Fitting chess into a disabled life

10/3/2004 – Jamie Duif Calvin was an obsessive reader and an avid chess player, one the top 100 women in the US. But then disability struck, not as a graceful transition, but "more like falling overboard in the middle of the night into a dark, cold, choppy sea." However, thanks to modern computer technology she has taken up chess again. Here is Duif's story.

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Fitting Chess into a Disabled Life

By Jamie Duif Calvin

Chess has always been something I wished I had more time for. After playing frequent tournaments in my early twenties, I had achieved an 1800 rating, putting me in the top 15% of US players and on the US Chess Federation Top 100 Women list.

Then marriage, kids, and a demanding career intervened, and I fell back to one or two tournaments a year. I did manage to combine my chess and technical interests when I was the Webmaster for the USCF's website.

I also created the online International Directory of Chess Teachers as a memorial to IM Boris Kogan. And, like many amateurs, I bought a lot of chess books I never found much time to read.

Falling Overboard-Disability strikes

If I had ever thought about being disabled, I supposed I had, naively, imagined it something like retirement. Hours to be filled, limitations to be understood and overcome. I had thought books, music, and chess would get me through almost anything. However, becoming disabled isn't a graceful transition to a new stage of a journey. Instead, it's more like falling overboard in the middle of the night into a dark, cold, choppy sea. Your definition of success narrows: just keep breathing.

In 1998 I was struck with a rare and serious illness, CIDP (chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy). CIDP is an autoimmune condition that attacks the nerves in arms and both legs. My lifestyle changed dramatically. I struggled on with work for another couple of years but with increasing difficulty, needing first a walker, then a wheelchair.

As I lost my ability to type, I became reliant on IBM's voice technology. But fatigue and pain took an ever-rising toll, as well as the side effects of some of the chemo-like treatments, and eventually my voice became too breathy for my voice unit to understand easily.

My bad days became both more frequent and more debilitating. I could not eat with a fork, hold a book, or brush my hair. I had a good luck cup, a mug with chess designs my students had given me when I was coaching at an elementary school. Sadly, I had to put it away, because I could no longer lift it.

I fell into the group of the disabled who do not simply lose function – instead we are actively, time-consumingly sick. The meds left me feeling as though I had severe flu every day. The weakness and the pain had no parallel in my experience.

I remember the first day I felt I had become a ghost: I was in the grocery store, sitting in a motorized scooter, and had gone to the ATM machine to get cash. I pushed on the buttons first with one hand, then with two, but was not strong enough to register my presence. I felt as though I was pushing hard enough to shake the machine, but from the ATM's point of view, I was merely a passing puff of air.

Like the Inuit who reportedly have more than two dozen words for snow, the changing nature of my condition meant I had to learn the nuances of illness, the difference between muscle fatigue and nerve conduction block, between burning pain and joint pain and muscle cramp.


Essential technology for a CIDP chess player: a wheelchair and hydraulic lift

I had gotten divorced a few years earlier, but my kids (now young teenagers) were wonderful, and fortunately we lived close to my parents and my brother's family. A nearby cousin was also a great help. I was forced eventually, though, to retire.

So now I had all the time in the world. But chess seemed more distant than ever. First, of course, was the time and energy eaten up with doctor visits, physical therapy, and the hours spent too ill to do anything but nod in a chair. Before my illness I had slept very little, rarely more than 3 or 4 hours a day. Now I commonly slept 11 or 12. Then there was the fact that I could barely turn the page of a book, let alone move pieces on a chessboard. Finally, my vision had suffered, so that I could not spend more than a few focused minutes at the computer without developing extreme double vision. I played some blitz chess online, very badly (if you've seen me drop a Queen on move 20, you'll know it's visual fatigue). My blitz rating dropped over 300 points.


The library of a chess enthusiast

Even when I was working, I had been a voracious reader, getting through anywhere from 10 to 20 books a week. Now I might get through 5 or 10 pages in the same time. I did discover audio books early on, and enjoyed them, but a book I would have read in 2 hours seems to take 15 or 20 in audio. It is also frustrating because sometimes I fall asleep while a CD is playing, and it can be time consuming just to find one's way back to the last heard passage.

So I had a few books and the Wall St Journal on audio. A little music. But chess was simply physically beyond me. I gave up any thoughts of improving, or even opening the lovely collection of chess books that I had long ago purchased but never had the time to read.

A New Use for Chess Technology

Then one day a friend gave me a copy of Kasparov's My Great Predecessors. I was touched, but I could barely lift the book, and could not imagine working through the various lines of analysis on a chessboard. Just reaching across the table to the black pieces was often more than I could manage.

I know that many masters can open a book and just read through it. Chess is a language in which they are fluent. For me, though, a board is necessary. Setting up the pieces, following a line, then resetting them to a previous diagram and working my way forward seemed a physical impossibility.

So the new book was added to the shelf of books I didn't have the strength to read. One day, with hesitation, I mentioned the difficulty to IM Jeremy Silman. He said, "Why don't you just look at the game in ChessBase? Then you can back up to the main line with one click."

Many of you reading this probably long ago made the connection between print books and computer chess display systems, but I honestly never had. I knew about the various CD magazines. I loved watching chess coverage of live events on the Internet. But I had never thought of opening a book and playing through the game by entering the moves into ChessBase.

