IM Stuart Rachels Was The Best Alabama Saw In Chess

From prodigy to champion, Stuart Rachels was the best Alabama saw in chess

A young Stuart Rachels looks at a chess board. (Courtesy of Stuart Rachels)

by: Tanner Brooks

Posted: Sep 17, 2021 / 10:56 AM CDT

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — There was a time when Stuart Rachels seemed to have a bright future in chess. Rachels, a philosophy professor at the University of Alabama, was a chess prodigy who had become the youngest U.S. chess master in history by the time he was 11-years-old. By 1990, he was co-champion of the U.S. Chess Championship and had already played some of the best players in the world. That all changed in 1993, when Rachels decided to walk away from chess.

‘Kids didn’t play chess’

Rachels recalled one of his earliest chess memories in 1977, when he was 7 years old. “I remember trying to capture the queen of one of my father’s graduate students — his name was Greg — by moving a pawn backwards,” Rachels said in an email correspondence with CBS 42. “I was pretty irritated when he made me give him his queen back.” By the time he was 9, Rachels was constantly playing at the Birmingham Chess Club and rapidly improving. “I never played kids when I was a kid, I only played adults,” Rachels said. “Kids didn’t play chess.”

Stuart Rachels engaged in a match against his father, James. (Courtesy of Stuart Rachels)

Rachels’ family did everything they could to support him. His father, UAB philosophy professor James Rachels, organized chess tournaments in Birmingham and gave him the means to improve his game, including books, magazines and, later, a trainer.However, Rachels said they never put any pressure on him to play. “A good player will put pressure on himself; extra pressure will only give him stomach aches,” he said. “A kid who isn’t self-motivated doesn’t have what it takes, and parents who try to provide motivation from the outside are only being bad parents.”

In 1981, Rachels became the youngest chess master in American history, beating the record previously held by chess icon Bobby Fischer. Rachels was 11 years and 10 months when he broke Fischer’s record. He remained the youngest U.S. chess master until 1994, when it was broken by Jordy Mont-Reynaud.

Rachels credits Kyle Therrell, a player from Fairfield, and trainer Boris Kogan with his early success. “Without them, forget it, I never would have become good,” Rachels said. “It’s not something you can do on your own, with just books and magazines.”

Early on, Rachels had the opportunity to play against both former and future world chess champions. He lost twice against Garry Kasparov, often referred to as the greatest chess player in history, and he lost to Boris Spassky, Fischer’s opponent in what is considered the “Match of the Century,” the 1972 World Chess Championship. Rachels also drew against future five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand. Rachels described each experience with one word. “Kasparov: Exciting. Spassky: Terrifying. Anand: Exhilarating,” he said.

Rachels faced Spassky in the 1985 U.S. Open in Hollywood, Florida. In his book, “The Best I Saw in Chess,” Rachels recalled Spassky walking over to Kogan to ask why he was so nervous. By the time Rachels collected himself, it was too late: Spassky had out-maneuvered him. When Rachels resigned, the spectators applauded. “I joined in, remembering Spassky’s sportsmanlike applause for Fischer when Fischer took the lead against him in Iceland,” Rachels wrote in his book.

Stuart Rachels facing off against former world champion Boris Spassky at the 1985 U.S. Open in Hollywood, Florida. (Courtesy of Stuart Rachels)

Rachels went on to become U.S. co-champion in the 1989 tournament, sharing the title with grandmasters Roman Dzindzichashvili and Yasser Seirawan.

In 1993, Rachels retired from competitive chess, calling it a “whole-life decision.”

“I wasn’t good enough to compete for the world championship,” he said. “In 1993, the life of your average chess professional in the United States was pretty depressing: very little money, a lot of traveling, an all-male culture, no health insurance, no respect from the general public, etc. A lot of professional players moved to Europe, which I didn’t want to do.”

Rachels said his life didn’t change that much after he retired, gradually weaning himself from the game to focus more on his graduate studies of philosophy. “The main change was not traveling to tournaments in the summer,” he said. “Also, I could stop worrying about how to fix problems in my opening repertoire.”

In his father’s footsteps

Even before stepping away from chess, Rachels took a keen interest in philosophy, something of a family business in the Rachels’ household. His father, James, was a moral philosopher and professor at UAB. His 1971 anthology, “Moral Problems,” shifted colleges from teaching meta-ethics to teaching concrete practical issues. “When people know my father as a philosopher, I say, ‘He was an even better father,’” Rachels said.

Stuart Rachels and James Rachels at Stuart’s high school graduation in 1987. (Courtesy of Stuart Rachels)

Rachels remembers spending a good chunk of his teenage years pestering his father with philosophical questions after he would come home from work. “He was my Boris Kogan in the realm of philosophy. I knew, even back then, how lucky I was, but I know this even better now,” said Rachels.

In addition to his father, Rachels credits people like Donald Rutherford and Robert McCauley from Emory University and Derek Parfit from Oxford University as some influences.

