Spotlight on Bill Brock

An Introduction to Bill Brock:


Bill Brock is one of the most active and well-known chess players in Chicago, with a long record of chess public service. He is a 2000+ level player in chess tournaments. He is a long-time officer and a former President of the Illinois Chess Association, where he was an early advocate for strengthening Chicago’s scholastic program. From 2009 to 2013, he wrote and edited the city’s most active chess blog, chicagochess.blogspot, which covered both youth and adult chess. He is also a founding member of the board of the Chicago Chess Center. Bill is a certified public accountant; his volunteer activities for US Chess include chairing its audit committee and serving on its finance committee.

[Links to authors, books, and websites are provided at the bottom of this article, if available.]


An Interview with Bill Brock:


Q: How and when did you first get involved in chess?

A: In the mid-1960s, our family lived in Sanford, North Carolina. My father was a Methodist; my mother was Irish Catholic, and we were brought up Catholic. I was the oldest of four. This was at the tail end of Jim Crow: our school was segregated until fourth grade. Our church wasn’t strictly segregated but there was an unofficial “black side” and “white side.” The Klan was active in our county, and I saw some horribly racist adults. But they were the exception. I had this general feeling of somehow not quite fitting in.


When I was six and seven, I played a lot of checkers. Different kids played with different rules. Some believed in “huffing” checkers; I was a purist who believed that jumps were compulsory. I played a couple times with my parents, who probably let me win. But my Uncle Jack in Pennsylvania could beat me handily. He’d been in the Navy during the war, and I imagine he’d played lots of checkers and poker when not on duty. He taught me some basic checkers tactics:

brock_figure-01-184x230Black salvages the draw with the fork 1…e3-f4!


I finally beat Uncle Jack when I was 47 and he was 81.


Back in Sanford, in the summer of 1965, there was an activities program at our local school. I found a chess set (another game played on my favorite folding red-and-black checkerboard) and tried to teach myself. It was too hard, and I gave up.


In the summer of 1966, there was an activities program at a local playground. I don’t remember how I learned the rules. There was a summer chess championship: I was winning the game, and the older kid “accidentally” knocked the board over. The activities director had us play a rematch, which I lost.


My mother took us to the public library every Sunday. I loved to read Dr. Seuss, but also the books of the American chess authors Chernev (The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Player) and Reinfeld (The Complete Chess Course). Without a teacher’s guidance, 95% of the content was over my head.


My favorite beginner’s book was The Chess Apprentice by Morrison and Bott. I still remember its epigram:

The little angels of Heaven
Each wear a long white dress,
And in the tall arcadings
Play ball and play at chess

There was a local club for adults, but no one wanted to play with a child. I would sit alone for hours until my mother picked me up. Once, an adult played one game with me, and noted that I lost quickly because I had not developed my queenside pieces. No second chance. After two or three visits, I stopped going.


In the summer of 1967, I was nine years old. Our family went on a Sunday drive in Raleigh. Somehow we came across college students playing chess. My father talked to a student named Alan Rufty, who told us that the U.S. Junior Open was starting the next day. My father asked his sister, Aunt Emily, if she would put me up for a week. And that’s how I came to play in my first US Chess tournament.


Before round 1, I put 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 on a board, and a teenager sat down and said “Why are you looking at that old-fashioned opening?” (Fashions would change again in a few years.) Soon he and his friends were analyzing the Evans Gambit, Compromised Defense, just for laughs. I had no idea what they were talking about. My father reassured me that the kids weren’t as smart as they thought they were.


I was horrible. I know at least one player was giving me two-rook odds in skittles games. I remember beginning one game 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.c5?! Anyway, I lost my first seven games.


I did not play round 8. My father had been committed to a mental institution. Although I’m sure the dividing line was not so clearcut, in my memory this was the moment when my happy childhood became unhappy.


My mother and Aunt Emily agreed that it would be good for me to play the last round. “It means so much to him.”


I finally won a game with a “brilliant” Exchange sacrifice:


There were more pieces, but I remember the tactic vividly.
1.Rxa5 axb5 2.a6 and White promoted in a few moves,
then announced mate a few moves later.


To summarize: for me, chess was a place where I could escape from thinking about unpleasant things. And without anyone to teach me, there was a four-to-five-year time span between becoming passionate about chess and  becoming a decent player.


When my parents divorced and we moved to my grandparents’ hometown, Shamokin, Pennsylvania, our circumstances were quite modest. My mother worked as a third-shift nurses’ aide to support four children; we lived with her parents and then public housing; groceries were paid for with food stamps. But I felt much more support from the community in Shamokin, and many casual players suddenly became interested in chess because of Fischer’s championship run. The adults would teach me, play with me, take me to tournaments, mentor me. And at the age of 14, I became the strongest player in town and one of the strongest players in Central Pennsylvania. I don’t remember any of the adults being threatened: they were proud of my friend Dan Polastre and me. They put us on board 1 and 2 in intercity matches slightly before we deserved it. We were no more than medium-strength amateurs by today’s standards, but it helped us believe in our own abilities.


