Friday, September 1, 2017

Remembrances of Ohio Chess Champions John Stopa and Jim Harkins

This Labor Day Weekend, I will play in the Ohio Chess Congress for the 24th time; I have only missed the event five times since first participating in 1989. I am proud to have competed that often in the State Championship but it is also poignant to ponder the passage of time--and the passing of individual chess players who I have encountered over the years. Two-time Ohio Chess Champion (1950, 1985) James Schroeder passed away on July 8, 2017 and it has since come to my attention that two other Ohio Chess Champions recently passed away as well: John Stopa (July 7, 2017) and James Harkins (July 27, 2017). Stopa shared the Ohio title with Greg Serper and Boris Men in 1996, while Harkins won the championship three times (1964, 1968, 1973). Harkins tied for first in 1954 but lost the title on tiebreak points.

I played five USCF rated tournament games against John Stopa and two USCF rated tournament games against James Harkins. Ever since 2014--when I became a father and entered Law School--I have not been as involved with chess as I had been for the previous three decades. I feel out of the loop at times and I was stunned to hear of Stopa's passing, considering that he was just 64 years old and had seemed to be in good health the last time that I had seen him just a few months earlier. I did not have an immediate opportunity to write a proper tribute to him but I did post these remarks at his online memorial page:

"I had the privilege of playing five USCF rated games versus John. He was a strong player and a gentleman who always took time to analyze with me after our games. I recall him walking around tournaments recording the opening moves on the top boards. I got the sense that he was booking up on the competition, which is very smart. Rest in peace and my condolences to his family."

I wonder what happened to that pen and paper "database" that Stopa assembled over the years about Ohio's top players. Stopa literally wrote the book about Ohio's chess elite--or, at least he had the notes to write such a book--and it sure would be interesting to see the data that he collected over several decades.

Here is a hard fought draw that I earned against John Stopa five years ago. He and I each finished the tournament with 3.5/4 and shared first place with Charles Diebert.

North Market Swiss (Columbus, Ohio) January 5, 2012 (Round Three)
White:David Friedman (2083)
Black: John Stopa (2200)

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. c3 Nf6 5. d3 a6 6. b4 Ba7 7. 0-0 d6 8. Bg5 h6 9. Be3 O-O 10. a4 Ne7 11. Nbd2 Ng6 12. Bxa7 Rxa7 13. d4 exd4 14. cxd4 d5 15. exd5 Nxd5 16. Qb3 Be6!? (...Nb6=)
17. Ne4 (White is slightly better) b6 18. Ne5 Nxe5 19. dxe5 Nf4 20. Bxe6 Nxe6 21. Rad1 Qh4 22. Qe3 Raa8 23. f4 Rfd8 24. f5 Ng5 25. Nxg5 Qxg5 26. Qe4 Rac8 27.e6 Rxd1 28. Rxd1 Rd8?? (...Re8 offers much more resistance than the text) 29. Re1? (Rxd8+ followed by e7 and Qe5 leads to a decisive advantage) 30. Qc4 g6 31. fxg6 fxg6 32. Qg4!? (Qe4 is much stronger) Kh7 33. Rf1 Rf8 34. Rxf8 Qxf8 35. Qd4 Kg8 36. Qc4 Qe7 37. Qe4 Kh7 38. h4 h5 39. b5 axb5 40. axb5 Kg7 41. g3 Kf6 42. Qf4+ Kxe6 43. Qe4+ Kf6 44. Qf4+ Kg7 45. Qd4+ Kh7 46. Qd3 Qc5+ 47. Kg2 Qf5 48. Qc4 Qd7 49. Qe2 I offered a draw here and John immediately accepted. He had four seconds left on his clock plus the five second delay, while I had about six minutes remaining.

Like John Stopa, James Harkins was an attorney by profession. Harkins was a fixture on the Cleveland chess scene since at least the 1950s. I used to travel to Cleveland fairly often to visit family members and play in chess tournaments, so I saw him at many events. It was clear that he was a highly respected person and competitor within the Cleveland chess community. I was fortunate enough to beat him the first time we played, when I was a class A player and he outrated me by more than 200 points, but I think that I benefited from premature resignation on his part; I remember looking at the game later and realizing that he still had play in the position, though perhaps he was frustrated and did not want to continue the struggle.

He obtained his chess revenge against me nearly 20 years later in our next--and, as it turns out, final--encounter:

Friday Action Classic (Cleveland Ohio) November 26, 2010 (Round Four)
White: David Friedman (2068)
Black: James Harkins (2039)

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e5 6. Ndb5 d6 7. Bg5 a6 8. Na3 b5 9. Nd5 Be7 10. Bxf6 Bxf6 11. c3 Bg5 12. Nc2 Rb8 13. Qf3 0-0 14. h4 Bh6 15. g4 Bf4 16.Nxf4 exf4 17. Qxf4 b4 18. Be2 bxc3 19. bxc3 Rb2 20.Qd2 Ne5 21. f3 Qf6 22. Rh3? (0-0-0) Bd7 23. Qc1 Rfb8 24. Nb4 This move wins an Exchange but subjects my K to a withering attack. Unfortunately, I did not have any better options, so I grabbed the material and hoped for the best. Rxe2+!? (...R8xb4 followed by Ng6 wins) 25. Kxe2 Bb5+? (...Nxf3) 26. Ke3? (Kf2) Bc4 27. g5?? (Rb1) Qe6-+ 28. Rg3 a5 29. Nc2 Nd3 30. Qg1 Qe5 31. Kd2 Qf4+ 32. Ne3?? (This loses quickly but Kd1 would only delay the inevitable after Rb2) Rb2+ 33. Kd1 Nf2+ 34. Kc1 Qxe3+ 35. Kxb2 Qd2+ 36. Ka3 Qxc3+

It will be great to reconnect with old friends--and perhaps make some new friends--at this year's Ohio Chess Congress but I will also feel some sadness and sense of loss because of the passing of several chess players who made rich contributions to Ohio's chess community.

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