It all started with him
Free will is a useful illusion to make people behave better, but of course it does not really exist. We are conceived with a specific random mix of our parents' genes. Every aspect of our subsequent life is determined by these genes, environment, nutrients, upbringing and random events. Even though many of there factors are unknown, or too complicated to account for, they are all incompatible with free will. As Schopenhauer said: "Man is free to do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills".
13 years ago Ethan (then 5) is taken by his grandma to an activities fair at a local school. He sees a checkered board at one table, and thinks he knows the game because his nanny has already taught him how to play checkers. But here the pieces are weird -- one looks like a horse, another like a tower, others wear crowns. And each kind of piece moves differently, unlike in checkers. Ethan wants to learn how they move.
At home, we don't even have a chess set, despite our presumed cultural heritage. Ethan's mom buys a small chess set with printed visual instructions, Ethan learns the moves, and voilà -- our life is predetermined from now on, for many years to come. No free will at all. Just random recombination of chromosomes, and a series of random events. We cannot will what we will.
December 2003, first chess medal
We sign up Ethan for that local school chess circle, and at first it does not look like anything serious. A bunch of kindergarteners with 5 second attention spans, totally unimpressed by the desperate efforts of their martyr chess coach Vladimir. "Don't capture the king!!!" he yells in desperate wrath. The concept of checkmate is the first real hurdle. Ethan does not speak much, and like all kids he does not look concentrated at all. But he gets the concept of checkmate right away, maybe a sign of things to come.
June 2004, third chess medal
During a chess game, he transforms. For the first time in life, we see him sitting in one place for more than 30 seconds. Then 2 minutes. Then 5 minutes. We fight the desire to run check his pulse. He moves a piece. We breathe out.
February 2005, things are getting serious
In a few month, tournament medals start to flow. A trickle initially - first place in class, then school, then district. Then more and more. In a few years, he's a top player in his grade level, and a chess champion. Coach Vladimir teaches in the school chess club, while Coach Nahum gives Ethan private chess lessons.
April 2007, need more wall space
At first, it's mostly local events. Gradually it turns out you need to go outside our city to find worthy opponents. Medals and trophies fill the walls and shelves in our home. We move to a larger home far away. In the new school, chess skills bring Ethan much appreciation, as he helps his school chess team win first place.
January 2008, first first place in our current place
When Naomi becomes 5, she takes after Ethan into chess, in what she disarmingly describes to a newspaper correspondent as "I like to win trophies and dollars".
Free will? Nah... just big brother's example and similar genes. A 5-year-old girl is no freer to will what she wills than a Schopenhauer's "man".
Ethan and Naomi play at many local tournaments. They study chess with GM Greg Serper. Coaches are integral to their success.
Both Ethan and Naomi win first places at the State Elementary Chess Championship, in grades 5 and K. It's destiny.
April 2009, Ethan and Naomi win first places at State Elementary Chess Championship
Bit-by-bit, Chess Travel becomes a big part of our lives. All four of us travel to multiple chess tournaments:
- Vancouver - April 2008
- Las Vegas - June 2008
- Orlando - December 2008
- Redmond - November 2009
- San Francisco - October 2010
- Tacoma - April 2011
... and then later in 2011 this Chess Travel blog starts! Look at the left pane here for all the subsequent posts, like Langley, Newport, Las Vegas, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, etc.
With time, it becomes a well-drilled routine. We find a tournament, register both kids, buy 4 air tickets online, book a hotel room. Then we fly, check in, find the playing venue. Drop off the kids when a round starts, parents go sightseeing, then come back, wait for the kids to finish a game, feed them, repeat for each round, make sure the kids sleep plenty. We typically stay in a 2 queen bed room, parents in one bed, kids in another.
Some of our chess travel is recurring annually, like the WA - BC Intermat, here in 2012:
And some of it is local, like the WA High School Team Championship, which Ethan's school team wins in 2014:
And sometimes we go to very very faraway places, like Montevideo, Uruguay for the 2016 Pan-American Youth Chess Championship.
In 2014, after finishing 10th grade, Ethan (then 16) gets accepted into the university, 2 years early! The rigors of academic life keep Ethan busy and take their toll on chess. For two years his chess rating hovers just a few points short of the National Master USCF rating 2200:
At the July 2016 Pan-American Youth Chess Championship, Ethan is the official US representative, and he plays well. The resulting FIDE rating bump is converted into USCF rating, and brings him to 2196, so tantalizingly close to the US National Master level -- just 4 points short. He's now ranked 24th in the USCF Top Age 18 players list.
Ethan is US official representative at 2016 Pan-American Youth Chess Championship U18
In December 2016 Ethan plays at the WA G-60 Championship and gets to 2199. And then... drumbeat... in February 2017 at the Super Bowl Tornado he squeezes another point and gets to 2200! A National Master! Job well done.
Phew... we can breathe again. The kid will have on his resume both "Chess NM" and "Math BA". All four of us in the family are now Masters -- Dad is M.Sc. Computer Science, Mom is M.Sc. Civil Engineering, Naomi is Woman FIDE Master and Ethan is US National Master.
Are we Masters of our destiny, though? There is no free will, still.
P.S. The Northwest Chess magazine printed this article in its May 2017 issue.