top of page

Excerpt from My Chess Memoir

Home: Welcome
Home: About


I was sitting at the board, not moving a muscle, but the adrenaline pumping through my body felt like I’d just dodged out of the way of an oncoming truck.

In front of me was a chessboard. Upon its surface were two armies: the white and black pieces that had been battling tirelessly for more than five straight hours. To the side of the board was a clock that measured and limited our thinking time, a constraint for the generals that commanded and maneuvered the pieces. And across the board sat my opponent—my enemy—the person whose sole objective was to outthink and destroy me.

The tension in the air was so thick I dared not even consider shifting in my seat to break it. It was like holding your breath, waiting for something to happen—for five straight hours. At some moments I wanted to just flip the board and walk out, anything to escape the crushing pressure I felt in my chest, in my face, on every square inch of my body. My shirt was damp with sweat. My face was red-hot from the stress of relentless mental exertion.

Two dozen people had crowded around the board, watching intently as my opponent and I made our every move. The scrutiny was unimaginable—it was as if at every move I could hear each person’s thoughts in the audience: Why did you do that?

Imagine standing in front of an auditorium, solving complex math equations for a captive audience. If you make single mistake, you’ll instantly lose everything you’ve ever dreamed of. Everyone in the audience has already been given a cheat sheet—they know all the answers—and their prying eyes look on as you solve the problems in front of you. You can’t miss a single detail or you’ll get the wrong answer. You must do every calculation correctly, one problem after the next.

That is the feeling of a final-round game of competitive tournament chess, like the one I was playing then.

I was sitting across the board from one of the best chess players on the planet, and everything was on the line. The winner would have their dream come true, and the loser would walk away with nothing. The result of the game teetered on a knife’s edge, and any small slip could cause it to swing in my enemy’s favor.

How did I end up sitting in this chair, engaged in the ultimate intellectual battle? Well, this is my chess memoir, and that’s the story I want to tell you.

Chess can provide a rush like nothing else, pitting yourself against another human being on a purely intellectual playing field. There is no luck in chess. It is a game of complete information—both players always know exactly where all the pieces are. There’s nothing and nowhere to hide. It’s just your best game against your opponent’s, and the better player wins.

My experience in chess was a profound detour from the conventional career-oriented trajectory I assumed my life would follow. I could have lived my entire life without ever picking up a chess piece. There was no part of me that needed to play chess. It was entirely avoidable.

And yet I did play chess. I played very seriously for a reasonably long time—I spent several years of my twenties playing this game. It is one of the most significant pursuits I’ve ever undertaken. I put a lot of myself into the game and sometimes I’m not entirely sure why. I know that the experience was beautiful, impactful, and challenging, and I found it to be compelling. It was also intensely private. It was a circle of friends and enemies that no one else outside of that world really understands. I shared this experience with these people but not with anyone else—until now.

The following explores a lot of deeply personal subjects. By sharing my story, my hope is to feel understood, and to help others who have taken up an obsessive passion feel understood.

I hope you enjoy reading about my experience with the world of chess, and all the wonderful individuals who populate it.

Excerpt from Chapter 4:
My Tournament Journey Begins   

After becoming a regular at the Bluenose Chess Club in the fall of 2011, I felt like I was now officially part of the chess community. My first few months were challenging for my ego, as I suffered endless defeats week after week. Although my trips to the club were humbling and sometimes frustrating, as time wore on my weekly visits started to feel like a natural and welcome part of my routine.

As a newcomer to the community, I sometimes felt out of place. One of the things that made me feel that way was that I was an “unrated” player. When I signed up to play at the club each week the organizers of the club would ask me what my rating was, and time and time again I had to tell them that I didn’t have one yet. All the tournament regulars had their Canadian Chess Federation rating written next to their names on their results cards, but next to mine was “UNR”—unrated. The games we played at the club were not officially rated games. The only way to get my rating was to play in an official competitive tournament.

Each player is ranked using a format called the “Elo rating system,” named after physics professor Arpad Elo. It works like this: For each officially rated game that is played, the winner’s rating goes up and the loser’s rating goes down. To give you a rough idea of what certain Elo ratings mean, in the Canadian Chess Federation a competent beginner would have a rating of about 1000–1200. An intermediate player would have a rating somewhere in the range of 1500–1800, and the strong club players have ratings of 2000 and higher.

I remember reading endless discussions, debates, complaints, and brags online about people’s ratings. I recall thinking with excitement about what my first rating might be. I was so eager to be a part of these conversations.

I scoured the chess club’s website, trying to figure out what the tournament schedule looked like. It turned out that there was only one tournament left in 2011 before the winter off-season: the Thanksgiving Open. It was going to be held during Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, which is the second weekend of October. I was simultaneously terrified and excited at the prospect of playing in a real tournament. I didn’t know what to expect or how to prepare, but I knew I wanted to make the leap to becoming a rated player.

