Death On The Chess Board

It filled me with sadness when first reading the report of the death at the board of fellow Senior Kurt Meier during his last round game at the 2014 Olympiad. Reports have been slow in coming even in this age of instant access. I was mortified this morning to read about the death of another player after the conclusion of the tournament. Reports are that he was found dead in his hotel room.

I have spent the morning reading all the reports that could be found. I have a personal interest in this not only because I am a Senior, but because I collapsed at the board during a chess tournament, with paramedics having to be called. This was at the 32nd Continental Open in Sturbridge, Massachusetts in 2002. Upon regaining consciousness I saw FM Miles Ardaman hovering over me. Knowing Miles to be a psychiatrist, I feared the worst. I refused to be transported to a hospital, but did see a doctor a few days later. After checking me out and talking with me about what may have possibly caused the collapse, he surmised I had become dehydrated. I traveled to the Continental directly from the US Open in New Jersey where after playing in the normal schedule, with games each evening. The first two games at the C.O. were also at night, but the third, and my last, was a morning round. I had coffee, but hardly any water because I feared spending too much time going to the restroom. It was a mistake I have not repeated. For quite some time I had been sitting with a full bladder trying to make time control. When I stood up quickly and took a few steps, my heart could not make the adjustment, which happens as one ages. I also learned of a heart murmur. Often I wonder why I am still alive…

Most Seniors have some kind of health problem, and I am not an exception, as there is a problem with my heart. My father lived many years with a machine in his body, a pacemaker. I have chosen to not be a member of the Borg, part man and machine. During the two decade run of the Atlanta Chess and What Other Game Center more than one player had to be taken away in an ambulance, none of whom were young.

With this in mind I have written extensively on my blogs, the BaconLOG and now the Armchair Warrior, concerning the dangers faced by Senior chess players. I have also spoken out about the problems faced by Senior players. Unfortunately, my words have fallen on dear ears.

I have written about several measures that could be instituted in order to lessen the chances of a death at the board during a Senior tournament. One of the major problems has been that organizers schedule a Senior chess tournament as if it were a tournament for younger players. Most weekend tournaments have five rounds with the first beginning Friday night. Since the last round is over sometime Sunday evening, that means five games of chess are played in about forty eight hours. That is a lot of chess for even younger players. It is simply too much for a Senior. Even when I was in my twenties a five round tournament would leave me what the Legendary Georgia Ironman calls a, “wiped out Waldo.” I began taking a half-point bye in the third round Saturday night in order to continue playing. I will no longer play a serious, long game at night.

For a Senior tournament I have suggested having no more than four rounds, with two each day. I have also suggested a break of at least two hours between the games. Bob Mahan, the man behind the Chess For Seniors Association (http://www.chessforseniors.org/index.php) had the audacity to tell me that would mean a delay in the time the organizers and TD’s would get home from an event, which shows the thinking by even some Seniors when it comes to the safety of the players.

There are many stories in the press concerning the deaths at the Olympiad, including one on Chessbase, where one finds this:
“There was momentary chaos in the hall when Meier collapsed, which was explained by Morgan Lillegård, head of communication for the Chess Olympics, in The Local: “People in the hall thought the defibrillator was a weapon. Panic spread because the thought there was an armed person. I can definitely confirm there was no weapons. This is a misunderstanding. It is in itself dramatic enough that someone had a heart attack.”

The Guardian comments that Meier is not the first player to die in the middle of a match: in 2000 Vladimir Bagirov, a Latvian grandmaster, had a fatal heart attack during a tournament in Finland, while in the same year another Latvian, Aivars Gipslis, suffered a stroke while playing in Berlin, from which he later died. To this we add that Johann Zukertort died from a cerebral hemorrhage suffered during a game in Simpson’s Divan, in a tournament which he was leading at the time. José Raúl Capablanca died of a stroke in March 1942 while watching a skittles game at the Manhattan Chess Club.

Other players who died during a chess tournament or game: Gideon Stahlberg (1908-1967), Vladimir Simagin 1919-1968), Cecil Purdy (1906-1979), Ed Edmundson (1920-1982). The following players died very shortly after a game or event: Frank Marshall (1877-1944), Efim Bogoljubov (1889-1952), Herman Steiner (1905-1955), Paul Keres (1916-1975), Alexei Suetin (1926-2001).”
http://en.chessbase.com/post/deaths-at-the-chess-olympiad

The most interesting is, “Why chess is really an extreme sport,” by Stephen Moss, online at theguardian.com. The tag line reads, “The deaths of two players at the Chess Olympiad in Norway shows that it’s time tournaments came with a health warning.” In the article he writes, ” Chess, though the non-player might not believe this, is in many ways an extreme sport.”

“At the Olympiad, participants were playing a game a day over a fortnight – 11 rounds with just a couple of rest days on which to recuperate. For up to seven hours a day, they would be sitting at the board trying to kill – metaphorically speaking – their opponent, because this is the ultimate game of kill or be killed. In some positions, you can reach a point where both sides are simultaneously within a single move of checkmating the other. One false step and you will have lost. This imposes enormous pressure on players.”

Stephen is a player, as can be learned from this, ” I spend a day at work, rush home, bolt down a meal, then go to my chess club and play a three-hour game which often makes me feel ill, especially if I lose. After that, usually around 10.30pm, I go home, go to bed, and frequently fail to sleep as my moves and mistakes revolve around my head.”

The author concludes with this paragraph, “So next time someone suggests a nice, quiet game of chess, or paints it as an intellectual pursuit played by wimps, tell them they’ve got it all wrong: this is a fight to the finish played in the tensest of circumstances by two players who are physically and mentally living on the edge. We all need to get fitter to play this demanding game, and society should recognise it for what it is – a sport as challenging, dramatic and exciting as any other. Such recognition would be a tribute of sorts to the two players who sadly played their final games in Tromso.”
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/16/chess-extreme-sport

It is a shame this may be what it takes for those in power to take notice and institute changes, especially in the way Senior chess tournaments are implemented.

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