Chemo brain and chess: One master’s story

by Alexey Root
6/6/2020 – In 2011, Mike Walder had stage 4 inoperable stomach cancer and less than a 4% chance to survive for one more year. In 2014, he started playing chess again to counteract ‘chemo brain’, a term which describes the thinking and memory problems experienced by many chemotherapy patients. WIM Alexey Root interviews Walder about his two chess master roommates, losing chess rating points, and chemotherapy. | Pictured: Mike Walder (2019) | Photo: Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club

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“The general trend is up”

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Chemo brain is a common term used by cancer survivors to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur during and after cancer treatment [...] Most cancer survivors will return to work, but some will find tasks take extra concentration or time. Others may be unable to return to work”. Mike Walder used to run operations for large companies. He has been unable to return to that work.

When his illness was at its peak, Walder, who is 5 foot 9 inches tall, weighed 146 pounds. His doctors advised him to gain weight, so he would not waste away if cancer stole all his nutrients. Now cancer free, Walder weighs 300 pounds, and his doctors tell him to lose 100 pounds!

Playing and studying chess helped Walder grapple with the side effects of chemotherapy. He said, “Chemotherapy took away my short-term memory. I struggled to remember a line I had analyzed one minute after I analyzed it. So, I was in constant time trouble. It took years after I stopped taking chemo to get my short-term memory back”.

Alexey Root (AR) interviewed Mike Walder (MW) about his life during San Francisco’s coronavirus lockdown with his two chess master roommates, and about chess before, during, and after his chemotherapy.

AR: Former Los Angeles Times chess columnist IM Jack Peters emailed me, “National Master Mike Walder, International Master Elliott Winslow, and FIDE Master Frank Thornally are roommates; that’s quite a conglomeration of chess skill!” What’s chess life like in your apartment?

Elliott Winslow, Frank ThornallyMW: Those were very kind words from Jack. May 25, 2020 was a typical coronavirus stay-at-home morning. At 10:00 a.m., Frank announced that he’s up and asked what’s for breakfast. I knocked on Elliott’s door to see if he’s interested in blintzes and scrambled eggs. Thirty minutes later we were eating breakfast and analyzing the game Kiriakov – Tiviakov, Port Erin 1999. We have an extensive chess library and, while we largely study alone, there are times, often around meals, where we dig into chess together, sometimes two, often all three of us.

Before sheltering-in-place, Elliott and I would play in the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club Tuesday Night Marathons and the Berkeley Chess School’s Friday night tournaments. Frank also played in these a few years back and is working on his game to be able to do so again. We would go out to breakfast together and review our games or study from a book.

Evenings are often spent at the chessboard, with a book in hand, with one of us saying: “but what about this…”  When we exhaust our capabilities, we turn on ChessBase and look at the position with engines to see if we missed something the computer can calculate. For ideas that seem reasonable, I often run ChessBase’s deep analysis mode on a position overnight. Elliott and I teach online using ChessBase; contact us for lessons here: Mike Walder Facebook and Elliott Winslow Facebook.

[Pictured: Roommates — IM Elliott Winslow and FM Frank Thornally in May 2020]

AR: Tell me about the rise and fall of your US Chess rating.

MW: I moved from Chicago to San Francisco in 1976. In Chicago, as a weak expert, I was still one of the strongest active players as many of the local masters didn’t play in local events. In San Francisco, I played much stronger players and my chess improved. A promotion brought me to the Los Angeles area in 1978 as a high 2100 player. While my work kept me extremely busy, I was able to squeeze in casual games with stronger players at the Santa Monica Chess Club and Troy’s Chess Shop in Torrance. I was lucky enough to get regular games on Mondays with Ben Nethercot, Diane Savereide, and IM Michael Brooks. On Wednesdays I studied with Chuck Jones, Steve Ramos, and Ricardo Gilbert.

I played the occasional tournament, took a break for several months, then played in the 1982 Lina Grumette Memorial Day Classic. This was a great tournament for me as I defeated two senior masters and IM Jack Peters. I was awarded the brilliancy prize in the 1983 American Open for a creative attack against IM Larry Remlinger. My US Chess rating went over 2300 in 1984-1985 after scoring wins over several IMs.

