Player Profile: Teresa Lee (907)
Teresa Lee learned the moves as a child, but started taking chess seriously only as an adult. “I started playing chess again a couple of years ago,” she says – this after quitting chess in grade 5. She represents a group we try to cater to at Annex Chess Club: people joining the club to become better chess players, even starting from scratch. But taking up chess later in life is not an easy row to hoe. It means devoting regular time to study, and putting up with losing many games to children, or “being schooled by a bunch of nine-year-old boys,” as Teresa puts it good-humouredly.
When I am playing a move that I think will trap my opponent or improve my position significantly, I physically feel cold and start shivering or I have trouble breathing. There are not too many things in life that will do that to me.
Will there be a wave of newcomers to chess in the days and years ahead? Some are predicting the new World Champion, Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, may do for the popularity of the game today what American Bobby Fischer did in the 1970s, inspiring a generation of North American players to take up chess. Magnus is a charismatic figure; on the board he’s known as a fighter who avoids theory, spurns draws, and plays for an edge by taking his opponent into murky terrain requiring very precise play. He is, in fact, Teresa’s favourite player (if the choice isn’t “too cliché”). You shouldn’t have to ask her why: “Isn’t it obvious?” she quips.
It is not Magnus Carlsen, though, who inspired Teresa to take up the game. She credits The Immortal Game by David Shenk for kindling her initial enthusiasm. The book, written for a popular audience, mixes the moves of the famous “immortal” game, played by Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky in 1851, with a (quite compelling, evidently) 1500-year history of chess itself. In Teresa’s words, it was “so inspiring that I decided to take up the game.”
On being a woman and learning as an adult
Chess is notoriously difficult to learn as an adult, at least if one expects to reach the top levels – some even say impossible, comparing it to becoming a world-class concert pianist. And yet there are many strong players who learned the game “later in life.” Martin Weteschnik (author of Understanding Chess Tactics) started at 25, and he’s a FIDE master, rated over 2300; Mikhail Chigorin started playing seriously at 24 (not having even learned the moves till age 16), and he played in World Championship matches.
So why do kids have such an easy time, comparatively, learning chess? Some say their brains are different. But Teresa chalks it up mostly to available time: “Kids have so much more time to consistently devote to chess than adults. Most adults have to work and earn a living. I find the hardest thing about chess is playing often enough to improve. Playing once a week doesn’t help me improve.” Her “short term (now becoming long term) goal” is to reach a rating of 1600 (that of an average club player). “I feel like I’m improving although it is not apparent in my rating.” After eight tournaments, her CFC rating is currently 907.
Ultimately, chess is a game of war, which I think is inherently more appealing to boys than girls.
If Teresa is in the minority for getting into chess as an adult, she’s in another minority playing chess as a woman. Participation rates for women in chess tournaments are often 10% or less. (Our last tournament had 5 women participating, out of almost 70 players; the Hart House Holidays Open last weekend – even though Hart House Chess Club has a female president and a half-female executive – had 9 women registered, out of 150 players)
Some say it’s the game itself that is less attractive to women. Others say it’s the culture that has built up around tournament chess that is a barrier to female players. Teresa is in the former camp: “Ultimately, chess is a game of war, which I think is inherently more appealing to boys than girls. I try to raise my kids as gender neutral as possible – I don’t buy my son toy guns yet he manages to cut a gun out of his breakfast toast.”
Playing at Annex Chess Club and beyond
In terms of chess culture – at our club at least – Teresa describes us as “very welcoming and open.” She says all the people at Annex Chess Club are “amazing,” but our founder and current Chair of the Board, Ted Winick, she singles out for special mention: “Ted is one of the nicest people I have ever met.” Indeed it’s our friendly club that got her over the hump from a casual to a tournament player: “I played for a year in the casual section before mustering the courage to play in a tournament – I’m not sure I would have ever played in tournaments if the people at the club weren’t so friendly.” When she won her first tournament game against a 1200-rated player, it was “the peak of her chess career” – and she hasn’t looked back since.
The weekly Monday-night tournament game at Annex Chess Club is her “main chess event,” but she “squeezes in” a game here and there, wherever she can: “I play a little chess at lunch sometimes, and I started a chess club at my work to try to get my colleagues in the game. It’s amazing how many people are willing to play chess if you offer free pizza.”
Still, she admits that chess is not really a great social game: “When I play chess with my friends, we don’t end up talking a lot. There’s been a few times where I played chess with a friend at a party and ended up ignoring everyone else. The host was not very pleased with me.
Teresa has even been on a “chess vacation” to New York City. She went with her friend, Anna, “to play chess in Washington Square Park. Every day we’d play chess against each other at breakfast, do a bit of shopping and then go to the chess park for a few hours.” It sounds like a great vacation, but she says Annex Chess Club remains her chess home: “It was pretty cool playing with the hustlers. I drew my first game which made me pretty happy. I prefer playing at the Annex Chess Club, though.”
There’s been a few times where I played chess with a friend at a party and ended up ignoring everyone else. The host was not very pleased with me.
Coaching and training
Teresa learned the game from her family: “My dad and my brothers were my first chess teachers” – but she continues, now, with a professional coach: “my friend Andrew Pastor, who sporadically comes to Annex Chess Club.”
She describes her playing style today as “methodical and conservative.” While hasn’t memorized many chess openings – “I’m not good at memorizing specific move orders and the proper response to each opening. It’s not the way I learn (and not the way my chess coach thinks I should learn)” – she prides herself on being an imaginative defender: “I think I play better defensively than offensively. I surprise myself with my imaginative moves when I am clearly losing but give up advantage quickly when I’m in the lead.”
On her road to becoming a better chess player, with the limited time available to her as she works full time and has two kids, Teresa makes sure at least to devote five minutes per day to chess tactics on chesstempo.com.
Her current chess book, which she’s just finished, is The Amateur’s Mind by Jeremy Silman. “Now I’m starting to go through specific chapters again where I am particularly weak.”
Here’s one of her most memorable games, where she was winning, at a certain point, against a much higher-rated player.
Featured Game: Jean-Marc David (1397) vs. Teresa Lee (887)
Finally, here are Teresa Lee’s top three reasons to love chess.
- Beauty and geometry: “Aesthetically, I think chess is beautiful. I would love to own a really nice, wood chess set one day. I love the feeling of a well carved, heavy chess piece in my hand and the way it slides across the board. I love the symmetry of the board.”
- Symbolic richness: “I like how chess symbolizes and reflects life. I love that a pawn can become one of the most important pieces on the board. Or that a good opening or start in life is important, but is not the final determinant in the endgame. Or how easy it is to get lost in tactics and forget the long term strategy of the game. Or that a game well played can be more satisfying than winning. I see a lot of parallels in life and chess.”
- Thrill of the game: “Mostly I love the challenge of the game. I find chess emotionally exhausting. When I am playing a move that I think will trap my opponent or improve my position significantly, I physically feel cold and start shivering or I have trouble breathing. There are not too many things in life that will do that to me.”