It opened up a whole new world for me. Chess books are wonderfully dense. If it takes me four hours (spread over three weeks) to get through two pages, so much the better – I am spared the physical effort of turning pages too often. I can save the game at any point. Add my own notes, thoughts, and questions to research later. And best of all, I could spend time just sitting in a chair with my eyes closed, thinking about a position, and still feel active. Still be learning. I even started taking some lessons. I didn't have any particular numeric goal, but I wanted to deepen my understanding of the accomplishments of others, to become a more appreciative fan of the great games locked away in those books on the shelf.


Annotating and entering chess moves with voice-recognition technology

I worked on two things – deepening my understanding and improving my visualization, so that a few seconds of looking at the grey and white squares on the computer screen could fill my mind with enough to work on for several minutes.

Back in three dimensions

My family encouraged me to think about playing over the board chess again. I made plans several times, but each time on the day was too ill to attend. Then came The People's Tournament in Berkeley. Another chessplayer, also in a wheelchair, had assured me access there was excellent. Feeling nervous, shy, and wondering if I would again be a "ghost" on some level, I arrived. Perhaps, I joked to myself, I would have to move the pieces by mental telepathy!

After a few mishaps with doors that lacked an automatic opener, a direction sign that was posted too high to read, and a balky elevator, I arrived at the registration table. The tournament directors were extremely nice. The hall was large, airy, well lit, and the aisles wide and easy to navigate.


Ready for chess: Duif Calvin at a weekend tournament

With a rating of 1737, I registered for the B section, feeling significantly overrated due to a six year absence. My opponent was a boy about 12 years old, rated 1601, fiercely intent. (I felt grateful for this, as he was obviously intent only on the board – I am not sure he even noticed my wheelchair).

The game went five hours, grueling. It was probably a draw at several instances, but neither of us made any terrible blunders. More than once I closed my eyes, and was delighted to see the familiar squares appear in grey and white in my mind, backlit as though on a computer monitor, the pieces turned to icons slowly moving as I considered different options. The time spent on my two-dimensional studies had indeed translated to OTB play. Or perhaps it is fairer to say that the language of chess that I had learned using the medium of ChessBase was one into which the OTB position could easily be translated.

By the 3rd hour my hands were trembling, but I could still see clearly in my mind the moves I wished to make, and I managed, with the help of adrenaline, to make them on the board.

In the end, I won. I played a couple of good moves. Just as importantly, I played an entire game! I gained 8 rating points, and my reactivated rating put my name back on the USCF's top 100 women list for June.


A bumper sticker Duif bought herself as a prize for an entire OTB game

I have always been a very private person, and rather shy about speaking of myself. But one of the things I discovered early in my illness is that many people are willing to help, but few know what is appropriate. I have learned to exchange some of my privacy for the comfort and companionship of more open dialogue. I have learned to help where I can, and to better accept help where it is given.

When I mentioned to Frederic Friedel how pleased I was to see some improvement again, however slight, he suggested people might be interested in the story. "After all others may have friends or family members who are facing similar disabilities. It would be nice for them to know they may not have to give up chess and chess literature altogether."

So, here is my story. Chess for me is a haven, a comfort and a challenge all in one. Because it is mentally so hard, I know that I will never reach the end of it-and that is one of the things I am most grateful for. It has also provided me with a community of friends whose worth is also of inestimable value.

I would like especially to thank Elliott, Jeremy, Eric, C. Bill, Michael, Arconia, and everyone else who encouraged me and kept hoping that I would find some way to keep chess as a part of my life. And I would like to encourage anyone else who has physical difficulty managing books or pieces to try using Chessbase to accompany a book. Perhaps you, too, will find chess in two dimensions an easier path to travel.


From Duif's family album

When I was a kid, my Dad spent most of his extra money on travel. So we went to a lot of different places: Kenya, Tanzania, the Netherlands, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, and up the Amazon River on a houseboat! I always took a pocket set along, and managed to play chess in a lot of places even when we had no common language. This picture is in a fishing boat next to the houseboat. That's my mom in the window.

On the houseboat, my family spoke English and Spanish, and the crew spoke Portuguese and some German. But I did get to play chess with the Captain and the first mate when they weren't busy. In the picture: I and my youngest brother Scott, with the first mate waiting to play the winner.

On a much nicer ship in the Galapagos Islands, but I can't find anyone to play chess with! One of the few times you'll see me in a bad mood...

My Dad steps in... It was actually my Mom who taught me to play when I was about seven, using the book A Programmed Introduction to the Game of Chess, written by my brother's godfather, M. W. Sullivan. My Dad would sometimes play chess with us when we were on vacations. He enjoyed chess as a game, but had never played a tournament, although he did play some tournament bridge in college.

My Dad, my two brothers, and me. My mom is taking the picture, and I'm not sure where my sister was.

This is from a tournament in Reno, Nevada. It was held on Hallowe'en, so I dressed in costume. There were about 200 players there, and the only other person in costume was a ten-year-old boy. I had fun anyway, of course!

IM Boris Kogan and I, with our school's chess team in 1992. I'm on the far left, back row. Yes, I'm shorter than many of the 6th graders, but at least I could stand up then!

I created the International Directory of Chess Teachers as a memorial to Boris. We now have listings for teachers from over a dozen countries. Both Boris and his wife Anna were friends of mine when I lived in Atlanta – his early death from cancer was a great loss to the chess community


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