An Exclusive Interview with Larry Kaufman by Jim Eade
C. T. How did you learn to play chess? How old were you?
L.K. My father taught me at age 7, and I had a lesson on how to do the king and rook checkmate at age 8 from Harold Phillips, the first USCF president and a New York champion in the year 1895 (!!). His daughter and my mother were best friends from college.
C.T. Who were you biggest influences?
L.K. Fischer was my biggest influence in my teens, although the book that influenced me the most was Reshevsky’s (“How chess games are won”). On a personal level I would say Steve Brandwein.
C.T. How so?
L.K. When I was a college student at M.I.T., Steve lived nearby and we became friends. I was very impressed with his intellect, knowledge, and memory; he was (and presumably still is) a very brilliant man. At the time I was a high Expert while Steve was already retired from regular tournament play with a 2300 rating, which was pretty good back in the mid 1960s. At blitz chess he was much better still, certainly way beyond my level. He taught me a lot about chess (and other things too), but the biggest impact was a twenty game match we played. Due to the rating disparity we agreed to a 2-1 time handicap; I think Steve took 30′ to my hour. I thought this would make for a fair match, but I was soon to realize how wrong this was. After 19 games I was still seeking my first win; the score was 10 wins for Steve and 9 draws. Finally by some miracle I won the final game. Just a few weeks later, I was the American Open Champion!! This shows both how much I learned from this match and how strong Steve must have been to score so well against me giving me time odds; my own rating soon hit 2300.
I played many other training matches over the years with various masters, but this was the only one I lost. My match victims in these matches included Bill Hook, Mark Diesen, Larry Gilden, and Arnold Denker. There was also a drawn match in my very early days with Frank Street, who soon became the nation’s second Black chess master.
C.T. When did you begin to suspect a life long love for the game was in the works?
L.K. During high school I oscillated between chess and bridge, but by the time I entered college (at 16) I dropped bridge for chess.
C.T. What was it that attracted you to chess?
L.K. Probably the fact that I was much better at it than almost all my contemporaries, and I made so much progress. By the time I realized I would not be one of the World’s best players, I was already hooked. I was also attracted by the scientific nature of the game, I always expected to be a scientist or mathematician.
C.T. When you first started, where could you play?
L.K. From the age of 8 to 14, I only played with school mates and occasionally with my father and his chess friends. But this plus a lot of reading was enough to bring me to Class A level.
C.T. When did you first play a formal game?
L.K. My first tournament was the Maryland Junior Championship in 1961 (age 14). I placed second. It was not rated. My first USCF rated game was a D.C. League win over a player rated close to 2000, in 1962. By 1966 I was American Open Champion and briefly after that the nations’ top rated Junior.
C.T. What was the organized chess scene like back when you first got involved?
L.K. There were tournaments, but very few specifically for kids. We also had the D.C. chess league; I played on the high school allstars team.
C.T. Where there multiple chess clubs or hang-outs?
L.K. D.C. area had the Washington Chess Divan downtown, which I went to when I could get down there. There was (and still is) the Arlington Chess Club, but I rarely went there. There was also the Takoma Park Chess Club run by Larry Gilden, which was my main club until it folded. Gilden was the first really top level player I met, and was my chess hero for years. Many years later we played a 20 game match of game/30, which I won by a single game.
C.T. What was your most memorable game?
L.K. Some games are memorable because of the importance of the game (for example my 1966 win over Jerry Hanken made me American Open Champion, but it was a very easy win) or because of the level of the opponent (my World Open victory over GM Ehlvest about ten years ago when he was rated over 2750, but he made a blunder) and some just due to the game itself. One that combines all of the above is my last round win in this Senior Open over IM Foygel, a very nice win over a strong opponent in a crucial game. Of course it’s too recent to call it “memorable” yet, but I think it will qualify a decade from now.
C.T. If you had to choose one chess book as your favorite, which would it be.
L.K. Well, my own book “Chess Advantage in Black and White” must be my favorite, as I invested half a year of my life into it! But as previously mentioned, the book that taught me the most was Reshevsky’s “How chess games are won” (I think it was later reissued under a different title).
C.T. Has technology (Internet, databases etc.) fundamentally changed the game?
L.K. Very much so. It is vastly easier now to become a strong player, and the advantage of years of tournament experience is much less than it used to be. That’s why the peak age for chess has declined from about 35 to under 30.
C.T. How has it affected you over the course of your playing career?
L.K. I’m one of the relatively few players 60 and older who has embraced the new technology. I am co-developer of “Rybka”, the world’s strongest chess program on all rating lists, and teaching Rybka has apparently improved my own game, as my rating is now at a five year peak despite my age and rating deflation. Although my calculation ability has surely declined with age, my understanding of chess in general and openings in particular is much improved due to the engines and databases. Imagine forty years ago if a player could have had Bobby Fischer available 24/7 to answer any chess question to the best of his ability. Having Rybka at my disposal is even better than that would have been.
C.T. How did it feel to win the Senior Open?
L.K. At the start, I was only really seriously hoping to win the 60 and over prize — the trip to the World Senior in Germany. Winning the whole shebang was a very pleasant surprise! I never got to win the U.S. Junior championship as the year I was top Junior it conflicted with the Student Olympiad, to which I gave preference. The Senior title and my American Open win back in 1966 nicely bracket my chess career.
C.T. Will you play in the World Senior tournament?
L.K. Yes. I would play anyway, but the fact that the winner gets the GM title makes it mandatory for me to go, in my first year of eligibility. I know that winning the World title is no easier than making a GM norm and hence a huge longshot for me, but I would only have to do it once, not three times!
C.T. You son just qualified for the IM title, how did that make you feel?
L.K. It was a great sense of relief for me (and for Ray); the thought of his having to spend many more months globetrotting in search of the final norm after several very near misses was unbearable. He made the final norm on the same day as the Senior Open awards ceremony! We believe that we are the only parent/child combination in the U.S. to earn the IM title, though there are some where the parent is an FM.
Congratulations from everyone at the US Chess Trust!