Saturday, July 22, 2017

Reflections About James Schroeder, Chess Master/Writer/Prison Chess Advocate

I was saddened to learn that James Schroeder--chess master, prolific writer and long-time advocate for prison chess programs--passed away on July 8 at the age of 89. IM John Donaldson wrote an obituary of Schroeder at Chess Life Online and, as one would expect from such a knowledgeable and proficient writer/historian, this account is thorough and in depth while also speaking from the heart. I only met Schroeder once but he had a strong impact on my chess career, so I would like to share some personal reflections both about that one meeting and also about what I learned about Schroeder over the years.

My first USCF rated chess tournament was the 1987 Gem City Open, held in Dayton, Ohio (I had scored 2/4 in a local high school tournament earlier in the year that was supposed to be rated but never was). Before the first round, I encountered an older gentleman (he was 60 at the time but to teenage eyes that is elderly) who was selling chess books. At that point, my personal chess library was very small (and the internet did not exist), so I was thirsty for any chess knowledge. The man introduced himself as James Schroeder. I had no idea at the time that he was a chess master and a well known figure on the Ohio chess scene.

I selected Modern Chess Openings, 12th Edition (MCO 12, the most recent volume at the time) and Basic Chess Endings by Reuben Fine. I figured that if I knew how to start a game and how to finish a game then I would be in good stead. The MCO 12 was in excellent shape but the Basic Chess Endings was a little beat up, so I asked Schroeder if he would cut me a deal since I was buying more than one book. He was aghast. He told me in no uncertain terms that this book was a classic, that it contained essential knowledge and that his price was reasonable considering the book's value. I was taken aback by his vehemence but I took his words to heart and bought both books. I went 0-5 in that tournament but I developed a habit of consulting MCO and Basic Chess Endings after every serious game that I played (unless the game did not reach an endgame, of course) and I believe that this practice played a major role in my later chess accomplishments--including my first "big" chess prize ($100 for best score among Class C players in the 1989 Gem City Open), a 5-0 score in the U2000 section of the 2004 Gem City Open and a record 10 Dayton Chess Club Championships.

On April 9, 2017, I sent a letter to Schroeder (he did not have an email address) in which I thanked him for his positive influence on my chess career:
Dear Mr. Schroeder,

You sold me my first copy of MCO (12th Edition) and my first copy of Reuben Fine’s Basic Chess Endings at the 1987 Gem City Open in Dayton, Ohio. That was my first rated tournament and I went 0-5 to post a provisional rating of 1186. You beat Sergey Berchenko in the last round with Black to win the tournament and you later analyzed the game for the Dayton Chess Club Review, declaring that anyone who complains about having Black is a “fool” because unless you are playing a super GM you will always have at least one chance.

Those books you sold me, the game that you won against Berchenko and your sharp annotations made a deep impression on me. I went on to break Richard Ling’s record by winning 10 Dayton Chess Club championships.

I remember trying to bargain with you about the price of Basic Chess Endings because the book was well worn and you indignantly replied that it was a classic. You were right and more than 30 years later I still have that copy!

Anyway, I never had the chance to thank you and when I recently found your website I decided to send you this letter.

If you are still sending out copies of your book Confidential Chess Lessons and a list of books that you are selling I would love to receive both. I will soon be teaching my young daughter to play chess and I am sure that she could benefit from your book and from any books that you may still have in stock.

Thank you again,

David Friedman 
He wrote his reply on April 14. Considering that he sold me my first copy of MCO, it is ironic that one piece of advice that he offered was, "Never read an opening book." He also wrote, "Winning the Dayton Chess Club Championship 10 (times) is a great accomplishment" and he put in bold letters "NEVER STOP STUDYING THE ENDGAME." He added that he no longer writes Confidential Chess Lessons but he sent me some photocopied pages from the book; one passage, from an article titled "The Genius," begins "The object of the game is to cross the center of the board with your pieces and attack the opponent's position. I want to play this game to the best of my ability within the amount of time available. I am playing Amateurs, not Grandmasters; do not be afraid of anything. I must be confident and expect to win every game."

Schroeder is perhaps best known for his writing, his teaching and his advocacy for prison chess programs but it should not be forgotten that he was a strong player as well. IM Donaldson's obituary provides details about Schroeder's playing career and cites some wonderful games--including a draw against GM Lubomir Ftacnik and a flashy win against NM Jim Harkins (a three-time Ohio Chess Champion).

Schroeder won the Ohio Chess Congress in 1950 (scoring 5.5/6) and 1985 (scoring 5/6 to tie with IM Calvin Blocker in the prime of Blocker's career; this was the fourth of Blocker's record 15 Ohio titles). That set a record for most years between a player's first and last OCC titles (35), since broken by Ross Sprague (who won the OCC title in 1958, 1975, 1976 and 2005, with an astonishing 47 year span between his first and last titles).

James Schroeder's career as a chess player/writer/teacher lasted more than 70 years and impacted countless lives, which is quite a legacy.

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