wooden chess pieces


Opening gambit

Chess expert Eric Schiller, AB’76, AM’84, PhD’91, has a few suggestions.

As told to Anne Ford, AM’99

I grew up in New York, where my father taught me how to play chess when I was four and a half. I started beating him before I was six. (He was kind of pleased.) Then I started reading books about chess, and that’s how the FBI opened a file on me when I was 11 years old—because I subscribed to Russian newspapers to read the chess columns, and of course they were Communist Party newsletters. I also played chess by mail, and I had some opponents in the Soviet Union, so that was a big red flag. You could see that the envelopes I received had been opened and then clumsily resealed—twice, once by the Russians and once by the Americans.

I was not a very good student. If I didn’t have respect for the teacher, I would just go through the motions, with my chess book under my desk. My guidance counselor told me I was crazy to apply to any of the colleges I applied to, including the University of Chicago. But I managed to get in to all of them. There was a story in the Maroon about me the week after I got there, because I had brought a couple hundred chess books with me. I went on to lead the University of Chicago chess team to the 1986 Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship.


After college I studied music conducting, but at some point, I realized that my talent level wasn’t up to a career. When I decided to leave music, I came back to Chicago and got my master’s and my PhD in linguistics. I couldn’t get a job in academia, so I went to work for a software company because they were doing a chess program. Chess has always been my fallback, always. And I just keep falling back on it.

I became well established in the chess world, not as a player, although I am an internationally ranked master, but more as an organizer and an arbiter for championships. In 1986 I was the press officer for the World Chess Championship between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, part of which took place in London. They had a fancy opening ceremony, and I had to accompany Margaret Thatcher the entire evening.

Before I met her, I kept thinking, “What am I gonna say about South Africa?” Because that was the big story at the time. I have a very American attitude. I am not intimidated by anybody for any reason. But I took one look at her, and I thought, “If I spit in her face, she’ll spit in my face.” So we just made pleasant small talk all evening.

My chess life now is mostly teaching kids, but I’m also one of [Wu-Tang Clan rapper] RZA’s chess coaches when he’s in town. Wu-Tang, they are such enthusiastic chess players. They even rap about chess.

I’ve been writing chess books since about ’83. World Champion Openings is one of my most popular. A lot of people have wondered how I could write so many—about 188, I’m not quite sure—and I say, “Credit my landlords. They come around every month looking for a check.” Some of my books are now being converted to Kindle. Not all of them. Just 100 or so.


A game of chess is like a swordfight. (Photography by Alan Levine, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Below: Wu-Tang Clan rapper and chess player RZA, one of Schiller’s students. (Photography by Tara Spalty, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)