I got engaged and took my fiancée to the American Open, held Thanksgiving weekend in 1985, where I defeated a few 2500 players if I remember correctly. After that tournament, she said that while she thought chess was an interesting game and appreciated my love of the game, she was not interested in having her husband in a chess hall over most weekends and, even worse, over holiday weekends. Thus, I stopped playing chess seriously and eventually married her.

I had jobs in middle or senior management that demanded long hours anyway. I occasionally played chess. But I was out of form and not current on some sharp openings. My rating plummeted to the lower 2200s. Then, when my marriage began to sour, I played tournament chess again—out of form, angry, and exhausted—reaching the 2100s.

AR: How did cancer and chemotherapy affect your chess?

MW: After my rating fell into the 2100s, I stopped playing chess. In October of 2011, I was diagnosed with stage 4 inoperable stomach cancer. I had less than a 4% chance to survive for one year after that diagnosis.

Mike WalderI was looking for something to focus my chemo brain. When I was introduced to someone new, I had difficulty remembering their name two minutes later. I started solving Sudoku puzzles as an exercise, but I didn’t see any improvement. In the beginning of 2014, I went to a poker room to see if poker games would be more stimulating than Sudoku puzzles. I ended up in the emergency room with pneumonia. In a poker room, there were too many sick people touching cards and chips for my chemo-addled immune system.

On June 6, 2014, I went with Elliott Winslow to Berkeley Chess School and played my first club chess game in years. In July of 2014, I played my first rated tournament in 21 years; my previous rated tournament had been in 1993. I played my first post-cancer diagnosis Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club game on August 5, 2014. It was difficult playing these games as I found it hard to remember my analysis. I had to go over lines multiple times using my fingers to help remember which line was the best. I often found myself in great positions with little time left on my clock, putting the outcome up for grabs. I tried to shift gears and play positions that required fewer calculations.

My US Chess rating rose to near 2200 and then, when I had to go back on opiates for a bit, fell to 1970. Even though I had been rated over 2300, US Chess established rating floors for masters in 1991, when I was 2100. Thus, unlike most other former non-life and non-senior masters, my rating floor is 1900 rather than 2000.

When the need for pain management went away, my rating began to float back up. After being off chemo for about three years, I was having fewer short-term memory problems, In September 2019, I won the CalState Class Championship expert division experiencing no memory issues. I came into the next Mechanics’ Tuesday Night Marathon feeling confident, though I knew that the level of player was going to be much tougher. I started that tournament strongly, defeating FM Kyron Griffith in round 2, though later in the tournament I began to show my age and lack of physical fitness as I struggled with fatigue. I am now working on my stamina. My rating has been up and down depending upon my health, though the general trend is up.

[Pictured above: Mike Walder with his father and sisters in 2011]

Mike Walder, Kyron Griffith

Mike Walder facing Kyron Griffith in 2019 | Photo: Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club

Walder picked his win over Jack Peters as one of his favorite pre-chemotherapy games. I emailed Peters to get his thoughts. Peters replied, “I remember this loss to Michael Walder. During the game, I thought his plan of castling kingside was wrong. Later, I concluded that it was very promising for White, and I played the white side at least once. I also copied one of his other wins, against Kamran Shirazi in the Sozin Sicilian”.

I asked Walder about that Shirazi game. Walder no longer has that scoresheet. He threw away all his scorebooks in 2000, when he was moving from San Jose to Oakland and thought he was through with chess forever. Jack Peters provided the scoresheet for his loss to Walder and the notation of five other Walder games.

I previously featured the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club, and Walder’s win over Griffith, in this article. Mechanics’ Institute Chess Director Abel Talamantez emailed, “Michael Walder is a true mainstay at Mechanics’, representing the cagey veteran capable of defeating anyone, and the gentle soul ready to help and give advice. He participates as much in our online events as he does in our club over-the-board events, and he is a calming pleasure to have around. Michael Walder is that veteran chess player that represents the best in Mechanics’, and the type of player that elevates any event through his fighting play, his kind and calm demeanor, and his knowledge and experience. I have also come to learn he is a connoisseur of fine coffee, which begs the question of what other interests and talents can this man of mystery possibly have?” Thanks to the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club and to IM Jack Peters for providing games and quotes for this article.


Three of Walder's games + Beliavsky v Tal, Sukhumi (1972)

 

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Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.

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