I have vague first memories of playing chess with my grandfather when my family visited my father’s parents in Moscow. I was five years old. As I look back, chess gently came in and out of my life in the years since. I played it often in my early teens. Throughout my twenties I played only a few games. Then I started playing again with my son Jonah when he was six. For a few years Jonah and I played chess every day after dinner. Jonah took chess lessons and played in tournaments but had no real passion for the game. Though I always admired chess players, I never took the game too seriously, never studied or took lessons.
Enter my daughter Hannah.
After she watched Queen’s Gambit in January 2021, she said “Dad, let’s play chess.” With these fateful words Hannah’s and my lives shifted. Unlike Jonah, Hannah is passionate about chess. She plays at least two or three dozen games a week and takes chess lessons twice a week. Just a bit more than a year later after Hannah started playing chess, I find that I can no longer beat my 16-year-old daughter. I am not her only Katsenelson victim, she beats her brother Jonah, too. My ego is less wounded than his. At least every loss is at least partially offset by parental pride. Jonah stands at 6’3 and is losing to his 5’2, five-year-younger sibling, a girl.
When Hannah started playing chess during the pandemic, she quickly got bored playing her father and started playing against other folks online. Once lockdowns were lifted, she wanted to play against live humans. I hadn’t thought about it, but there is a huge difference between playing against a person sitting across from you and a person on the other side of a chess board on your computer screen. When you play online you only focus on the game. When a living, breathing human is sitting across from you, their emotions start impacting your game.
To our surprise we discovered that there were chess meetups happening all over Denver every day. Hannah asked if we could go. I was delighted to oblige. These meetups take place at restaurants, bars, coffee shops, even at Whole Foods, all over Denver. Folks of different ages and walks of life, from electricians to software engineers and college students (mostly adults, very few kids Hannah’s age) show up with their boards looking for a game of chess.
In the beginning I looked forward to going to these chess meetups, because Hannah and I would drive 20 minutes each way, and we’d talk and listen to music. I’d look forward to the drive. I’d bring a laptop and sit in the corner and work while Hannah was playing. Then one day my laptop battery died and I had nothing to do, so I started playing, too. I discovered two things: first, that I still enjoyed the game and second that I was losing not only to Hannah.
This is how the new chess chapter in my life started.
After going to chess meetups all over town, Hannah and I settled on the Thursday night meetup at the Red Robin restaurant nearby my office. Hannah and I made new friends, folks I normally wouldn’t meet in the course of my daily routine. All of them share a passion for chess. Many of them are colorful characters that any novelist would die to write about.
There is a guy named Don, – a very quiet, mild-mannered aerospace software engineer in his mid-40s. Don is not married. I don’t know how, but women can sense that fact. On more than one occasion I have noticed that the single women who occasionally frequent the Red Robin meetup want to play with Don and no one else. Don is a very good player. He was one of the first people Hannah played, and she almost won. I started calling him Hannah’s nemesis. Don always corrects me: “Not nemesis – opponent.” I was not sure how Hannah would deal with losses. I didn’t want her to get discouraged. I brought out my weapon of choice: sugar. Hannah and I have a standing arrangement that for every game she wins against Don she gets a lemonade. As Hannah’s game has improved, she’s been drinking more lemonade lately.
Then there is Marven, an electrician of Mexican descent. Marven loves primary colors, which you can see displayed on his T-shirts and baseball hats. Marven has a passion for chess that I have yet to see exceeded by anyone else’s. He is the strongest player at these meetups. He estimates that he has played 217,000 games in his life (that was a month ago, he is probably already at 218,000).
Just as you won’t see a Hollywood actress wear the same dress twice, Marven never brings the same chess board to the meetup. I get the feeling he has more chess sets than actresses have shoes. Though it is not apparent right away, once you see past the primary colors, you can tell Marven has a big heart. At the meetups, he sometimes gives free chess lessons to anyone who’ll ask for them. We are about the same age and discovered that we spent our twenties in the same neighborhood where I lived when we moved to America. Hannah beat Marven once. She proclaimed, “Dad, this win is worth at least a milkshake!” Milkshake it is.