There was one year of graduate school that Rachels was so consumed by philosophy that he let his subscription to his favorite chess magazine lapse. But that was only for a year. Rachels said that he was consumed by chess and by philosophy, but was primarily a student first and a chess player in his spare time. “Even people who have always known me are surprised when I remind them that I never took any time off from school in order to play chess,” Rachels said.

Rachels now teaches philosophy at the University of Alabama as an associate professor specializing in ethical theory.

Returning to the game

Back in June, nearly 30 years after retiring from competitive chess, Rachels took part in the 2021 Alabama Blitz Championship and the 2021 Alabama Quick Championship in Montgomery. Rachels won all of his games to sweep the Alabama Blitz Championship. With all wins and a draw, he pulled out on top in the Alabama Quick Championship as well.

Scott Varagona,

https://www.thealabamian.com/um-professor-wins-state-chess-championship/

reigning Alabama State Chess Champion and editor for the Alabama Chess Antics magazine, said he always heard older players talk about Rachels with a sense of awe, but he had never had the chance to play him. With Rachels returning, Varagona was not going to miss the opportunity. “For him to resurface after all these years, and for me to finally get to face him in a serious tournament, was a big deal for me. After all, he was Alabama’s strongest player of the 20th century,” said Varagona. “Even though he hadn’t played competitive chess for over 25 years, whereas I was the reigning Alabama State Champion, he beat me very badly! I was impressed.” Varagona said he was too nervous and starstruck against Rachels to play at his best, but believes he would do better if he got another chance to play him.

Rachels said that going back to those tournaments after years away was like sticking his toes in the water. “For me, it was ‘sort of’ like playing in a real tournament. I didn’t consider it ‘fully real’ because the time control was accelerated, we weren’t keeping score, and it didn’t affect my classical rating,” he said. “But I enjoyed it, and I was relieved to discover that I can still push pawns okay.” When asked if he will pursue more competitions or potentially seek attaining the coveted Grandmaster title, Rachels said he will probably play more. “It’s a slow process,” he said. “I doubt I will play again seriously enough to pursue the GM title, but who knows.”

Stuart Rachels is a five-time Alabama State Champion, a U.S. Junior Champion, a U.S. Co-Champion and an International Master. He also teaches philosophy at the University of Alabama. (Courtesy of Stuart Rachels)

Larger than life

Rachels said that today, things are different for professional players in the United States. While he still believes it to be an odd life, players can make a living on social media platforms, like Twitch, where they can livestream games to subscribers. “The internet brings grandmasters into everyone’s living room,” Rachels said, “or, indeed, everyone’s pocket.” Over the last few years, there has been a boom in the game with more people learning chess for the first time, most notably following the popularity of the Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit.” According to The New York Times, sales of chess sets in the United States rose by around 125% since the show first premiered.

Rachels said he was thrilled to see how popular the game is continuing to be. “I wish people would power down their screens and get out and play more in-person, that would make me even happier. It’s better for the culture to be in-person,” Rachels said. “Interest in chess also surged in 1972 when Bobby Fischer became world champion. This surge feels more real to me, though, because in 1972, it was about Fischer himself, and so when Fischer quit, people lost interest in chess. Now, however, it’s about people actually playing.” Last week, Rachels was inducted into the first class of the Alabama Chess Hall of Fame.

A young Stuart Rachels (center) at a chess tournament. (Courtesy of Stuart Rachels)

Bill Melvin,

https://www.al.com/living/2016/09/post_312.html

a prominent player and figure in the Alabama chess community, played Rachels a handful of times over 30 years ago. While he wasn’t able to make Rachels’ comeback tournament, Melvin was surprised that he actually participated. “Stuart’s impact on chess is simply as the greatest talent to come out of Alabama,” Melvin said. “His star was bright, but he quit chess at such an early age. He has explained his reasoning with me many times, but I still don’t understand.”

Varagona echoed Melvin, saying that Rachels proved that an Alabama player could reach the pinnacle of chess in the nation, something no Alabama player has come close to achieving since. “There have been many great Alabama chess legends — but then there is Stuart Rachels. Stuart is larger than life.”

https://www.cbs42.com/news/local/from-prodigy-to-champion-stuart-rachels-was-the-best-alabama-saw-in-chess/

The Third Baseman’s Gambit

The Third Baseman’s Gambit

Manny Machado of the San Diego Padres is the hottest hitter in baseball, and he is coming for your Queen.

Manny Machado frequently takes on teammates and coaches on a pair of chess sets at Petco Park in San Diego.Credit…Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres

By Scott Miller
May 13, 2022

SAN DIEGO — The pawns are lined up and the gleaming white knight stands ready to attack. The game will resume, again, as soon as the hitters’ meeting is finished and sometime before the star third baseman lights up a box score.

Given Manny Machado’s torrid start for the San Diego Padres this season, it would be predictable to joke that the five-time All-Star is playing chess while his peers are playing checkers. But in Machado’s case, it is also true: When he’s not battering opposing pitchers and stealing hits with acrobatic defensive plays, Machado can be found keeping his mind sharp with quiet contemplation at a chess board.

