Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Lowry Gambit

I’m a chess player. A few years ago I planned to attend a chess tournament in Charlotte, NC.  I announced to my chess club that I would be driving and invited others to ride along.  To my joy, two experts committing to coming with me. As a class player, I was very much looking forward to picking their minds for four hours in order to get some great advice on improving as a class player to ascend to the sacred ground of expert. This time spent would be invaluable.

Before I left, this weird, old guy whom I did not particularly care for mentioned he would also like to ride with us to Charlotte. This was disaster. This old guy, Paul Lowry, was a non-stop talker. He is the kind of guy who dominated a conversation and never let anyone get a word in.

Even worse, he was weird. He told the strangest stories and he had a lot of them. In fact, his weird stories came non-stop.  The trip, which looked so promising at first, fell into the hands of disaster with the inclusion of Paul.

The four of us were making our way up to Charlotte and my annoyance was already brimming from the outset. The guy would not shut up. On our way back, I found myself snickering at a few of his corny jokes.

The next time this quarterly tournament came up in Charlotte, Paul invited himself along again. This time it was just the two of us. I was not particularly looking forward to this trip.  By the end of our four-hour round trip I was convinced that Paul was an amazing guy who had some fantastic stories to tell.

Paul was a retired firefighter who relayed some fantastic stories about some beautiful young women who loved firefighters. He told me about his background in history and philosophy. Paul told some stories to me about moonlighting for the mafia when he was much younger and stronger. 

Paul was a historian and loved chess history. He could recite any number of significant chess tournaments in history and the impact they had on opening theory.  Paul had memorized amazing stories about chess players and their failures and triumphs on the board. Paul had regular correspondence with GM Yasser Seirwan who referred to Paul as the finest chess historian he had ever met.

Paul was also a writer and had poetry published. He was also a real ham. He used to tell people all the time, “You know Fischer would never play me. He always avoided me for years.” To which people would inevitably respond, “really?” Paul would always cooly respond, “Yep. Herb Fischer, that scoundrel would never play me.”  He was a jovial guy who loved people and would even offer people draws when he had a winning position out of kindness. Paul cared nothing about his rating. He cared only about brightening people’s lives.

Paul had a very extensive collection of really obscure chess books, and a lot of them signed by the original authors. His vast collection of out-of-print books were easily worth thousands of dollars.

He relayed a story to me once where he sat down with an opponent and told his opponent, whom he had never met, “I’m in a bad mood today. And if I lose, one of us is going to get hurt, and it won’t be me.”  Later in the game his opponent was up two pawns and offered Paul a draw. Paul said, “why on Earth are you offering me a draw, you’re clearly winning!” The guy responded, “I just don’t want any trouble from you man.” Paul laughed and said, “I was only joking with you! I resign.”

As mentioned before Paul was a real talkative guy, and everyone knew it. He had a reputation as a talker, but once you got past his idiosyncrasies he really was awesome to be around. Once at a very large tournament that I personally organized, Paul’s cell phone went off right in the middle of the round. What was hilarious was that his ringtone was “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers. So imagine a completely silent room and then all of a sudden, “Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man!” Paul quietly stood up and walked out the room. One of the tournament directors had to calm him down because he was so upset that he had offended everyone by allowing his cell phone to go off. The truth was that as soon as he left the room everyone erupted in laughter because they understood the irony of Paul having a ringtone entitled “Ramblin’ Man.”

It was now I who was picking up the phone to call Paul to invite him along with me to tournaments. I had developed a real liking for Paul and the two of us entered a team tournament together last year and finished in second place out of eight teams.

Paul donated his entire collection of books to his local chess club when he tragically passed away on June 17, 2012 after a bout with cancer. I visited him twice in hospice where we relived some of our favorite memories together. A month later, I delivered a tear-filled eulogy honoring Paul at the 2012 Columbia Open Chess Tournament.

Paul taught me that life is worth nothing without people. It’s easy to get caught up in getting better at chess, improving your rating but it all means nothing without making someone’s life just a little bit better because you were a part of it. I miss Paul dearly, and I think about every time I move a chess piece. So every time I sit down at a board, Paul’s memory and influence remains and I’m astounded at how close I came to making up some excuse not to take him to that first tournament.  Had I done that, I would have saved a little aggravation but missed out on having a marvelous friend. Chess players know that our most important lessons come with each loss, and I certainly learned a whole lot when I lost Paul. 

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