I was admitted to MIT a couple years later. It is hard for me to imagine any of my successes in life having happened without chess.


And I wonder: what if I had received that support four years earlier?


Q: Do you have chess heroes?

A: The first chess book I owned (age 9) was Capablanca’s My Chess Career. A beginner can learn a lot about back rank mates by studying the end of Bernstein-Capablanca (below) for 15 minutes. White has several plausible defenses, as Black’s back rank is vulnerable too. Try to find all the possible defenses, then figure out why they don’t work!


So even simple positions are complicated. And Capablanca played so many model games. For example, I have won at least half a dozen rook endings because I studied Capablanca-Tartakover, New York 1924 when I was a kid. I just read my friend David Franklin’s notes to a game he lost to GM Vladimir Georgiev. He was worried about getting his bishop buried as in Winter-Capablanca, Hastings 1919.


I probably learned the most from Botvinnik’s books. When I was a teenager, I won a lot of games in the Botvinnik Semi-Slav. Thanks to GM Mesgen Amanov, I’ve started playing it again, with mixed results (so much theory today!). But I couldn’t really call Botvinnik a hero.


Today? My heroes are the geezers: Kramnik, Anand, Gelfand, not that I understand what they’re doing. Locally, I have drawn Erik Karklins twice: I hope his health allows him to return to tournament play soon!


Q: Tell us about your upcoming lecture series?

A: It’s a series of six Saturday afternoon talks (at six different Chicago Public Library [CPL] locations!) on the history of chess from Morphy to Capablanca. The talks roughly follow, or respond to, Richard Réti’s Modern Ideas in Chess (the link takes you to a play-through Web version of this classic book). Garry Kasparov retold the story in Volume 1 of My Great Predecessors.


The “heroes” of the series are Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz, and José Raúl Capablanca. Morphy added positional play to the romantic attacking style of the 1850s. Steinitz started out as an attacker in the style of Anderssen and Morphy, but totally changed his style after becoming the #1 player in the world, and developed theories of defense, attack, closed positions, and transformation of advantages. Steinitz and his disciples, Lasker and Tarrasch, dominated chess until about 1910.


In the decade before World War I, the great “scientific” players, Capablanca and Akiba Rubinstein, synthesized the ideas of Morphy (for open positions) and Steinitz (for closed positions). This is an oversimplified story, but folks who have studied art history, music history, or even literary history are bound to notice the parallels.


You might say that’s very nice, but wonder if there’s any practical value in continuing to talk about chess games that were played a century or two ago. Kasparov gave the same answer as Réti did. The great thinkers of chess history had to figure out the same problems that we beginners have to figure out as we on our way to becoming strong players. “When do I attack? When do I defend? What do I do when there’s nothing to do?”


Humans are not computers: we can’t calculate every variation. We have to take intuitive shortcuts. As we become stronger players, we must strengthen both our calculation and our intuition.


So if we study these games soon after we start playing chess, we’ll develop as players much more quickly.


Most musicians listen to Mozart and Beethoven before they listen to modern composers. Same idea!


My goal is to present these fun games in a way that is easy for beginners and intermediate players to understand. So I’m not going to talk about the Hypermoderns or Alekhine: stronger players can do that!


Q: How and why do you find the time to do so much?

A: Actually, I always have a nagging feeling that I’m not doing half of what I should be doing. I waste a lot of time playing meaningless blitz games online. Most days, I don’t watch television, and we don’t have cable.


Q: Are you optimistic about chess in Chicago?

A: It took a long time from conception to execution, but the Chicago Chess Foundation’s public rollout has been very impressive. If we bring more and more varied quality chess programs to Chicago Public Schools, that’s enormous. Look what Chess in the Schools has done for students in New York City: we can do this here.


I’m the treasurer of another startup nonprofit, the Chicago Chess Center: it too has taken much longer to get off the ground than I anticipated. But we have new leadership, a great business plan, and I’m really excited about the positive feedback we’ve been getting from the folks we’ve shared the plan with.


I don’t see anyone else stepping up to bring quality chess to CPS in the way that the Chicago Chess Foundation is doing. And I don’t see anyone else bringing a home for chess to the city of Chicago as we plan to do with the Center. So that gives us a sense of urgency and purpose.


For some, chess is just a nice board game. But for many of us, chess is a fun and painless introduction to critical thinking. When you walk into a tournament hall and see hundreds of young people thinking, that’s very exciting! Today’s chess players are tomorrow’s doctors, engineers, professors, and poets.


So yes, I’m excited :-)


List of mentioned authors, books and links:

My Chess Career

The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played
Check availability via Chicago Public Library GV1452.C49 1992 (1 copy) GV1452.C49 1965 (1 copy)

Morrison and Bott
The Chess Apprentice

The Complete Chess Course
Check availability via Chicago Public Library GV1445.R25 (3 copies)

Illinois Chess Association
Chicago Chess Center
information regarding Bill’s upcoming lecture series

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