During the week leading up to the tournament I went to a local bookstore to buy some chess books to study. I wanted to learn as much as I could in the time that remained before the start of the event. Although cramming sometimes works in an academic setting, it doesn’t really work in chess, though I did not realize that at the time. Buying a book and trying to study chess frantically in the week before a tournament is sort of like flossing the week before you go to the dentist—it’s better than nothing, but if you haven’t been doing it consistently it’s not really going to accomplish what you hope it will.

I tried my best to play practice games with my friends and study the books that I had bought, spending a couple of hours each night getting ready. I had no idea what to expect, but I was doing everything I could to try to maximize my chances of having a successful first tournament.

After an anxious and excited week, the first day of the tournament rolled around. That morning I was sitting in class, trying to pay attention to the lecture, but my mind was racing. I was thinking about some of the chess puzzles I had studied the night before and reflecting on which openings I would try during the tournament.

The class I was sitting in was called “neuroanatomy,” basically learning about all the different structures of the human brain. It was a notoriously intense class, so it was not a good time for my own brain to be fixated on chess. It was easy to fall behind if you didn’t give the lectures your full attention, but I couldn’t help myself.

Some people disliked the neuroanatomy course because the material was difficult and the amount of work required for the course was significant. Those aspects didn’t bother me; I generally found the material to be challenging in a fun way. Nonetheless, that course turned out to be a particularly brutal experience for me for reasons unrelated to the difficulty of the class.

It was a highly unpleasant experience due to the presence of two of my classmates: Ella and Jordan.

Ella was, and is, the love of my life. We met in university when I was in my fourth year and she was in her second. When I first noticed her, I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. I know that sounds like a cliché, but I really mean it. I looked at her the way you might look at a supermodel on television, admiring her beauty and not even entertaining the thought that we might meet or have any kind of relationship.

Ella’s name was mentioned in a conversation with one of my coworkers later that week. My interest was immediately piqued. I was excited to hear more about her, but I didn’t want to seem too obvious. “What’s Ella like, anyway?” I asked my coworker when there was a lull in the conversation, making my best effort to remain casual.

“Ella? She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met,” he said.


I thought that statement must have been hyperbole. It would almost be unfair for someone to be that beautiful and the smartest person someone had ever met, too.

Ella and I did end up meeting, and to my incredible fortune we also ended up falling in love. Everything I’d heard was true: Ella was incredibly intelligent. She was always the top of her class and seemed to effortlessly understand anything from mathematics to neuroscience to computer science. Whatever she spent her focus on she could understand with ease. She was also one of the funniest people I’d ever met—our senses of humor somehow mixed perfectly.

We dated for a time, and it was one of the most passionate, wonderful, and intense experiences of my life. Ella and I both had strong personalities and neither of us liked to give in or lose an argument. When we were happy together there was no greater bliss, but when we argued it was terrible. We were together for many wonderful months, but eventually things fell apart. We separated toward the end of the school year, and it was a tough breakup.

We spent the following summer of 2011 alternating between brutal stretches of complete radio silence and intermittent phone calls. When we weren’t speaking I yearned for those phone calls. The idea of talking to Ella one more time was irresistible. But whenever those calls ended poorly—and most of the calls that summer ended poorly—the agony was almost unbearable due to the emotions and heartbreak they caused me to relive.

One evening that summer I was planning my course schedule and I encountered a conundrum. My university offered that fascinating neuroanatomy class, and I wanted to enroll in the fall. The only thing that was giving me any hesitation was my suspicion that Ella would be taking the same class in the fall. I could hardly imagine the torturous experience it would be to sit in the same room as her three times a week now that we’d broken up. It would certainly be painful for me, and I knew that it would be painful for her as well.

I decided that we should sort things out like two adults. Surely we could arrive at some reasonable compromise. I was already going into my fifth year of university and looking to graduate at the end of the year, whereas she was only in her third year, so I called to ask her politely if she could delay taking the class by one year so that we could avoid incredible amounts of pain and awkwardness of taking the class in the same semester.

Ostensibly, making this phone call was a logistical move to coordinate our schedules, but if I’m being honest with myself I was also secretly cherishing it as an excuse to reach out to Ella. All I really wanted and needed was to feel connected to her, even if it was just by hearing her voice. I longed to feel her presence in my life for one fleeting evening.

It was a mild July night, the sky was clear, and I was outside on my side porch when I called her. It started with a few minutes of idle chit-chat, and I was hoping the conversation could go on forever. I was soaking up the sound of her voice. I remember staring up at the stars, wishing she was there by my side.

Eventually, though, we broached the subject of our course schedules. I loved a lot of things about Ella, but one thing I didn’t love quite so much was her stubbornness when it came to arguments, and that was on full display in this negotiation. She flat-out refused my request. She was going to take the course in the fall, and if I wanted to avoid us being in the class together I should be the one to drop out. Eventually we hung up with hurt feelings and hundreds of miles between us. I was furious, but I was also stubborn, and I didn’t want to be the one to back down. I resolved that she wasn’t going to ruin my semester because of her recalcitrance, so I stayed enrolled in the class, even though my instincts told me it was a huge mistake.