Marven comes to the Red Robin meetup a bit late, after a long day at work. He is often still eating while others are playing. But Marven is watching the games from the side. He’ll notice an interesting position on the board. You can see the sparkle in his eyes and his mind going a thousand miles an hour. He’ll take a picture of the board. After the game is over, he’ll show various ways to play the position. This highlights the ethos of the group, and probably of chess in general. After the game is over, all egos are put to rest. The game just played turns into a puzzle for everyone to solve. I remember when Jonah was 12 and played in a tournament. After the game I found him sitting on the floor with his ex-opponent, both of them smiling and studying the game they had just played. This comradery is very typical in chess. After the game is over it stops being you vs. me and turns into white vs. black.
Then there is Dan (his real name is Dannish), an organizer of the Red Robin meetup. Dan is a retired financial planner, a man of many stories. His mother is an American from Kentucky, and his father is Indian. Dan grew up in India. Dan is one of those rare people who with their natural smile broadcasts enormous warmth. Dan lived in India when it was aligned with the Soviet Bloc. Dan and I have this connection that is hard to explain.
Dan discovered chess only eight months ago. He is a person I play when I need to boost my chess ego, after I lose to others at the meetup. That being said, I have still managed to lose to Dan several times. I joked one day that if Hannah lost to Dan, she’d have to buy me a lemonade. Though we had a good laugh. I instantly felt bad and apologized to Dan for my joke.
Dan is the gadget man. I think Dan loves gadget discovery almost as much as he loves chess. One day he brought a contraption that records a video of your game and then transcribes each move into a text format so you can upload the game to chess analytics software. Another time he brought a chess board that wirelessly connects to a smartphone (we could not get it to work). I cannot wait to see what gadget Dan comes up with next.
And then there is Ian, an assistant to a real estate agent who is as American as apple pie. He’s the best-dressed man I’ve seen in… ever. Ian is in his mid-twenties but loves how people dressed a century ago, in the 1930s. Imagine that we are at the Red Robin, and everyone, including yours truly, is wearing T-shirts and jeans with holes. Then there is Ian in his perfectly pressed three-piece suit, elegantly tied tie, crisp pristine white shirt, polished dress shoes, and golden pocket watch on a golden chain comfortably residing in his waistcoat. Ian’s love for the thirties goes beyond his clothes. He sports the Al Capone perfectly combed and heavily gelled hair, and even glasses from that era. Sometimes I feel that he came to the Red Robin right from a Great Depression movie set.
Hannah is known as one of the most aggressive players, a force to reckon with. She goes right for the jugular. She’s been drinking so much lemonade lately that I feared getting in trouble with her mother and had to adjust the incentives a little – she now gets lemonade every fifth time she beats Don. To be honest, though, I don’t think she needs the incentives, and she handles her losses just fine.
Yes, on Thursday night the Red Robin turns into a place where you meet all sorts of fascinating people: a software engineer who’s being hit on by single women nonstop, a Mexican-American wearing bright colors over a big heart, an Indian-American with a hugely warm smile, a time traveler from the Great Depression, a Russian-American who inadvertently insults folks (and then apologizes), and his daughter, who watched Queen’s Gambit and now cannot get enough of chess.
I love and treasure these Thursday nights. I never would get the chance to meet these wonderful folks inside my little everyday bubble. And I get to play chess. But most importantly, I get to spend time with Hannah. These Thursday nights are something that Hannah and I will always remember and treasure.
When Mia Sarah, my eight-year-old daughter, gets a bit better I’ll start bringing her, too.
One day I’ll be losing in chess to Mia Sarah… or will I?
This losing to my 16-year-old daughter and then potentially losing to my 8-year-old business wasn’t sitting well with me. For the first time in my life, I started to take chess seriously. Marven has been enlisted to be my temporary chess teacher until I find someone permanent. I’ve been playing chess regularly online, a few games a day. Other than to assuage my wounded ego and spend time with my daughter, I have another reason to play. Naval Ravikant said, “You want to have three hobbies in life: one that makes you rich. One that makes you fit. And one that makes you smart.”
My professional life is one giant hobby. I invest and I write not out of financial necessity but out of love. I’d be doing what I am doing if I was not getting paid. I walk every day in the park for about an hour – it’s a light form of physical exercise but also a time for reflection, and it calms my mind. I ski in the winter – arguably not the most intense workout; it is what it is. I ride a road bike to work in the summer. I work out with a trainer – one of few things in my life that is “work.” I do it because I have to stay strong and healthy. I’ve been trying to change my attitude towards it and approach it as play – so far not so good. Finally, I look at chess as taking my brain to the gym every day. I’ve also noticed that when I play chess all I think about is my next move – the world shrinks to those 64 squares.