Chess for Success

Check this: Sam Galler works on his moves.
Anna Newell

"If I win, everybody will say, 'Well, of course he won; he's the top-ranked player.' But if I lose..." "You won't lose, Josh."

"What if I do?"

"You won't."

"I'm afraid I might." -- from Searching for Bobby Fischer

On the seventeenth move of his sixth game in the final round of the Colorado State Scholastic Chess Tournament, Sam Galler blundered. "Oh, oh, oh, oh," his coach, Robert Snyder, said. "Oh, oh, oh."

Snyder had staked out a front-row seat in the parents' room to watch the progress of one of his prized pupils. For often embarrassingly obvious reasons, parents and coaches are not allowed to watch the matches in person. Some hover just outside the actual playing room, like new mothers and fathers crowding around a hospital nursery window.

Others stay in the parents' room, a floor above the one where the matches take place. It is arranged like a mini-auditorium, with the moves of important games beamed onto a blank wall in real time by computer. For parents, the effect can be bizarre, like listening to a radio broadcast of the contest happening directly under their feet. A few feet away from Snyder, Sam's father, Bruce, was silent as he watched his unseen son's match play out on the oversized chessboard.

Sam is twelve years old and in the sixth grade. He is tall for his age, with straight dark hair, prominent ears and a deeply interested expression on his face. He is currently the top-ranked chess player in the state for his age and one of the top players in the country in his age group. Last year he tied for third in the National Scholastic Chess Tournament. He is Colorado's fourth-through-sixth-grade defending champion; in 2000 he was a co-winner of the title.

Sam was expected to grab the Colorado title again this year. Surprising no one, he had breezed through his first five matches in the six-match round robin, ending up in the final round of the two-day tournament exactly where he thought he'd be: across the board from the second seed, Tyler Hughes. On this Sunday afternoon in February, at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, both boys were undefeated. The winner of their match would become the state champ.

Tyler is small and slight, with a narrow face made tinier by his large white cowboy hat and thick, round black-rimmed glasses. He has been Sam's primary nemesis for the past year or so. In fact, several days before the state tournament, Sam and his coach deliberately went over several of Tyler's favorite openings in an attempt to prepare Sam for the anticipated match-up. Unfortunately, as the match began to unfold, it became apparent that Tyler was using the Givoco Piano opening, which Sam hadn't practiced.

Still, at this level of chess an unanticipated opening doesn't throw anyone much, and Sam played extremely well for the first 45 minutes or so. Most people watching the match agreed it was his game to lose. But then, on the twentieth move - uncharacteristically -- he moved too quickly, without the deliberate analysis that is part and parcel of his game. Suddenly, the advantage had shifted.

Upstairs in the parents' room, Todd Bardwick, a national master and former Denver champion, was providing commentary and analysis. "Sam might have made a terrible blunder," he said ominously. Snyder moaned quietly in his seat. "He had a dead won game, and he moved too fast," Bardwick added.

The Gallers live on a cul-de-sac in an upscale neighborhood in Boulder. The first thing you notice when you walk inside the house are the chessboards placed throughout the living room. It is an elegant room, free of clutter. Off to one side sit a grand piano and a cello. Most of the chessboards are beautiful and decorative -- more objets d'art than well-used games. "We got these after Sam became interested in chess," says Bruce, a computer executive.

Chess is the dominant theme in Sam's room, as well. Against one wall next to his bed are his trophies -- dozens and dozens of them set up like a gleaming brass army on the floor next to his bed. There are so many that they threaten to spill out into the middle of the room. A poster for Searching for Bobby Fischer, a 1993 movie about a precocious chess kid, decorates another wall.

Last year, the U.S. Chess Federation boasted 31,000 members under the age of fifteen, up nearly tenfold from the 3,200 it had in 1990. Part of the reason is the Internet. While many children have no tolerance for board games, they are online whizzes. As is the case with many kids, Sam's interest in chess evolved from video games, which he'd begun playing at a young age. Yet, while he was a self-described "addict" to computer games, Sam says he found most of them unsatisfying -- easily understood, mastered and won.

That is, until he stumbled on a game called Battle Chess. At first, much of the appeal of the game was simply auditory and visual. Before one chess piece took another, a fierce battle occurred, with much noise and explosions -- which, when you are six years old, is extremely cool. But Sam discovered that he also liked the underlying game. Unlike others, it couldn't be mastered -- there is no perfect game in chess -- and each new game posed endless possibilities.

He joined the school's small chess club and caught on to the game unusually quickly. He entered his first state tournament in kindergarten, nearly winning the title his first time out. The following year, Sam began competing in national tournaments. Since then, he has become an old hand at high-level competition, entering more than a hundred local and national chess competitions.

