladdict.livejournal.com
I have always wondered at the commitment and determination it takes to be a master in any discipline. It's other-worldly. I'm glad you got to retain your love of the game instead.

Date: 2010-06-09 03:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
I think I got the better part of the deal. ;)

Cheers...

Date: 2010-06-09 02:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] beldar.livejournal.com
Wonderful advice he gave you. You write him as someone we'd all have been better off to meet.

I understand the challenge he laid before you. I started college as a music major, and realized that when I found myself avoiding the practice room, avoiding doing something I had previously loved to do, I had to change my course of study -- so I did, to journalism, and have loved the jobs I had through that. I don't regret the music studies, though, and I find myself itching to play again -- for fun, of course.

Date: 2010-06-09 04:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
He was a great guy. He and his wife Vera once invited me to break bread with them in their studio on Russian Orthodox Christmas.

Cheers...

Date: 2010-06-09 01:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rattsu.livejournal.com
I'm never sure whether to admire or pity those people who knows from an early age exactly what they want, and pays the price to get there. I always keep thinking of the things they had to give up along the way.

Date: 2010-06-09 06:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
It is well and truly a double-edged sword.

Cheers...

Date: 2010-06-09 04:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] beautyofgrey.livejournal.com
This is beautiful. Such sound advice, and this really stuck out to me: realizing that somehow made my status as a non-master, and my disappointment, easier to bear

That rings true for a lot of life, for me.

Date: 2010-06-09 06:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks for the kind words.

Cheers...

Date: 2010-06-09 08:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] teaberryblue.livejournal.com
What I loved about this piece is reflecting back on your earlier piece about your childhood days and why you learned to play in the first place. Seeing an older (yet still young) you at a different place in your chess journey was really awesome.

Date: 2010-06-10 05:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
I'm glad to see that the method in my madness is discernable!

Cheers...

Date: 2010-06-09 09:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lawchicky.livejournal.com
A great chess player and also a smart smart man! It's incredible the lessons we can learn even at such a young age from those much wiser than us.

Date: 2010-06-10 05:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
What's even incredible (to me) is that almost invariably, such lessons come from persons other than our parents!

Cheers...

Date: 2010-06-10 02:58 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fourzoas.livejournal.com
An excellent lesson from someone who really understands the game of life!

Date: 2010-06-10 05:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Absolutely!

Cheers...
(deleted comment)

Date: 2010-06-10 05:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
You touch upon a theme that several other comments noted as well. Thanks for the kind words.

Cheers...

Date: 2010-06-10 10:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] agirlnamedluna.livejournal.com
I think that's unfortunately the case with a lot of sports: when the spark is gone, is it really worth it to continue?

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