The top chess player in San Diego is Cyrus Lakdawala

Last year I was the youngest player in U.S. Championship

"I played Nakamura. He was 18 years old at the time, at the 2005 U.S. Championship. His name is Hikaru Nakamura. And he's the top U.S. player right now." This is the top chess player in San Diego, international master (IM) Cyrus Lakdawala, 46. He's telling me about the strongest opponent he's ever faced. "This kid Nakamura's just a natural genius," Lakdawala says. "And I don't normally use that term. I think it's thrown about, like, 'Oh, this guy's a genius,' and 'That guy's a genius.' But Nakamura really is a genius. He was a 16-year-old grand master. The top seed at the U.S. Championship. I think he's almost 20 now."

Lakdawala has been a professional chess player for the past 27 years. He's one of the best in the world. The average serious chess player rates about 1500. Lakdawala's international rating is 2424. But the U.S. Champion, Nakamura, rates a 2651.

"When I played this kid," Lakdawala says, "I remember one point in the game where I spent 45 minutes on this incredibly long combination. I had a horrible feeling in my heart that it wasn't going to work, but I had to do it, because it looked like I was winning. I spent 45 minutes thinking it through, and I just plunged into the position. I'd worked out what I felt was a win at every line. So I made my move. And Nakamura looked at the position, and then he sat back in his chair, and he looked up at the ceiling. He looked at the ceiling for about 5 minutes, after I moved. He didn't even look at the board. He was just looking at the ceiling, which was actually very intimidating. He was working it out in his head and not looking at the board."

Lakdawala chuckles. "And then he made his move, and we banged out the entire sequence that I thought was going to happen. At the tail end, he saw one move further, and my whole position just collapsed completely. He saw this in his head in 5 minutes. He saw one move further than I did, in 5 minutes in his head, than what I could see in 45 minutes of looking at the board. You just can't beat someone like that. The genetics are too powerful. You would have to have blind luck. He would have to be sick, or just really off, or maybe I could beat him on a good day."

Lakdawala was born in India in 1960, grew up in Montreal, and came to San Diego in 1978. Lakdawala's father, who's also a strong player, taught young Cyrus chess when he was about eight. Now, Lakdawala teaches chess, plays it every day, and writes about the game for numerous organizations, such as Chess Ninja and the U.S. Chess Federation. He was the chess columnist for the Union-Tribune for almost ten years in the '80s and early '90s.

The first time I called Lakdawala on the telephone, his son answered and passed him the phone. Lakdawala sounded friendly and had a kind of "aw, shucks" tone to his voice. I wanted to meet him. Would Wednesday night at the San Diego Chess Club be a good time and place? He told me that would work out fine. Next I asked him for the phone number of one of his students, the most talented young player in the area, a 17-year-old named Elliott Liu (whom we'll meet later), and Lakdawala said, "I'm sorry, but could I call you back soon with that number?" We'd been chatting amiably for two minutes, but now he let it be known: he was in the middle of an online chess game. "I'm almost through playing," he said. "It's a blitz game. A three-minute game. I'll call you in, like, five minutes, if that's okay."

I couldn't believe it. He was having a conversation with me while playing chess with someone else. (And he won!) He was apologetic about not being able to get the phone number just then -- he was making quick chess moves, after all. "I play every day on the Internet," he explained. "I'm considerably higher rated than other players in San Diego, and I need to play international masters and grand masters, and the only way to do that is through the Internet."

I can't pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time, but Cyrus Lakdawala can be gracious while simultaneously competing in perhaps the most intricate and challenging game ever invented.

The following Wednesday, I stroll up to the San Diego Chess Club on the outskirts of Balboa Park. It's a chilly evening, just after dark, and the best chess players in town are beginning to arrive for the 2007 Club Championship. Lakdawala and I shake hands and talk a little chess. I recognize him from some of the photos online. He's rather giant and looks gentle. He seems almost to have a permanent shrug, a genial indifference that is perhaps the result of hunching over chessboards for the better part of his life.

Lakdawala shows me around, introducing me to club president Ron Rezendes and to other local players, and it becomes apparent that everyone assumes I don't know how to play chess. One older gentleman even explains some of the rules. I decide to play dumb and bide my time, nodding and taking notes in my yellow pad.

