CHESS LIFE (OCT 2014): LEARNING FROM A LOSS
Chuck Ventimiglia loves chess, but his greatest opponent wasn’t across the board.
By David Hopkins
My friend Chuck Ventimiglia started playing chess in the 1960s. He played at the Chess and Checker Club in New York City, which is now closed. Like many Americans, he closely followed the exploits of Bobby Fischer. Chuck’s interest went from casual play to correspondence. Then, a few years ago, he started playing in over-the-board tournaments more regularly. In 2012, Chuck won the U.S. Class Chess Championships for Class C (1400–1599) players. But something was wrong.
Chuck felt his playing was too erratic. Everything would be going well, and then one boneheaded move would throw everything out the window. Of course, doesn’t every amateur player feel this way? He tried to push past it with more study and practice.
Then Chuck started having balance problems. He complained to his family doctor. The family doctor sent him to the ear specialist. The ear specialist sent him to get an MRI.
“The tumor was four centimeters by seven centimeters,” Chuck told me over the phone. “That’s pretty large. I had a bump on my head, and I kept looking at that thing. I was in denial, you know. I said, ‘Is that bump growing or am I seeing things?’ It was growing, and my skull was being pushed up by the tumor.”
The tumor had been there, growing for about 10 years.
“I looked at the MRI, and I was horrified because I knew exactly what I was looking at.”
Chuck had meningioma, a tumor that arises from the membranes surrounding the brain. Chuck was fortunate to have one of the best surgeons in Texas. The surgeon completely removed the tumor, but there were some complications. His brain started swelling, which required the medical team to put a titanium top on his head. He couldn’t speak or move for 30 days. Even now, speech comes slowly, halting. He can’t always find the right word.
The surgery also took something else. A lifetime of chess knowledge, as if entangled in the webbed fingers of the brain tumor, was removed. He couldn’t make the connections necessary to play the game. Like a petulant player in a losing position, the surgery knocked the pieces off the board in a single sweeping motion.
Ifirst met Chuck in 2010, three years before the tumor would be discovered. We played against each other on Chess.com. I had taken a long hiatus from tournaments, and I was anxious to get back. My record against Chuck with slower turn-based games was a pathetic zero wins, nine losses, and two draws. Chuck had my number, and he was merciless. He could take the smallest advantage and convert it to an eventual win. After each game, he would help me analyze my moves and point out each missed opportunity. I would also post other games, which he would look at.
“I notice you did not develop any of your kingside pieces,” he once commented on Chess.com. “You are preparing to attack, but your kingside is badly in need of protection. You need to get your pieces out. You see that your opponent took the initiative and basically destroyed your kingside. The moral of this game is to develop your pieces and get your king to safety.”
He taught me to not fear losing. Instead, fear not learning. Every game had a lesson. While I never beat him, I felt more confident about my return to tournament play.
We would run into each other at tournaments. After a long day of chess, he would go to the hotel bar and order a bottle of shiraz. I remember joining him one evening to commiserate. After a few hours of talking about chess heroes, politics, sand bagging and cheats, I stumbled out of the bar. It was midnight. The chess store was still open as a late night round was wrapping up. The next morning, I rolled over in my hotel bed to see an eNotate device on my pillow. I barely remember purchasing it in my enfeebled condition. Chuck swore by his Monroi, so I partially blame his influence and the shiraz.
Chuck was always teaching, mentoring.
“Blitz is good for learning and recognizing patterns. If you play blitz long enough, you can train your mind to recognize the pattern before you and instinctively know that there is something there.”
“The real challenge is to discover the meaning behind the moves, i.e. what’s it accomplishing. I like correspondence chess as a way to learn.”
“I do not want to lose games but that is not my priority. My priority is just to compete and play a decent game. Like Rocky said ‘I just want to go the distance!’”
“Memorizing lines is not my style. It is best to learn a few opening moves and then improve your tactics.”
He swore by the London System, and encouraged me to find one that worked for me. I become a Colle devotee.
After an especially frustrating tournament, Chuck encouraged me with his no-nonsense logic. “You play for a while, then you stop for a while, but you always come back. You know you’re always going to return to chess. So, why not just stick with it? Don’t give up. Keep learning.”
We lost touch for a while, but reconnected when I found out about his brain tumor.
After the surgery, he was in rehabilitation for seven months.
“I had to learn everything all over again,” he said. “It took a long time to get my speech back, but I knew exactly what was going on around me.”
Chuck couldn’t walk for a long time. Now, he can walk unassisted, but he has to be careful. He’s fallen down three times since returning home. He also recovered from a bout of pneumonia, which concerned him. All of this medical handwringing has taken a toll. Chuck is an independent person, and he doesn’t like feeling helpless.
“My wife is going to drive me everywhere. It’s frustrating. I don’t know how else to put it.”
Chuck and his wife have been married for over 40 years. Her support during the recovery was invaluable. She stayed with him every step of the way. She slept in the hospital while he was there, right next to him in a blow‑up bed.
“I have to say I don’t think I could have got through without her. Was it hard on her? Yeah, it was hard on her. It was hard on both of us.”
I asked Chuck about chess.
“It’s been hard,” he confessed. “I have friends who play. I haven’t been down to the chess club since I’ve been back. I don’t like to make a fool out of myself.”
Instead, he plays chess on his iPad, but admits that he’s playing horribly. While I’m talking to him on the phone, I can hear the game in the background. He occasionally grumbles about the game in progress.
“The first thing that goes when you have a brain tumor is your impulse controls,” Chuck explains. “I move without thinking. That gets me in a lot of problems. That’s the difficult part about me playing chess. Chess is a thinking person’s game. I’m not playing with a full head.”
Out of curiosity, I looked at some of his finished games on Chess.com. He’s not the same player. I see loss after loss. In some situations, the time ran out. Maybe Chuck lost track or interest? Maybe he was frustrated with a losing position? But in other instances, he ran out of time while still in an even position. In one game, his comment about impulse control rings true. He went after a defended pawn with his bishop, losing his minor piece with no real compensation. Soon, both rooks were lost to a bishop fork on one side of the board, and then the same maneuver on the other side. Thirty-six moves later, his king stood alone in the middle of the board, surrounding by his opponent’s piece, checkmated.
It was the kind of game that makes you want to give up. But we never do. I’ve been there. What is it about chess players, that we are willing to endure such abuse? Hopefully, that tenacity may extend to Chuck’s recovery.
I’d like for this to be a redemption story where he builds himself up better than before through a series of training montages set to “Eye of the Tiger.” This isn’t that story. Chuck will probably never be the same player that repeatedly beat me a few years ago. And selfishly, I admit that it’s a shame, because that is the opponent I want to face.
We know our bodies deteriorate. Most young athletes cannot play the sport they love into their old age. Our bodies fail us. It’s a familiar narrative. However, as chess players, we assume that our minds can hold out a little longer. Even in my old age, I hope I can still play chess. The tumor and subsequent surgery deprived Chuck of chess at the level he once enjoyed. Yes, we learn in our losses. But for Chuck, this loss may be the cruelest. It’s hard to accept the position he’s been given.
“The only thing I can say is be happy for what you have every day,” Chuck said. “I don’t know what else to say.”
I ask him how he feels about his experience.
“It’s very — what the hell is the word I’m thinking about. I don’t know. It’s very…”
He pauses, frustrated, trying to find the right combination of words like searching for an impossible pawn move to break open the game.