It soon became obvious to Sam's parents that their son had an aptitude for the game. "I thought he was pretty talented, but a year or two in, I could really tell," Bruce says. "Sam has always been able to concentrate well. During games he was able to think for a long time, with something to think about." For parents of kids with less concentration, Sam's attention span can seem boggling: A while back, he played a single chess game in a tournament in Colorado Springs that lasted for seven hours.

Sam recognized his own gift, too. "After seeing other people learning, I realized I picked it up quicker," he says. "I see the patterns in a chess game. There are tactics that appear frequently, but to notice them, you have to see the pattern, recognize the pieces. I see the pieces moving into the future on the board."

After a while, he began beating his father with such regularity that the games were no longer a challenge to him, and Bruce found himself thinking up ways to convince Sam to give him a game. "Sometimes he'll play me blind," Bruce says. "He will be reading a book in the other room while I am at the board. I will tell him my move, and he will have the game in his head and tell me his move. This makes the game much more even."

Sam tries to keep up with his chess reading, although he's not as obsessive about it as some. Instead, he hones his game mainly on the Internet, logging on to chess Web sites for two and a half hours a night to play matches against opponents. (They are from around the world; until fairly recently, Sam had a standing match with one young player in Spain.)

The vast majority of talented young chess players also have private coaches. Beginning about five years ago, the Gallers, feeling that they had a responsibility toward their precocious son, started hiring a string of coaches to work with him. The first couple were good players, and Sam learned well from them. But after a while, the coaches generally agreed that they had taught him all they could, and so they advised the Gallers to move on. Two years ago, Bruce hired Robert Snyder to bump Sam's game up to a higher level.

Robert Snyder had been something of a prodigy himself. Although he came to the game relatively late in life -- he didn't pick up chess until the ripe age of twelve -- he progressed rapidly. By the time he was eighteen, he had achieved the rank of National Chess Master. In 1973 he won the Western United States Championship, and in later years, he won a handful of correspondence tournaments.

But top-level chess, like mathematics and football, is a young person's game. "If a player starts off as a young child, in kindergarten, he will reach 90 to 95 percent of his potential before high school graduation," Snyder says. By age 35, the top players are at their peak powers. After that, it's usually downhill.

Snyder played his last tournament in 1981. By then he'd been asked to teach several students, and, fortunately, he recognized that his real gift for chess was instruction. In 1983 he founded a private club, Chess for Juniors, in his hometown of Los Angeles; it has become the largest private chess club in the country. In 1991 Snyder wrote down what he knew about teaching and called the book Chess for Juniors, which quickly became the top-selling chess-instruction book in the country.

Snyder first met Sam in November 1999, at a national tournament. Always on the lookout for promising young players he can take under his wing, he told Bruce that he was planning an imminent move to Fort Collins. As it happened, Bruce was searching for a new coach for Sam at the time, and so the following month, Sam became Snyder's first Colorado pupil.

The coach explains that great chess prodigies are a mixture of innate talent and careful learning. One or the other can carry a young player a certain distance; however, at some point his deficiencies will catch up with him. Snyder says that's not an issue with Sam Galler. "He's got a lot of natural talent," he says. "He's able to analyze logically, calculate and assess patterns on the board. He can develop the patterns in his head."

Another natural talent Snyder looks for in his pupils is the ability to win under pressure. "There are a lot of players who are great analytically, but when they get under pressure don't perform as they should," he says. "I tell my kids, 'Show no mercy when you play; on the chessboard, you are not friends.'" Again, he notes that when it comes to ruthlessness in competition, Sam is a natural. "Sam likes to win," he says. "Most players don't like to lose, but with Sam, there's a real drive."

"Sam has consistently shown that he is the most talented player for his age in the state," Snyder concludes. "There are a lot of things that can distract kids, and Sam does them, too -- schoolwork, music. But there is no reason he couldn't become a very strong master." In the two years that Sam and Snyder have worked together, Sam's chess rating (a measure of one's ability) has soared.

The other common denominator among many top young chess players is very involved parents. Although emotional support is a part of this, parental involvement in top-level scholastic chess also means plenty of money to support a young player's talent. Sam has traveled across the country and to Europe to compete in tournaments.

In April, he will fly with Snyder and several more of the coach's very best students to the National Scholastic Chess Championships, where Sam will compete against the best young players in the country. This year the tournament will be held in Portland, Oregon. "The national elementary championship is a real hard one to win," Snyder says. "Sam's got a shot at it. He's not the favorite, and things have to happen right. But it could happen."