Finally, about a half hour before the tournament is scheduled to start, Lakdawala and I are standing near a chessboard with all the pieces set up, and I tell him I'd like to play him sometime. "Sure," he answers. "We could play right now." And we sit down to it.

What Lakdawala doesn't know is that I used to play chess seriously in New York City in the early '90s, and I was a pretty strong player then, right around an 1800. Chess ratings are figured by tabulating a player's wins, losses, and draws in sanctioned matches. If you beat a higher-rated player, your own rating goes up a lot. If you beat a lower-rated player, it hardly goes up at all. If I were still rated 1800 and I beat Cyrus Lakdawala in an official tournament match, my rating might jump as many as 30 points from one game, while Lakdawala's rating could plummet nearly as much.

So I take white and make a strong opening salvo. After six moves, I completely control the center of the board. Lakdawala sits back and kind of smiles over at me. "So you know how to play this game," he says. I swell with pride. I figure my only chance, playing an IM, is to try and take him by surprise. "I actually don't like my position right now at all," Lakdawala says, and leans forward again. And a few Chess Club members start to mill around, commenting that I clearly hold the upper hand.

It doesn't last long. Lakdawala attacks me with his bishop and his queen. Eight moves later, the game's over. I've been mated.

"I thought you were just a journalist," Lakdawala says. "But you play pretty well. You should join the Chess Club."

The San Diego Chess Club has been around since the 1960s. Today, the club boasts 200 members, aged 9 to 84, who get together for tournaments on Wednesdays and Saturdays, as well as for informal games throughout the week.

Walking around the fluorescently lit main hall of the club, I look at the framed portraits and write-ups of former chess world champions, and it reminds me how I've always thought of chess as a silent blood sport, as well as a quest for immortality.

By 7:30 p.m., 90 or so of the strongest players in the area are bent over their boards, locked in battle. They'd all arrived with their zip-up bags full of plastic pieces and green-and-white roll-out chessboards and nifty time clocks. They'd checked to see who they were playing, and then they'd begun. It's the 2007 Club Championship, and the only sounds are the whir of heating fans, the intermittent taps of 45 time clocks, and the creaking of 90 chairs.

"The game is a lot more tension-filled than it appears," Lakdawala explains later over the telephone. "You know, your heartbeat rises as you play. Your hands get sweaty. Every Saturday I play in the local weekly tournament at the Chess Club, which is called the Gambito, and it's pretty routine. I've been playing in it for about six years. And still, every Saturday morning, I get kind of this little, mild stomachache. Because it really feels like you're going into battle. It's just unbelievable how tiring a full day of chess is."

So you think chess is a sport?

"It's definitely a sport," he says. "There's no question about it."

So you're an athlete?

"Yeah. I don't look like an athlete. I'm this overweight 46-year-old. But it's a different type of muscle. Your brain only works for so long. You can only put it through so many hours of intense concentration. And then it gives in and says, 'I'm too tired. I can't go on.' It's a different type of pushing yourself. You're really straining to not let your concentration lapse. Or let your calculations slow down or become inaccurate. And it's more like force of will. When you think of an athlete, you think of muscles. Like a sprinter is using leg power. It's mainly physical. But chess is a sport, and the muscle is your will."

Isn't chess also an art?

"You think that the result of the game and the outcome of the tournament are what matter most, but after about a year or two, you don't even think about the tournament or who won or lost. You just think about the game itself, and that's the thing that lasts, that you can show to people and you can publish. To me, chess is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen that was created by the human mind."

What about the scientific aspects of chess? The observations, experimentations, collection of data, and testing of hypotheses? Isn't chess also a science?

"That's a very satisfying aspect of the game," Lakdawala agrees. "Preparing for a game against a dangerous opponent, I come up with different strategies for whether I'm going to be playing white or black. I have strategies lined up against their opening systems before the game begins. So whichever opponent I get, and whichever color pieces I have, I'm ready. I've worked out things at home. And of course, they've done the same thing. So it becomes this game of paranoia. They know that you know that they know. You're basically trying to get inside your opponent's mind so you can understand what they're going to do. So it's scientific, because you know the exact positions that are likely to arise. You put these on databases, and you research those positions, and you look for new ideas within those positions. Then you have a whole host of incredibly strong computer programs, and they will bang out suggestion after suggestion, and every once in a while, the computer will come up with some move that just makes you go, 'Wow.' "

Are computers better than people are at chess?

