A Review of Gary Robson's Chess Child
Ray Robson became a Grandmaster early, before he was fifteen years old – earlier than any other American chess player did, including Bobby Fischer. Chess Child is the story of this journey, as told by his father, Gary Robson – hardly a “life story” yet, given Ray’s youth.
Born in Guam, the GM-to-be has grown up in Florida – not at all the epicenter of chess play in the United States; he was hardly born with a silver pawn in his hand. Chess Child tells of Ray’s early apparent giftedness and very early interest in chess. As Ray’s skills improve, he moves from playing games against his father to competing in scholastic tournaments to facing older players (i.e. teenagers and up) in open tournaments – to tournaments outside the United States, where he can earn International Master, and later, Grandmaster norms.
Along the way there are the coaches who are helpful, but who inevitably must give way to the next stage of Ray’s chess education. There are opponents who are friendly and those who are not-so-friendly, as well as the dreaded “chess parents” (think: Searching For Bobby Fischer, the book as well as the movie) that are the inevitable accompaniment of chess play when it transitions from “fun” to “serious.”
How does the young man Gary experience Ray’s entry into his and his wife, Yee-chen’s, life?
Whoa… Is that beginning to sound like one of the distressing chess profiles in Zhivko Kaikamjozov’s The Genius and the Misery of Chess?
Hardly. Above all else, and its greatest, transcendent, strength, Chess Child is the story about a father’s love for his son, and the lengths that he will go to help, guide, support and buffer the growing boy in his quest to be as good as he can be in something that he shows great promise for.
Perhaps chess parents will page through this book looking for Gary’s “secrets” for raising a chess genius. (There is very little concrete “chess content” as it applies to, say, playing the Najdorf Sicilian or finessing the Catalan Opening.) Let me be a spoiler: kind, loving words; walks and talks; throwing the football around, wrestling and having fun. Most of all: sharing a sense of perspective.
Sure, Ray has the occasional Grandmaster tutor (including some group study sessions with Gary Kasparov), and he has computer chess programs to work with – but you could have guessed that, right?
It is impressive how little of Chess Child is negative, and how little of that is personal. The author is not out to settle scores, right wrongs, dish dirt. He is too busy for that.
I once thought that by having a child, I would give up any chance of interesting travel and an interesting life outside of the family. It is, however, because of Ray that we have explored Brazilian beaches, visited the museums of Paris, trekked over Swiss Alps, bathe outdoors in steaming water in Iceland, swum with penguins around the Galapagos Islands, and enjoyed the scenery of the most beautiful place on earth in Tromsų. And that is just the travel part.
The other, more important, part involved having another human being in my life who I could so closely connect with, admire, teach, and support. If every action and decision that I made brought me to where I am now, then I must have a charmed life. Regrets? Not a single one.
Chess Child is a well-written, well laid out, self-published tale that turns out to be an intriguing grabber of a book. It should appeal to anyone interested in a story about raising a chessplayer, raising this
particular Grandmaster, or just raising a really neat child. As the dad
to three "Kennedy Kids" (none of whom will get anywhere near master
level), I loved all of those perspectives.
Chess Child Has NAU Connection
Daniel L. Kain
Dr. Gary Robson (EdD, 2000) has written a compelling account of the development of America’s youngest ever grand master in chess, his son, Ray. Dr. Robson’s book, Chess Child, tells the story of Ray’s growth, from a 3-year-old who spurned the dull checkers tokens in favor of the more interesting chess pieces, to a 14-year-old grand master of the game.
Chess Child, Dr. Robson’s first book, is as much about education, schooling, parenting, and a philosophy of life, as it is about Ray’s development. And it’s a fascinating read. Inspired initially to be a wanderer by the powerful words of Henry David Thoreau, Gary’s journey included wandering through Central America, teaching in Asia with the Peace Corps, teaching school in Florida, a two-year stop at NAU to earn his doctorate, and globe-trotting with Ray to participate in the full array of chess opportunities that are required to earn the status of a grand master.
There is no doubt that Ray is a special child, talented and dedicated, willing to work for what he wants. Gary’s book makes this clear. Ray demonstrates that work ethic that has been highlighted in such books as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success or Matthew Syed’s Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success. And some of the beginnings of this hard work took place at NAU. As Gary writes, “It was in the kitchen of our tiny unit in the family housing quad where Ray, as a four-year-old, beat me in chess for the first time.”
Dr. Robson’s time at NAU was funded largely by a fellowship from the Arizona Community Foundation, allowing him to focus on his work both as a student and as a graduate assistant for the Peace Corps Fellows Program. His fellowship gave Gary the opportunity to visit a host of reservation schools, where returned Peace Corps Volunteers served Native American children while earning their master’s degrees through the College of Education. Gary remembers his experience at NAU as a time of intense focus (he completed the degree in two years), hard work (he provided in-service workshops at schools and supervised PC students across the state), and adventure (hiking, camping, and otherwise enjoying his mountain sojourn). As he recalls, “NAU was, for me, a place where I could stretch myself academically and professionally. It was a place where I came to understand—having experienced it firsthand—the true meaning of the mentor/mentee relationship. And of course Flagstaff itself was a paradise, where one could take off in any direction and find a new trail to hike or a new pond to fish."