First, though, Sam must get through the Colorado tournament. On a Thursday evening in February, two days before the start of the state championships, Sam meets with Snyder the way he usually does: online. (The Internet has greatly expanded Snyder's reach, allowing him to coach students all over the country.) As he does once every week, Sam logs on to the Chess for Juniors Web site, then dials Snyder on a speakerphone precisely one minute before their scheduled lesson.

Sam has already sent Snyder a series of openings he wants to practice and analyze. As he and Snyder talk over the speakerphone, the two also work on a chessboard that's visible on each of their computers.

Sam's method is rapid. After analyzing several opening moves, he is ready to continue, which he lets Snyder know with a terse "Next opening." Snyder occasionally slows Sam down by saying, "Let me analyze this for a second," a signal for Sam to hold on and be quiet.

"We're not going to crush this guy," Snyder counsels after looking at one of Sam's openings. "It's not an opening where we push for a quick win. It's an opening where we will push for advantage."

Toward the end of the hour, the two decide to try a game. "Let's watch you kill somebody," Snyder says boosterishly. Sam trolls the Web site for an opponent. When one is located, in Seattle, Snyder watches and coaches Sam over the speakerphone, providing running commentary and opinion. Between moves, Sam exchanges pleasant written chat with his opponent about the weather and each other's level of experience.

As part of his coaching, Snyder thinks out loud. "Oh, really, he wants to play bishop C-4?" he muses at one point. "Well, this makes life interesting, doesn't it? This guy's pretty good, isn't he, Sam? He's not a fish."

Then, a few moves later: "This guy is playing horrible chess, just horrible."

The match seesaws back and forth until, with time running low, Sam misunderstands one of Snyder's instructions and makes an ill-considered move. "Oh, no. Oh, no," Snyder moans over the speakerphone. "Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh."

The endgame plays out, and Sam loses the match just as his time expires. "Knight F-7 was your move, Sam," Snyder explains. "That would have made it for you." Soon after, the two say goodbye and hang up, and Sam sits down to dinner with his parents and sister.

The Colorado championships are being played in a first-floor cafeteria at the community college; the boards are set up in long rows on the bench-style tables. Participants are required to bring their own chess clocks for use during the matches. The combination of whispers and everyday cafeteria sounds creates an atmosphere of low-level tension.

By early afternoon on Sunday, most of the cafeteria is empty. Many divisions have already been decided. Sam and Tyler sit in the middle of the cafeteria, playing out one of three final matches in progress. In the first three rounds, players are each given an hour to complete their moves. In the second three rounds, each player has ninety minutes to maneuver his pieces, so the games are played at a more deliberate pace.

Between turns, Tyler and Sam alternate standing up and pacing around the table and slouching in their chairs, chins in hands, watching their opponent ponder the board. Tyler's large glasses slip down his nose. Sam nervously adjusts his blue Chess for Juniors cap. The two regard each other like kids, one quickly glancing at the other only when certain he is not looking back. They do not speak to each other.

Upstairs, Tyler's mother, Carole, sits in the parents' room and knits, a habit she has taken up recently out of nervous tension. She says she is enormously proud of Tyler, whom she home-schools. Although he picked up the game more or less on his own when he was only five years old, "he's played seriously for less than two years," she says. "He's a very cerebral kid. He's always liked systems, strategies. This is infinitely complex to him."

"He's already done well today," she says. "Better than last year."

Following Sam's glaring mistake, Snyder, already looking like a distracted absent-minded professor, slouches further down into his chair. He shushes the other Chess for Juniors players piled around him. "Oh, Sam," he mutters. "I can't believe he did that."

Bardwick, the parents'-room analyst, predicts a rapid endgame. "This game will probably be decided pretty quickly here, in the next three or four moves," he says.

Yet Sam hangs tough. He returns to his meticulous play, and within five moves, it is not at all as clear as it was before who has the stronger position. At move 27, Sam suddenly offers Tyler a draw. Surprising nearly everyone, Tyler accepts.

A crowd of adults quickly gathers around the scoring table to decipher the outcome. Sam's rating is higher, so technically Tyler has earned a victory by achieving a tie. Eventually, it is decided that he will be given the trophy. Still, by the tournament's scoring system -- a point for a win and a half-point for a tie -- each boy has five and a half points. So, in the spirit of fair play, it is also determined that Tyler and Sam will share the title of co-champion.

Later, Sam's self-analysis is a combination of adult reasoning and childlike feelings. "We both had a chance of winning, but I think he was in the better position," he says. "I offered the draw because I was scared of losing."