"I'd say definitely, yes," Lakdawala says, and this surprises me. "At the very highest level, there's still a doubt. But you know, recently, the world champion, Vladimir Kramnik, very decisively lost a six-game match 4-2 against the program Deep Fritz. And if the world champion is being manhandled, you know, a lower-level professional player has no chance against a strong chess-playing computer."

So if human psychology and the human will and the human sense of beauty can be crushed by the scientific ability of a computer to maintain data and crunch possibilities, then this argues against chess being an art.

"I disagree," Lakdawala says. "I think the computer is just the tool used by the artist. If you have an Olympic sprinter, he's not going to be upset that the Porsche beat him in the hundred meters. And so, to me, I hear that argument a lot, and I just think of computers as a tool. We created them. And so, anything they produce has been created by us. I see them as a scientific tool that can be used."

Sport, art, science...in the end, isn't chess just a game?

"It is a game. The competitive aspect is there. And that's the part I'm most nervous about. Because your ego tends to get involved. You're playing for your reputation. And that can become a big hindrance. You have to try to downplay ego. You get so frozen and so afraid that your reputation will be damaged by losing this game that it affects your play."

I want Lakdawala to talk about the killer instinct. I remember when the former world champion -- and highest-rated player in the history of chess at 2851 -- Gary Kasparov said that you had to want to crush your opponent.

"Arrogance, unfortunately, can be a big part of top-level chess," Lakdawala says. "Because it goes from 'Oh, I play chess really well' to 'Oh, I'm smarter than you.' And it's not necessarily true. But that seems to be the logical conclusion a lot of professional chess players come to. You can feel how the other guy really dislikes you sometimes, and he really wants to humiliate you and crush you. The natural reaction is 'Hey, I want to do the same thing to you.' Now, I really try to fight that. I feel that that's a mistake. To get your ego all wrapped up in it. Only because I think you lose a lot of energy in distraction, in anger, in wanting revenge, for instance, against an opponent. A lot of loss of energy just trying to protect your ego. Like you create this perimeter around your ego, and you're always guarding it."

I'm glad that Lakdawala has addressed chess and ego, because my impression of him is that he seems awfully nice. Even when I sat down to play him, his attitude gave no indication that I was playing the best player in the room, much less the 65th best player in the whole country.

"I try not to take the opponent into account," Lakdawala says. "That's a trap. I've seen too many chess players get caught in this trap of ego protection and arrogance, and it just ruins you as a human being. The way I see it is, my goal is to put my pieces in harmony with each other, and if I do that, the natural result will follow. I will win."

What is it that makes a good chess player? Is it repetition? The study of strategies? Innate talent? Some combination of factors?

"I think you need the genetics. I've taught hundreds, and possibly thousands, of students over the last 27 years or so. And I've known some that just deeply, deeply love the game but do not have the talent to be where they want to be. You have to have the spatial perception. You have to be able to have an image in your mind, a very complicated image, because you have 16 pieces on each side, so 32 pieces total, and 64 squares, and these pieces are moving on these squares, and you've got to be able to hold that in your mind and move forward with the pieces, and then reverse it, and go back to the starting position of your analysis. And you've got to be able to hold that very clearly. The more clearly you can hold it, the stronger player you're going to be. So I would say genetics is the strongest factor."

Lakdawala thinks a moment. "But another very important thing is love of the game. I've seen very talented students who never went far because they didn't really love the game.... And the last thing is plain old hard work. You know, the ones who work hard tend to pass the ones who rely on their talent alone."

What does one work on when one works on chess?

"Your structures. You can't know everything in chess. It's too vast. And so you have to become a specialist. You specialize in certain structures. And you get so you know, within that structure, every possibility, every trade which is good for you, every trade which is bad for you. You know the timing of when should I make this exchange, when should I pass this pawn -- things like that. Until you feel like you can beat anyone in the world in a particular position. Of course you can't, but you've got to get that feeling."

How do you give chess lessons?