Having served as Dr. Robson’s doctoral advisor and as the recipient of many letters as Ray’s career developed, I knew Gary was the sort of writer who could weave a good story. However, I was skeptical that an account of chess playing would be of interest beyond the world of chess aficionados. I was wrong. Chess Child is the sort of book that has broad relevance and appeal and reminds us all of the importance of family and hard work, of embracing one’s values, and ultimately of the importance of living a better life. As Robson puts it, “Chess is a game. You play games, and you have fun. If you reach the end of it all and it’s no longer a game and you find that you didn’t have fun all along the way, why then you’ve missed the point entirely.” “The goal is to live a better life, which, to me, is synonymous with living more wisely.”
Chess Child provides both the fun of the journey and the wisdom we need. It’s well worth the read.
Note: Daniel Kain served as dean of the College of Education from 2002 until 2010, and is now Vice Provost for Academic Personnel. Chess Child, and Gary’s second book, Misadventures in Maasin, are available at www.nipahutpress.com.
A Review of Gary Robson's Chess Child
Chess Child: The story of Ray Robson, America’s Youngest Grandmaster (Nipa Hut Press 2010, www.nipahutpress.com, 281 pages, paperback, $16) by Gary Robson may initially remind many of Fred Waitzkin's Searching for Bobby Fischer. Both are great father-son stories and each traces the development of a young boy from a chess novice to strong player. Along the way each family is forced to make sacrifices and find their own way with no guarantees as to how things will end. Both fathers start out with no knowledge of the chess world and have to figure things out along the way with no maps or books to guide them.
While there are similarities between the two stories there are also important differences. One major one is that the Robson family lives near Tampa, a semi-desert for chess compared to the Waitzkins who were based in Manhattan. While Josh had the advantage of living in the center of American chess near both the Marshall and Manhattan Chess clubs, Ray's club was the Internet. Despite all his hard work and gift for the game it is unlikely that a player the strength of Ray would have emerged from Central Florida 20 years.
Not only were all the opportunities that the Internet allows not available then, nor were ChessBase and Rybka/Fritz not to mention strong coaches. The latter was a key in Ray’s development. Gary Robson writes movingly of the difficulties of finding the right person to help his son at the right time. This coach not only has to possess the necessary chess information and the ability to communicate it but also achieve the right rapport with young Ray.
Finding one coach is not enough. One of the more painful passages in Chess Child deals with one of Ray's first teachers, a Florida expert who has been a good teacher and friend but who is unable to recognize that he has no more knowledge to offer. As Ray climbs up the ladder this need for stronger and stronger teachers doesn't go away.
A gifted young player and his parents in the Soviet Union didn't have to make this sort of choice nor worry how the lessons, tournament entry fees, hotels and airline tickets would be paid for. There were many (!) problems in the old communist states but for chess most of them got it right. Think of the amount of state support that was allocated to Karpov and Kasparov to name but two prominent examples. A reoccurring theme throughout Chess Child is the sacrifices the Robson family (Gary, Yee-chen and Ray) make. There can't be too many families in Florida that have spent several summers without air-conditioning! Giving a young talent a chance to thrive is not cheap. At one point the Robson's are spending $25,000 a year out of pocket and they are not materially wealthy people.
Faced with a similar situation the family of Fabiano Caruana moved to Europe where strong coaching and tournament opportunities abound and he has thrived. The savings on travel have to be huge and the avoidance of jet-lag a blessing but this solution may not be a template for others as the Caruanas have dual citizenship and the Italians have provided generous sponsorship. The Samford family has provided something similar in the United States with its two year stipend of $76,000 and Gary Robson is quick to praise the Fellowship for the good it has done enabling Ray to work with Alex Onischuk on a regular basis supplemented with sessions with Jaan Ehlvest, Yury Shulman and Varuzhan Akobian. The work they did with Ray in 2009 quickly yielded good results as he made his last norms soon after and broke Bobby Fischer's record as the youngest American Grandmaster ever.
Ray is a strong Grandmaster nearing 2600 FIDE as the book ends at the end of 2009. He has accomplished a great deal in chess, more than his parents could have ever expected, but what will the future hold? Ray clearly loves chess and has parents who realize that material success doesn't mean everything but few players below the elite (2750 on up) are able to support themselves by tournament winnings alone. Coaching, commenting and writing are all honorable ways to make ends meet but they take away from playing and many strong Grandmasters do them not out of pleasure but because they must. For many that is why they call earning a living "work" and leads to questions of why if one is going to "work" doesn't it make sense to seek something that pays better. Still one does well to remember the words of the Canadian-American Grandmaster Peter Biyiasas who once said that a chess professional should never trade his freedom for a 9 to 5 job unless he doubled his pay!
One might think that Gary Robson would be bitter should his son choose to follow a different path than chess down the road. Think of all the sacrifices the family has made from sleeping on kind strangers' couches, taking flights with multi-layovers to get the cheapest ticket to driving clunkers and more. But he wouldn't be. He writes at the end of Chess Child that it has all been worth it. The family has traveled all over the world from the Galapagos Islands to the far north of Norway from Brazilian beaches to bathing in thermal pools in Iceland and their son has been able to follow his dream. That doesn't sound bad.
Chess Child will be an interesting read for a wide audience, particularly parents of young chess talents looking for guidance