The other reason that neuroanatomy was difficult was because of Jordan. I had known him for a few years. He had coached the university cheerleading team for a while, and he had become a dorm resident assistant around the same time that I had. I was always aware of him as a friend of a friend, but we were never particularly close. You might be wondering, if he was just a casual acquaintance, why did he make neuroanatomy class so unbearable?

Well, because he also happened to be Ella’s new boyfriend.



This class was basically a tri-weekly reminder of all the pain I felt due to my breakup with Ella. Every time I stepped into that classroom I was forced to confront all my insecurities and feelings of inadequacy compared to Jordan. He was in better shape than me. He seemed more interesting than me. The two of them sitting in that classroom reminded of all the things that had happened between me and Ella, and I was given a profoundly brutal window into how my ex-girlfriend was moving on without me. It made me feel like a complete loser.

That neuroanatomy class, which I had previously been so excited for, ended up being an excruciating experience. It eventually felt like an anchor to my past, to my university life at large, which I desperately wanted to transition away from. I was growing more and more disillusioned with my studies and I wanted to escape the constant reminders of Ella.

Chess, on the other hand, was an escape from all this. It felt like a way to prove myself and showcase that I had cool, unique hobbies. In the back of my mind I had always felt like if I’d been more impressive or more interesting things might have worked out between me and Ella. I felt like I was easier for Ella to forget about because I wasn’t interesting enough. Chess represented the new life that I was moving toward. It felt like my way to create a life outside of school and become my own person. Chess felt new and exciting and different, and it represented my determination to reinvent myself and not feel perpetually crushed by my breakup with Ella or drained by the monotony of school.

So, as I sat in that Friday class on October 7, 2011, I felt a rush of emotions. I wanted to feel happy and excited about my first tournament—and I did—but I also felt heartbroken and tense. I wondered what Ella would say if she knew I was going to play in a competitive chess tournament. Deep down what I really wanted was to share this experience with her. I wanted to introduce her to all my new chess friends, to show her all the things I had learned. But I couldn’t—or, rather, wouldn’t. There was too much hurt, too much bad blood, and there was Jordan.

Ella didn’t end up coming to class that day. Jordan did—he dutifully attended each class and put his voice recorder on the professor’s podium to record each lecture. Jordan was a big fan of asking questions mid-lecture. He’d often be the first one with his hand up any time the professor asked a question, even the rhetorical ones. While Jordan had his eyes on the professor, I had my eyes on the classroom door. I was still secretly hoping that Ella would walk in. I fantasized about bringing her aside and telling her all about the chess adventure I was going on. I pictured her excitement, how fun she would find it. I imagined her saying that she wanted to come along too. But none of that happened. Ella didn’t walk through the classroom doors that day.

When class ended Jordan picked up his voice recorder and left the classroom. It was finally time for me to leave my school world behind for the weekend and move on to my new, exciting chess life, where no one knew about Ella or Jordan.

I opted to take the bus and head over to the tournament site early. The first round didn’t start until the evening, but I was excited to explore the location a bit. It was a rainy day and the weather reflected my cluttered and depressed mind. I sat in quiet contemplation as the bus hummed along its route, frequently thinking about Ella and trying to force myself to think about chess.

Finally the bus arrived at the playing location, and I jogged to the nearest building entrance to minimize how much time I spent in the rain. I climbed the stairs to the second floor and found the room where the games would be held.

The tournament was played in a beautiful room at Mount Saint Vincent University, with nice big chairs and beautiful tables. It all felt very high-class. There were dozens of boards and sets of pieces ready for us, and stacks of printed score sheets laid out at the front of the room for people to record their moves on. It felt luxurious, as if every possible thing the players would need had already been amply accounted for. I remember thinking to myself, I could get used to this.

Each of the boards had a little numbered plastic sign placed nearby. These were the board numbers. Each board in a chess tournament is numbered in order of how important the game is to the standings of the tournament. The most important game, usually between two of the players in the lead of the tournament, was played on board 1, the second-most important game on board 2, and so on. I figured it would be a while before I played a game on board 1.

I signed up for a Canadian Chess Federation membership, paid my tournament entrance fee, and started to mingle with the players. I didn’t really know what I was talking about for the most part, but thankfully they were more interested in asking questions about me. Newcomers to the tournament scene are always interesting to the established crew of competitors. After more people trickled in, including my fellow rookie Harry from the Bluenose Club, I started to feel a bit more at home. As the minutes ticked by I could feel the butterflies in my stomach flapping harder than ever. I was so excited!

The pairings were announced, and in my first game I was paired against a guy named Gordon. As my matchup was announced I probably could have deduced Gordon’s playing strength from all the nervous eye-darting going on between the other players, but even if I had noticed it wouldn’t really have mattered—there was nothing to do but face the music at that point.

I had the white pieces in the game, and after shaking hands and starting the clock I played my first-ever move in tournament chess. I moved the pawn in front of my king two squares forward...

Home: Contact

Don't Miss The Release!

Get your name on the list to be notified when My Chess Memoir is available!

Thanks for signing up!

bottom of page