"Every chess lesson is different. I tailor it to the student. Some players are very intuitive, and it's better just to play them. And we go over and over and over a certain structure that I recommend for them. After a while, they get the feel of it through play. Others are more analytical, and we get on the computer, and we work on the computer using databases and chess-playing programs."

How much do you charge for a lesson?

"I charge $35 an hour."

How many hours a week do you spend on chess?

"I would say at least eight hours a day, just like a regular job."

Could you guess at your yearly earnings through chess?

"It really varies. I don't want to go into salary, but it's not very great. It's like having a pretty crappy job. It's like having a job where you go, 'This is a dead-end job.' "

Are you serious?

"They say that chess is the most played game in the world, but the problem is, it's like everybody plays chess, but nobody plays chess seriously. Because honestly, it's too much effort. If I had to live my life again, I would not play chess. I'm absolutely certain. If I had hindsight, I wouldn't go near a chessboard."

What would you do?

"Anything else. I'd be a doctor, a scientist, an attorney, anything but chess. The thing that really bugs me is that it requires a monster effort just to reach a level where you can see the innate beauty of the game. And that bugs me, because I could create a masterpiece, and you could publish it in the paper, and there would be 25 people in San Diego who could say, 'Hey, that's a masterpiece.' Out of one million or two million readers who see it."

Spoken like a true artist. Or a philosopher. Do you have a philosophy of chess?

"Yes." Lakdawala barely hesitates before answering. "Chess is a mirror of who you are. Every character flaw that you have -- are you patient? are you reckless? are you a coward? -- all that will show up in your chess. And every personality trait that's virtuous will also show up in your chess. You can't hide who you are. So, for me, I'm overly cautious, and, I hate to say it, but I'm cowardly in my chess. I'm that way in life. I can't say I'm a complete coward, but I'm definitely a guy who looks before he leaps. I tend to be very cautious about everything."

Yet you're the best player of a war game in Southern California.

"But there are many generals who are cautious," Lakdawala says. "You know, they don't want to lose their men. I just tend to creep forward. I don't tend to storm the opponent. I like to build and build and build, until there's an overwhelming force in one sector, and then strike. I only strike if I think the opponent has no chance of repelling the strike."

In chess, a teacher is called a "second." Cyrus Lakdawala is the second of Elliott Liu. Liu, a 17-year-old junior at the Bishop's School in La Jolla, is Lakdawala's star student. His international rating is 2196, and last year, he was the youngest qualifier for the U.S. Championships. According to the International Chess Federation (FIDE), Liu is among the top 400 chess players in the United States.

So how did Liu come to play chess?

"Long story," he says. "Apparently, when I was really little, like, around five years old, I was into the whole medieval knights and war stuff, like every little kid. And for Christmas in '94 or '95, I got a picture book with all this cool stuff, and it happened to come with a little picture instruction book and a little board with plastic pieces, and it showed the basics of chess. And my dad and I just messed around with it. Nothing serious at all. And I liked it. I kept playing. Without really knowing it, I fell in love with the game. I wasn't that good, but I just wanted to play every day. My parents told me that they would hide under the sheets when they'd hear the pieces rattle down the hall, because I'd always be coming to play with them."

Liu sounds so self-possessed, so self-aware, and so mature, I can't believe he's only 17.

"I was becoming pretty obsessive," he says, "but I didn't think anything of it. And then my mom, to try and keep me occupied, checked out a library book of annotated chess games, thinking maybe I'd pay more attention to that and stop bothering her all the time. And keep in mind, I couldn't really read yet, but I learned chess notation, the chess language, before I could even read. And I started playing through those games. And my parents were amazed. They didn't really know what to do with me. They kept getting me book after book. When that didn't slow me down, they took me to a friend's house who said he was good at chess. And I beat him. The next thing I know, my parents got a teacher for me. The first lesson, when he came to the house, before he could even start talking, I told him that I had a game to show him. And I replayed several of the games from the book from memory. And that was pretty much it. I mean, from then on, the rest is history, as they say."

And you were five years old?


Why do you think you took to this game?

