By Mike Takieddine
It seemed to me in retrospect that I had always had two preoccupations in life: chess as of the age of seven, and type 1 diabetes even before that. My dad had taught me the game and had always found the time to indulge me. Of greater significance though was the fact that he was a family physician and had always tried to give me “the real skinny” on matters to do with my auto-immune system, pancreatic issues, and all the rest of it.
I never fail to thank God for giving me the most supportive parents ever. Since that early age, I followed a nicely balanced –and perpetually evolving- diet, and a steady regimen of exercise, which I learned to enjoy.
My big thrill however was in playing chess. By the time I was12 and 13 years old, I had read countless books by the Masters, particularly chess giants such as Alekhine and Capablance of the early 20th century. Alekhine had been the Russian Grandmaster who was famed for playing dozens of games both simultaneously and blindfolded (one board after the other without seeing the boards) -and scoring a high majority of wins.
It was however playing back my all-time hero’s games, Bobby Fisher, as well as his Russian rivals of the 1960’s and 70’s, that catapulted me into the ranks of a good player. I became ranked #1 in the under 16 category in the state of Delaware where we lived.
Admittedly –and before anyone makes sneering remarks about tiny Delaware- that wasn’t the strongest chess playing state in the Union (in fact, it ranked 48th). But I was under 16, and it was encouraging. By then, I was beating my dad easily and kept reminding him of a well dredged fact around chess, namely that the human brain peaked at age 28 -that it was downhill after that.
My big test promptly loomed on the horizon when I manipulated the diabetic society that we frequented into challenging a counterpart of theirs in the state of New York, ranked 3rd in the nation. It would be for under 16’s, and in New York City, a double challenge for me with my diabetes, given all the preparations and precautions my family and I would have to take.
Thus, off we went when the time came, and we checked into a hotel near the YMCA where the event would take place. I was told mine would be a best-of-three match, against a guy called Jonathan Dunkin. When his 6’3” frame showed up, my heart fluttered and I was properly intimidated.
In the famous games of the 70’s between the Russian Grandmasters and Bobby Fisher, the war of nerves played a huge role, the Russians trying hard to intimidate Fisher with all sorts of machinations, and Fisher responding with more of the same. That speaks for how nervous players can get prior to a big match.
On the world scene, grandmasters always went to tournaments accompanied by an entourage that included a psychiatrist, a physical trainer, and several peers-players. They would at times spend the whole night preparing the opening of a game that they hoped to spring on their opponent.
I was promptly stressed out, my hands shaking, and 15-year old Jonathan beat me in the first game through an error in judgment that I conveniently blamed on my nerves. The good news was that I prolonged that losing first game as much as possible, giving myself time to settle down and shake off my case of nerves. Sure enough, the second game went on forever, and I won it by way of god play in the end game when there were only a few pieces left on the board.
We had a break, and it would be my turn to start on the final game, so while my parents fussed about my food and liquids, I was in my mind rehearsing the Ruy Lopez opening, Ruy Lopez having been a Spanish Grandmaster who had a popular opening strategy. I figured that the opening was so commonly used that Jonathan wouldn’t be expecting it.
Sure enough, he looked at me quizzically when I made the first few moves, as if to say “I can’t believe you’re playing the Lopez.” Well, he was ill prepared, and the game went my way from beginning to end.
The story of my chess at a young age parallels my fight against diabetes almost step by step. My preparation and discipline were winners for me all along, my parents helping out through all the stages, and particularly when confronted with health and other snags. I used chess at an early age to take my mind off diabetes and render me equal to others, without acrimony towards myself or anyone else. My big advice to my peer T1D’s is to get involved with external things that you enjoy and allow your mind to grow away from what disorders you may have.
About Mike Takieddine, the author:
Mine has been a privileged life, first for having traveled all over as son of an international family, then for having had the opportunity to study at Oxford, and finally for a gratifying writing career culminating in crafting prose for a very special website, healthline.com. For me, the best cure for my chronic disease was to immerse myself in external activities that I could get passionate about, including a healthy lifestyle. The enemy is stress, and stress is wily, unyielding, and usually intricately disguised.