Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sixteen (!) Questions with San Fransisco Mechanic GM Patrick Wolff

1. Tell us about your return to chess? During your hiatus, how much did you keep up with the chess world: theory, games, etc? How did it happen that you were recruited for the SF USCL team? How has it felt to play after such a long break? Are you planning to play OTB tournaments again?

I kept in touch with John Donaldson and he asked me to play. I have just enough time in my life to squeeze it in so I thought I should do it because it would be lots of fun. Alex Yermolinsky said that I was "brave" to return after so many years of inactivity, which I thought was very nice but also kind of funny, because this is relaxing for me! Of course I want to win but I care infinitely more about my career and I don't feel like my ego is on the line in any way in these games. (Although it was definitely annoying to get outplayed by Larry after getting a decent opening position...) I think my answers to the questions above give some idea of how little I have practiced in any way. The one thing I do to keep in touch with chess is I co-write the Boston Globe chess column with Harold Dondis, which consists of annotating one game per week. That's interesting, but the annotations are definitely superficial and I have no illusions that it takes the place of any sort of real practice.

2. You have had some sensational USCL games. Any thoughts on the win over Burnett or the loss to Christiansen?

The Burnett game was fun. I think 10...Qa5 is inaccurate (10...a6 looks better) and he probably missed a chance for advantage with 11.Qd2, although 11.Bd2! may be even stronger than 11.Qd2. The combination of 11.h4 and 12.Qd2 wastes a tempo. After 12...b5 Black should have a good position. In time trouble I missed an obvious win with 30...Rb1+, but the basic game looks sound. The Christiansen game was interesting. I definitely overestimated my position after 14...d5. Believe it or not, there is a very nice game in this position from 1966 between Sammy Reshevsky and Tony Saidy! Saidy beat (a very strong) Reshevsky by playing 14...b5 15.Qf2 Rb8 16.g4 Ne5! 17.g5!? (Maybe White should look at other moves here?) 17...hxg5 18.h6 (18.Bxg5 Nfg4!) 18...Nh7!? 19.hxg7 Kxg7 and Black simply hung onto the extra pawn to win. It was a heck of a game and looked very modern. Maybe I should have done that? After 14...d5 15.Kb1 dxe4 (15...Bb4!?) 16.Rxd8+ Bxd8 17.fxe4 I thought I was better, but after only a few moves I just got completely outplayed. The fact that I can't find a clear way to play suggests my evaluation of this position was wrong. I think Black should not be worse, and maybe he does have an edge, but there needs to be some very clear plan which I did not find. The combination of 17...b5 and 18...Qe5 was just awful. I completely missed 20.g3! and after that I'm losing control of the dark squares in the center while I am still behind in development, so Larry just gets a perfect Larry-like position to play. Of course my king run can't work but I thought I might at least confuse him. I missed 27.Nd5!! but I am not surprised it was there -- and I'm not surprised Larry found it. After that my position was just a wreck. Nicely done by Larry.

3. Was it an accident that you had black all three games? If not, why? Are you anxious to play some games with white in the final week and/ or the play-offs?

I was wondering why I had Black in all three games myself! I have heard that playing the first move can be useful. I dimly remember that I used to move my king's pawn on the first move. I may try that when I get the chance.

4. How do you rate SF’s chances in the play-offs? What do you think SF’s strongest line up is? Who are your main play-off rivals? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How much do you personally care how SF does?

I have no idea what our chances are. I certainly would like to see SF go all the way, because it is always fun for your team to win. Sadly, I see that they are playing a washed-up GM on Board One so that will certainly hinder them. But they have a heck of a lot of young talent on the other boards, so maybe there is a chance.

5. Which Mechanic would you nominate for an MVP award and why?

I don't know, but Vinay Bhat appears to be winning all the time so I would think he should get consideration.

6. Who are your favorite and least favorite USCL opponents and why? (You may answer individuals and/or teams)

I enjoy all my opponents, and I am just happy to be playing chess again. Larry is clearly the strongest player I have played so far, and the result of the game showed it.

7. If you had to play for a different USCL team, which would it be and why?

The only other USCL team I would want to play for is Boston, since that is where I lived for much of my life.

8. Describe your preparations for USCL games, including, but not limited to: opening preparation, pre-game superstitions, and interactions with teammates.

Most of my preparation consists of remembering basic opening theory. If I can get to move 10 with a decent position then I am happy. So far, so good.

9. How obsessed are you with chess? In an average week, how much do you study, play and think about chess? If you could choose to be more or less obsessed, would you choose either and to what extent?

I study not at all, although now that I am playing I need to remind myself how the pieces move. (See question #8.) However, I will randomly play through chess positions in my head every day and I will probably never have more than 1-2 days in a row for the rest of my life where I do not think about chess at least once during the day. I love chess quite a lot, and I hope at some point to be able to take some more time to play through games or otherwise interact with the game for more pleasure. I am happy with my current relationship to the game and so long as I will be able to take the aforemention time later in my life to spend some more time with the game I would not change anything. Well, except that I would like not to be distracted by random chess positions so much -- but I suppose it is better than having random music playing in your head.