"There are many aspects that I like. It's very competitive. The whole basic idea of solving a problem has always been my thing. And in some sense, it feels like you're a commander in some war or something, or like a football coach, where you have these players that you're trying to guide through this maze of life, and you try to win in the end. But besides that, it was just a natural thing that clicked. I think if I hadn't had this natural talent, there would probably be no way that I would play chess the way that I do. It's just one of those strange things that kind of happened."

Does Liu have other, similar proclivities? Does he solve Rubik's Cube with his eyes closed, for instance? Is he a math whiz?

"No, no, no," he says quickly. "It's that one thing. People ask me if I have a photographic memory, but I don't. You give me a piece of poetry to memorize, and I can't do it. I am good at math, but not that good, really. People say there's a correlation between chess, music, and math, and maybe there is. I mean, I do play the cello."

Do you play any sports?

"Yes, I'm pretty athletic. I used to play pretty much every sport when I was little, but now it's mainly just football. I play safety and wide receiver on the Bishop's football team. And I think chess really helps my game. I'm quite the sports fanatic, especially a football fanatic, and I always thought it would be really cool to be an offensive coordinator someday, because it's the same type of stuff as chess. You learn your offense, you learn your plays, and your players move. When I'm on the field, it's the same thing. As a safety, I try to read the quarterback, stay a few steps ahead, and then maybe I guess right."

How big are you?

"I'm about 5'11" tall, 170 pounds."

So you're involved in both the ultimate nerdy high school activity and the ultimate popular high school activity?


What gives? Are you a nerd? Or are you popular?

"Luckily, I've always been well rounded, and that's what I always try to be. Among my friends, I've gone from something they can't understand at all to something that's really cool and recognized everywhere. But all my friends support me. They respect that I'm good at something, even if they really don't understand it fully."

What about your chess friends? Aren't they jealous when you go suit up and hang out with the cheerleaders and get all the cheers at pep rallies?

"Oh, I don't know. I guess they might be jealous. But I think I fit in with all different groups of people. I like to socialize a lot with every type of person. And when you have a background in something academic -- and I guess you could say, 'nerdy' -- and in something athletic, and you're well rounded like that, then it really helps, because you can talk to almost anyone."

Where are you going to go to college? What are you going to study?

"I don't know," Liu says. "I'm thinking medical school. And right now I'm looking at Duke. And I'm also looking at the University of Maryland, because I have a full scholarship to go there."

To do what?

"To play chess."

The University of Maryland offered you a full scholarship to play chess? Tell me that story.

"The U.S. Championship is the most prestigious chess tournament in the country. And last year I was the youngest player. I was 16. I think the oldest player was in his 70s. So there's no age limit. It's just the best players against the best players. You have to qualify to be there. It's not like the World Series of Poker or anything where you can just buy in. Most of the guys who get in are either the top ten in the nation, or they qualify through open tournaments. But the way I got in was by winning the 2005 U.S. Cadet, which is the U.S. championship for under 16s, which was how I got the scholarship to Maryland. And then later on that year, they told me that because I'd won that, I'd qualified to play in this mini-tournament against three other strong junior players. By some miracle, I won that, and I got into the U.S. Championships. In 2006, they were held in San Diego, so I was like the hometown kid, and I was the youngest player, and all the attention was just incredible. The whole chess nation is watching you. All your games are broadcast and everything. So that was an amazing experience."

How'd you do?

"I did as well as Cyrus and I predicted," Liu says. "We thought it would be a miracle if I even scored one point. There were nine games total. And the competition was incredible. All these guys were pros. And they were all adults."

And if you won nine games, you'd get nine points? And if you tied nine games, you'd get four?

"Yes, the scoring's like that. And the winner ended up with seven points, I think. Which is a very good score in these type of tournaments. I got three, which was, by our standards, a very good tournament. I started out against these two grand masters who are very well known, and somehow I drew those games, which was totally unexpected. So I was floating on cloud nine, and I got a little ahead of myself. I went through a rough patch during the middle of the tournament, where I lost three of the next four games. I finished okay, to kind of save it. But overall, it was just a great experience."

Have you played in any other big-time tournaments?