“Chess is interesting,” said Machado, who learned the game from Brady Anderson, the former player and Orioles executive, in Baltimore in 2017. “It’s something you can’t just go play. You’ve got to think ahead to what your opponent is thinking, what he’s trying to do to you, how he’s trying to attack you.”

The game intrigued Machado from the beginning. He keeps a board on a small table between his locker and his clubhouse neighbor, Fernando Tatis Jr., has another board in the nearby players’ lounge; and plays at home during the winter with his father-in-law, Luis Alonso, who is the father of the former major leaguer Yonder Alonso.

When Tatis Jr. revealed last season that he occasionally plays chess, Machado began bringing a board to the park for matches in his downtime, just like the ones he had played in Baltimore.

“If you play every day, you’re in a battle with him,” said Wayne Kirby, the Mets’ first-base coach and a regular opponent of Machado’s, both in Baltimore and again last summer in San Diego.

So many Orioles would play chess in Machado’s time there that players would wait in line and call “I got next” as if at a court for a pickup basketball game, Kirby said, and eventually the team kept three chess boards in the clubhouse and a traveling board for road trips. Machado said he is still recruiting new opponents in San Diego, having thus far matched wits with outfielders Wil Myers and Trayce Thompson, who this week was designated for assignment (in baseball, not in chess). Machado has also played a little with Tatis Jr.

His regular opponent, though, is Michael Brdar, San Diego’s first-year hitting coach.

“It’s been fun,” Brdar said. “He’s good. He’s very good.”

Machado vividly remembers the first time he and his main Orioles nemesis, Jonathan Schoop, played a game. It was in Seattle in 2017, Machado said. Both were beginners then, so raw that Machado said their first game lasted only about three minutes.

“We both sucked,” Machado said. “It was interesting to pick up and learn from it.”

Machado and Schoop had ascended together through Baltimore’s farm system and were competitive in everything, including who had the strongest throwing arm. They continued improving as chess players until their matches became something close to an addiction, complete with trash talking that still echoes today.

Who won more?

“Come on, that’s not even a question,” said Schoop, who now plays second base (and plenty of chess) for the Detroit Tigers. “I let him beat me a couple of times just to make him feel good. If we played 100 times, he’d beat me maybe 10 times.”

Machado laughs when this is relayed to him — and corrects Schoop’s math.

“Honestly, in the beginning it was a little rough because he knew a little more than I did when I started,” Machado said. “But once I learned how to do a couple of moves, he had no chance against me. Now, it’s probably 70/30 — I’m 70, he’s 30.”

Machado then upped the ante: “I don’t think he could win a game against me now. He won’t even get his Queen out of the way. He’d be done.”

Schoop, though, claims to know “all of Manny’s moves,” especially one tendency in particular. “If you take the horse away from him,” he said, referring to the knight, “he’s done.”

Kirby concurred. “The horse is huge for Manny,” he said. “He likes that horsey.”

Kirby and Schoop said games between the players would sometimes devolve into arguments because both were so competitive. Sometimes, Schoop said, Machado would accuse him of cheating.

“They wouldn’t get to 100 games, they’d be arguing too much,” Kirby said. “They’d get into it because once you touch your queen or something, and then take your hand off of it, you’re done. Both of them would be claiming they didn’t take their hand off a piece.”

Brdar, who started playing chess after watching “The Queen’s Gambit” two winters ago, suggested there can be a link between chess and hitting.

“You’re going to make a bad move in chess, and a lot of times it’s how you recover from that instead of letting it leak into two, three, four bad moves in a row,” Brdar said. “That’s similar to hitting.

“You’re going to chase a pitch here and there, you’re going to miss a mistake here and there. But more often than not it’s about what you do the next two, three, four pitches after that, or the next two, three, four at-bats after that. I think there are definite parallels.”

Machado agreed, noting that “you’re training your brain to do something right. People read, people do little puzzles to activate their mind.”

For Machado, chess fills that role.

He and Brdar play “slow” games on the board in front of Machado’s locker — if the hitting coach walks through the clubhouse and sees Manny has made a move, for example, Brdar will stop and make his own, and vice versa. Then, after the hitters’ meeting or batting practice, they’ll play longer games on the board in the players’ lounge.

“Right now he plays a fianchetto with his bishop,” Brdar said of Machado’s opening strategy in many games. “So he likes to have his bishop have the whole visual diagonally of the whole board.”

“That’s my move,” Machado said. “When I saw ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ I didn’t really know the names at the time. I still don’t that much. I know a few. But it’s all about openings. If you put yourself in a good position and start attacking in a certain way and you stick to it, you can do it. That’s one of the moves I use the most.”

Brdar proudly reports that he has learned to shut down that move. Machado ruefully admits that in their games so far this season, the hitting coach has won three times and Machado only once, with one tie.

“But it’s a long year,” Machado said. “Things change. It’s just like baseball. You go on a hot streak, you go on a cold streak. I’m on my cold streak right now.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/13/sports/baseball/manny-machado-chess.html