10. How’s your life outside of chess? Married? Kids? Happy single life? You work for a hedge fund in SF. Fun? Tiring? Stressful? To what extent / in what ways do you think finance and chess use the same skill set?

I love my life, which as you point out is mostly outside of chess now. I am very happily married to a wonderful woman whom I met in San Francisco back in 1999. We have one son, almost 2 years old, and he is so much fun it is incredible. I enjoy working at the hedge fund a lot and I love the job of investing money; I think I have found my "niche" and now I just want to do it as well and as successfully as I can. I think the question of how investing and chess use the same skill set is very complicated and I can't do it justice in this answer. But I will point out one thing. Chess demands objectivity to win. Investing in the markets allows a person to "hide" from the reality of his decisions for some time because there is a lot of random noise in the markets -- of course in the end only skill allows you to outperform, but the feedback loop in chess is much more rapid and pure than it is in the markets. I am very grateful to have had many years of experience developing myself to the highest possible level in such a rigorous environment as chess. The habits of mind that I learned from chess enable me to push myself much harder and much more objectively than the markets "force" you to do, and I believe that this habit of rationality and objectivity is enormously valuable. I think this is probably true for any endeavor, but it is particularly so in the world of finance where there is such a high reward for consistently being rational and objective in an environment where the amount or random noise allows one to rationalize good or bad outcomes.

11. In recent years, a number of prose books about the chess world have been published. Have you read any of the following and, if so, what did you think: The Day Kasparov Quit (Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam), Chess Bitch (Jennifer Shahade), The Chess Artist (J. C. Hallman), Kings of New York (Michael Weinreb), The Art of Learning (Josh Waitzkin), King’s Gambit (Paul Hoffman), Engaging Pieces (Howard Goldowsky), How Life Imitates Chess (Gary Kasparov)?

I have read none of these books. I have read only two chess books in the last 5 years or so: Bobby Fischer Goes to War and Kasparov's 4-book series on the World Champions. I have to hand it to Garry, although the title is obnoxious ("My Great Predecessors"? Come on!) he did a really spectacular job. He's a brilliant guy, there's no question.

12. Any thoughts on Kasparov’s recent appearances on Colbert or Maher?
I think Kasparov is trying to get as much western media exposure as possible to protect himself from any possibility of being assassinated by Putin. Kasparov is a complex and difficult person, but I think he is on the side of the angels in Russia's current politics and I wish him well.

13. Which are your top five chess-related websites and why?

I like TWIC and The Chess Cafe. But really, I follow chess very little online except to get information on recent chess tournaments and annotate one game per week for The Boston Globe (and those annotations are quite shallow from a true chess perspective). I do not allow myself to go to any online chess playing web site as I would become consumed by it.

14. If Bill Gates gave you $100,000 to organize a chess tournament
a) where would you hold it,
b) what format would you choose,
c) who would you invite, and
d) what, if any, special rules would you impose?

If I were limited to $100,000 then I would simply try to hold a decent event for players and make the conditions as reasonable as possible. But the bigger question is how to create something that would take root and grow. If it were an annual sponsorship ($100,000 growing 5% each year from our hypothetical rich donor, for example) then I would make it an event that would make the individual sponsor as happy as possible and I would make it clear to all of the players that the #1 priority is to keep the sponsor happy -- and anyone who acted childishly or irresponsibly would be disinvited the next year. I would prefer to try to create an event that would attract corporate sponsorship, i.e. sponsorship from an entity that derives some business benefit and not just pleasure from the event. But that is hard, and probably $100,000 would not be enough to provide any benefit.

15. If you could hand pick any seven people to serve on the USCF executive board, who would they be?

This is an interesting question. My answer is that I would choose various businesspeople with whom I have worked over the past 10 years who enjoy chess. You do not know any of these people because they are not involved in the USCF. In fact, that is the point. I think at this point the politics are so entrenched that a complete "re-set" would be very beneficial. This does not at all imply that the current people on the USCF board lack good will or organization skills; it simply means that at this point starting completely fresh would probably be a good thing for everyone. But of course, it will not happen, so those who are still involved must do the best they can to work for the higher good, not just their own interests.

16. If you were trapped on a desert island for eternity with no possibility of rescue and could choose to have with you:
a. 5 books
b. 5 albums
c. 1 chess player
d. 1 luxury item, What would you choose?
(The island already contains a chessboard and clock)

I would pick any books and albums that would allow me to get off the island. (Yes, I know you disallowed this but I am a practical person and I would not be happy if I were trapped on a desert island.) The two people I would most want with me are my wife and my son, but I would not wish them to be on a desert island, so I would instead choose the two people who would best be able to get me off the damn island.


Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

This is the most enjoyable thing I have read in a long time. I love his stubbornly practicle answers on things other than chess. If I were trapped for all eternity on a desert island..I'd want someone interesting and fun, Ben Franklin perhaps, and with boat building skills as well but this question never seems to take into account the island size, the varied definitions of desert and what continental life is like, what if it is awful? I digress..