"I played in the Pan-American Chess Championship in Ecuador last year." Liu's tone becomes ironic. "To make a long story short, I'll just say that it was a very poorly organized tournament. The hotel that we stayed in had no heat, and it was winter there in the Andes. So it was about 30 or 40 degrees, and the playing hall was this huge stadium, and it was freezing. I had to wear ski clothing while I played. The hotel was even worse. Not only was it cold, but people partied throughout the night. You heard broken bottles, people vomiting, the trash-dump people coming and making a racket. It was just ridiculous. And after all that, let's see...I somehow won the tournament. I won the gold medal. And in the process, I was accused of cheating, and then they cheated on me. But we appealed that, and we won."

How do you cheat at chess?

"There are a number of ways. There've been these huge scandals lately with computer cheating. There are these powerful chess-playing computers that are mainstream now. Oftentimes, what people will do is they plant earpieces in their ears, or something like that, and then they have their guy back at the room relaying moves to them. It's relatively easy to do, but people have been caught at every level of chess. It's a big problem. They're even doing drug testing in chess now. They're trying to ban caffeine and brain stimulants. It's ridiculous."

Tournament chess games can last for hours. I can't imagine sitting over a chessboard for five hours and not having any caffeine. And what if you have to go to the bathroom during a six-hour match?

"That's a common misperception," Liu says. "You don't have to sit in your chair for a whole chess match. I could never sit at a chess board for more than 15 minutes. I'm always walking around. Like, a lot of the tournaments are held in Vegas, and you go out of the room, and into the casino, and you can watch ESPN or something. You don't have to sit there at all. Which is good and bad, because you say, 'Well, what about cheating? The guy could go anywhere.' And that's kind of the honor-system thing. But in bigger tournaments, there's a loose rule that you shouldn't leave the room unless you have a good reason. And the rooms are usually huge. Chess tournaments are almost always played in big ballrooms or convention halls or something. It's not like you're confined in some tiny space. But you can get up, walk around, or get something to eat, because these games last so long, there's no way you could sit there the whole time. And I have a short attention span as it is, as strange as that sounds. I think I have a minor ADD issue when I play chess."

So that's how your personality externally affects your chess. How does your personality come out through the game itself?

"Prior to the U.S. Championship, I was pretty wild and erratic. I got where I was, which was obviously very high, through a kind of 'live by the sword, die by the sword' type of attitude. Once I reached the U.S. Championship, after that tournament, I realized that to really get better, I couldn't have that type of personality on the board. So I went home and retooled all my openings. Now I'm a much more conservative, solid player. But when the time's right, I usually lash out with some kind of crazy something."

So you're a little crazy. Is that because you're so young?

"Usually, kids in general are a lot more fickle," Liu concedes. "They like more exciting, crazy positions than the older people do."

What about killer instinct? Do you want to just dominate and crush your opponent?

"Definitely. Yes. Once you sit down at the board, you have to have the same thought process as a pitcher wanting to dominate a hitter, or a boxer wanting to knock someone out. You need to have that, or else the game can just slip out of your hands, like in any other sporting event."

Chess is a sport?

"There is always that debate," Liu says. "But it's definitely a sport. And those who play high-level competitive chess will know what I'm talking about. There was some statistic that playing a chess tournament was the equivalent of playing a bunch of soccer games in a row, or something like that. For someone my age, you can picture taking six SATs in a row over a three-day period, or that type of thing. After one intense chess game, you're just exhausted. And that kind of concentration burns calories. I actually lose weight throughout the course of a tournament. You have to eat like Lance Armstrong or something. You have to eat a high-protein diet every night, you don't get much sleep, you have to prepare.... It's weird. People don't realize what it really takes."

Is chess an art?

"It's definitely a combination of art and sport. For the people who play, it's a beautiful game. There are just beautiful games. There are prizes for brilliance at tournaments, and you don't have to win games to win those prizes. People who play the game appreciate well-played games. But you have to be careful not to get too fancy and artsy and then lose."

Is chess a science?

"Yes," he says. "There are definite rules and laws. And you have to study those."

How far, in the end, does Elliott Liu want to go with chess?

"As far as it takes me, I guess," says Liu. "Chess, unfortunately, isn't very lucrative, so I don't think I want to just pour everything into it. But I think I'll play throughout college, and I'd like to pick up the international master title. I'll just take it as far as it goes, and I'll be happy."

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