Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A tête-à-tête with Yvonne Lai

An article in POST MAGAZINE in Hong Kong

24 Hours

Chess grand master divides her time between two great loves – her children and chess. In a tête-à-tête with Yvonne Lai, the Hungarian-born player clears up some misconceptions about the game.

“I usually wake up around 6.30am. I get my kids up and drive them to school around 7.15am. Then I start my own day. I have a new position at the Texas Tech University [in the US] as the director of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (Spice).

I go to my office, which is right across the street from the campus, and I usually have a lot of e-mails to answer and arrangements to make. For example, I recently organised a major international chess competition.

Before I showed up, the university only had an amateur club. One of the reasons I was [hired] was to put Texas Tech on the world map of chess. I interact with the chess playing students and meet them once a week.

We are still formulating [ideas], everything is very new. I’m starting a whole new life. We are recruiting some accomplished chess players who want to study at the same time. Two international students have applied and are very likely to join Texas Tech – not only to study but to represent the university in chess competitions.

One third of the time I have business lunches with various departments or within the chess group. If not, I have a late lunch or even skip lunch, depending on how my day goes.

One of the most important aspects of Spice is the research. We look into how chess can help and influence life. It’s been known for years that chess is a wonderful tool to enhance the minds of youngsters and prevent or delay Alzheimer’s.

An average chess grand master knows about 20,000 game patterns. I’ve seen millions of chess positions in my life. That said, one of the biggest misconceptions about the game is that it requires a wonderful memory.

Pattern-recognition is much more important, as is being able to react quickly and accurately to a situation you have seen before. It’s not the same kind of memory required to memorise a phone book. It’s like air travel: for an inexperienced traveller, the airport in Dallas may look totally different from the one in Hong Kong.

But there are patterns or similarities such as security checks, lounges and signs. For an experienced traveller, one airport is like another. They focus on the important points; let’s say, getting from terminal A to B and finding gate 25.

For speed and accuracy, calculation skills are extremely important. Also, the difference between an amateur chess player and a champion, besides the knowledge of putting the puzzle together with efficiency, are the psychological elements. It’s a matter of self confidence and dealing with pressure during the game.

There are many talented young players who could go much further if they kept it together. There are no postponements in matches, and something like a break-up in a personal relationship, or a cold, could affect the outcome of a game.

I was raised in a disciplined and result-oriented environment and with a very strong work ethic, which is one characteristic many people lack. They give up too easily; they are not diligent enough. In order to excel at anything, be it art, sport or business, one has to make a lot of sacrifices, especially with one’s time. I dedicated most of my childhood and teenage years to my career.

I have no regrets but I understood even back then that others my age were going to the movies more often or going on dates or going dancing, things most girls do during their teens. I was replacing that for the large part with practising for chess competitions.

My boys are seven and eight, so now it’s different. I hardly compete any more. I dedicate my time to them and to my job. I learned a lot from my father [in terms of childrearing techniques] and I certainly use some of them with my children but, unfortunately, their situation is a little different from mine when I was growing up.

....I clearly remember an incident in 1986, when I was living in Hungary. I qualified to represent my country in the world championships but was not allowed to participate because I am a woman. The reason they stated was because the competition was called the Men’s World Chess Championship, therefore a woman could not play. Later that year, they changed the rule, eliminating the word “men”.

Deep Blue [a chess-playing machine developed by IBM] was a huge monster of a supercomputer. It was a lot of computers connected together. I went to the lab and saw it. I would have liked the opportunity to challenge Deep Blue and show that I could have done better than [Russian chess grand master] Garry [Kasparov; who lost a six game series against Deep Blue two to one, with three draws] but IBM declined my request, saying they had nothing to gain from it.

Chess helps young people learn about life in a fun and playful way. We use computer programs to teach chess, especially at higher levels. Computers are especially useful for players from smaller towns, who don’t have a master chess player around them.

I hope more people discover Spice. We hope to prove a lot of theories through research about how chess is a useful tool in the education system. Ideally, chess should be a part of the regular school curriculum. It is such an accessible and inexpensive way towards better focus, organising skills, maths and literature. My children know the basics of chess and they learn a lot better because of that. At school, they are at the top of their class.

I pick up my kids between 3pm and 4pm. Sometimes I go back to the office if I have some more things to take care of, or we come home, we eat together and I spend some time with them. After I put them to bed later in the evening, I work on the computer. I usually go to bed around midnight or 1am.

This article appeared in POST MAGAZINE in Hong Kong last year.
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