An Exclusive Interview with An American Grandmaster Joel Benjamin by Jim Eade (USCT)

Grandmaster Joel Benjamin is one of three players (Nick de firmian and Larry Christiansen are the other two) to be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year.

In his book “American Grandmaster,” Joel notes that only Walter Browne has played in more U.S.  Championships. Joel won the tournament in 1987, 1997 and 2000.

In the introduction to his book, he notes that he is “a forty-three year-old Pisces. I like sports, crossword puzzles, nature programs, and controlled mating attacks.” He is married to Deborah Quinn Benjamin.

Joel agreed to be interviewed for the US Chess Trust’s web site. Interview by Jim Eade .

C.T.: How did you learn to play chess? How old were you? Who were you biggest influences?

J.B.: I learned to play at eight from my brother and played within my family. My first major exposure to chess was the Fischer-Spassky match, so I guess Fischer was an early influence (though throughout my career I’ve never really been a favorite player type of person). My uncle was a USCF expert and it was an early thrill to be a able to win games from him.

C.T.: When you first started, where could you play? When did you first play a formal game? What was the organized chess scene like back when you first got involved? Where there multiple chess clubs or hang-outs?

J.B.: I first played in Goichberg’s Greater New York Primary School Championship in December 1972.  Scholastic chess was just beginning in those days, thanks to the Fischer boom producing players and Goichberg running events. There was a fair amount of activity at clubs.  The Manhattan was thriving then (I had a longtime connection with them) and the Marshall of course, but I played a few times at clubs in Brooklyn and Queens as well.  Most of my early tournaments were Goichberg CCA events.

C.T.: When did you begin to suspect a life long love for the game was in the works? What was it that attracted you to chess?

J.B.: I was good at chess and successful when I competed–I think that is pretty much the attraction for all prodigies. By my tenth birthday I was playing in tournaments regularly and it became the number one thing in my life.  It was only after college though that I decided to make it a career.

C.T.: I have you finishing first in the US Championship in 1987, 1997 and 2000.  What other tournaments stand out in your memory? You played on some successful Olympiad teams. What was that experience like? What was it like to play against a formidable team such as the old USSR ones? How did the competition change over the years, if it did?

J.B.: The Estes Park Championships, 85-87, were the most fun and satisfying of the 23.  In 85 I came second and made my first GM norm. In 86 I came equal second and qualified for the Interzonal.  The Olympiads were wonderful experiences.  Great competition, great opportunities to meet players from all over the world, great camaraderie with my teammates.  The match with the Soviets was the highlight of the early Olympiads.  Later the world got smaller and so many players changed countries, a lot of the mystery was lost.  The competition got much stronger; in my first few tournaments there were only five or six serious medal contenders; now finishing in the top ten is a strong result.  I don’t think Americans realize just how successful our teams have been over the years.

C.T.: You decided to turn pro after college, and you have been a successful one.  If you hadn’t, what do you think you’d be doing today?  What would your advice be to a talented young player today faced with the decision of whether to turn pro?

J.B.: I had no idea what else I could do when I finished college, but with hindsight it would be a writing career, perhaps as a novelist or journalist.  I would have to be honest with young players today.  We live in good times for chess professionals, with many opportunities for steady income through teaching, writing, and Internet work, but bad times for chess players. The competition is extremely intense with too many players for the market to bear.  Conditions for players in the U.S. have not improved over the years. Anyone who wants to devote their career to playing chess has to be prepared to put their work above everything else.  I think that to compete with players overseas you have to move to Europe for a more professional environment.

C.T.: What was your most memorable game?  If you were to be remembered for only one game, would you want it to be that one or another?  If you had to choose one chess book as your favorite, which would it be?

J.B.: I have many favorite games, but my win over Seirawan in the 1979 U.S. Junior Championship stands out.  I don’t think I’ve played a better game, and I was only fifteen at the time.  I think the games of mine that people will remember are the ones that were most significant to them at the time they were played.

I love the books of my childhood. “How to Open a Chess Game” with chapters written by several different grandmasters, was the most significant to me.  My autobiography, “American Grandmaster: Four Decades of Chess Adventures,” is particularly meaningful because it is the culmination of everything I’ve done up to this point.

C.T.: You end up spending so much time with other American GMs over the years.  I assume you end up with friendships, or at least mutual respect.  What is it like playing against a friend over and over in top competitions, and who was your toughest competitor?

J.B.: Several of my colleagues are dear friends of mine.  I’m especially pleased to be enshrined with Christiansen and de Firmian because we have shared many great experiences and they are both brilliant players.  I can’t say I enjoy playing against my friends, though I’ve had some good games with Larry and Nick.  My favorite opponent, though, was Seirawan, even though he is a good friend as well.  We didn’t play in as many tournaments together so we played rather less often.  He had such an unusual style that I felt every game was a challenge, a strategical duel of sorts.

C.T.: Has technology (Internet, databases etc.) fundamentally changed the game?  Has it made life easier or more difficult for you as a professional?

J.B.: The technological revolution has of course changed the game radically.  Young players dominate much more, because experience is much less valuable.  Players can catch up on everything that happened before with their databases.  The chess engines find the “truth” of a position, though I preferred when annotations were more personal, if flawed.   It’s harder for a veteran player today because strong new players pop up all the time and even mediocre ones can play a decent opening.  On the other side, all the computer advancements have brought grandmasters and fans together.  I like that I can now educate and entertain people on the ICC in a way that was not possible for a big chunk of my career.

C.T.: How does it feel to be elected into the Hall of Fame?  What are your future plans in chess?

J.B.: Hall of Fame represents the pinnacle of achievement in any endeavor.  This honor puts the exclamation point on of a lifetime of wonderful experiences in chess.

I’m essentially retired as a professional player.  My main activities are in teaching classes and individuals, coaching at camps and youth events, writing columns, articles, and books, and Internet commentary and shows.  I play when the mood strikes and my other activities permit the time.  I don’t think I’ll ever stop playing completely.  I’m not fond of most of the tournaments on the landscape, but I love the game as much as ever.

C.T.: On behalf of the Trustees, congratulations on your enshrinement in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.

See Other Related Articles: GMs Larry Christiansen, Nick De Firmian, and Joel Benjamin Voted Into U.S. Chess Hall of Fame

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