Chess mates

Chess, celebrities and celebrity chess—Reno-based chess grandmaster Larry Evans has been around the block and has some stories

Chess grandmaster Larry Evans says “chess is a young man’s game.” He doesn’t play professionally anymore, but he keeps up on the game as a writer and commentator.

Chess grandmaster Larry Evans says “chess is a young man’s game.” He doesn’t play professionally anymore, but he keeps up on the game as a writer and commentator.

Photo By David Robert

Longtime Reno resident Larry Evans, 72, has been a prominent international chess figure for many years. Besides winning his first of five national chess championships when he was 19, being awarded the grandmaster title at 25 and writing more than 20 instructional chess books, he is also widely known for his long-standing professional relationship and long-ago friendship with America’s biggest chess icon, Bobby Fischer.

Evans gave up playing seriously years ago because, as he says, he’d “rather watch people make mistakes than make my own, and comment on them. It’s a young man’s game. It takes a lot of stamina and energy.” He’s still active as a chess writer and commentator.

Evans learned chess by watching his father and brothers play when he was very young. He played in chess clubs in Manhattan, starting at a chess and checkers club in the Times Square of old.

“You could play for 10 cents an hour, and a lot of colorful characters and hustlers hung out there,” he says.

At 14, he joined the Marshall Chess Club and started learning how to play in tournaments. Chess in those days wasn’t viewed with the esteem it has enjoyed in the last few decades. He remembers that in his teens he would be almost ashamed to tell people he was a chess player. He’d frequently make up something else. Still, “I kept getting better, and since I was better at that than anything else, I stuck with it,” he says.

What does it take to be a really good chess player?

“It’s a gift, a knack, like the piano,” he says.

Talent is evident much earlier now. Evans thinks the increasing youthfulness of the game’s major players is an exciting development.

“Scholastic chess is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. Chess Federation,” he reports, “which has about 90,000 members, over half of whom are under 20 now.”

Today, the best players are coming from Asia, where the game originated. While the modern game dates back to an 1850 tournament in London, it’s thought that the earliest form of chess was invented in India. The pieces and rules have changed over the years, and the chess clock was invented only 100 years ago.

Grandmasters are getting younger. Bobby Fischer was the youngest grandmaster when he achieved the title at 18. Today, the youngest grandmaster is 12.

That may have something to do with the ubiquity of computer chess. Chess knowledge spreads instantly throughout the world; there are no secrets anymore. There’s very little money in chess now, except for a few at the very top of the game, but anyone in any part of the world with a $4 chess set can play.

The joy of chess

Evans happily lists the virtues of playing chess: “First and foremost, chess is fun, but it has a lot of educational value. The first book on chess in America was written by Benjamin Franklin.” It was called The Morals of Chess, in which Franklin listed some of the virtues the game helps develop, including patience, foresight and perseverance.Chess is a game of excellence, one in which 39 good moves can be destroyed with one bad move. The mathematics of chess can be daunting. The number of possible moves available from any position is astronomical. But, Evans recalls, “They once asked [José Raúl] Capablanca, the great Cuban player, how many moves he saw ahead, and he responded, with characteristic modesty, ‘Just one. The best one.’”

Evans enjoyed some success finding that one best move against some of the top players during his career. Among world champions, he has drawn or beaten six of them: Max Euwe, Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov, Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian, Vasily Smyslov and Boris Spassky.

With Fischer, he’s enjoyed success of another kind, a long-time friendship.

“I’ve known Bobby since he was 13,” Evans says, relating a story he’s probably told a million times. They met at the Canadian Open Championship in Montreal when Fischer, who was 13, bummed a ride back to New York with Evans.

They collaborated on the one truly substantive chess book that Fischer ever produced, his 60 Memorable Games. Evans says it wasn’t easy to get Fischer to open up about his memories and game secrets: “It was like pulling teeth.”

Evans served as Fischer’s coach for his 1972 championship match against Spassky. After that, Fischer didn’t play professionally again for 20 years. In 1992, he played an infamous rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, there was an executive order forbidding such activity in that country during a civil war.

Fischer’s reputation finally caught up with him, and though he’d lived openly in various places in the East, he was arrested last year in Japan on a revoked passport. Evans says, “Iceland has just given him a passport, and they’re sending a delegation to Japan. … Iceland will be sorry they took him. … He always bites the hand that feeds him. That’s a given. If he comes here, all he’s going to do is spew his hatred for America.”

One of Evans’ current pet peeves is the introduction of drug testing by FIDE, the worldwide chess federation that awards ratings and makes up tournament rules. He speaks passionately on this point: “I can’t think of any better way to drive people away from chess. What danger is there to public safety in playing a game of chess? It’s another layer of bureaucracy deadening things.”

Brushes with (more) fame

Evans has played chess with an eclectic bunch over the years. He was friendly with Stanley Kubrick in his early days, when Kubrick frequented a chess club on 42nd Street in New York City.

He played Marcel Duchamp in the New York State Championship in 1947. “I beat him,” Evans says, with a gentle smile. He’s played with Duchamp numerous times over the years and appeared in a Hans Richter film about chess and Duchamp. They were filmed playing chess in a swimming pool.

He got to know Artie Shaw a bit on a ship in Europe, and he played a few games with Ray Charles in 2002. But perhaps it was his experience in 1950 that illustrates how glamorous the life of a chess star really can be.

“I met Marshall Tito at his palace in 1950. The first post-war chess Olympics was there in Yugoslavia. We went to his palace. I remember we stuffed our pockets with toilet paper because it was the only place it was soft. Everywhere else it was like sandpaper!"