"If a player is determined to cheat, it will happen"

by Davide Nastasio
10/20/2018 – In the United States, there are many weekend tournaments, thanks to the efforts of many independent tournament organizers nationwide. Some of these tournaments provide significant prize money, over USD $12,000, and the chance to play against strong master level players. Georgia-based DAVIDE NASTASIO recently spoke to one such veteran organizer, Walter High, and sent this brief interview along with annotated games from the North Carolina Open.

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North Carolina Open 2018

The 30th edition of the North Carolina Open was played during the weekend of August 17th to 19th, together with the Open Masters, which included more titled players than the more famous World Open in Philadelphia. 

The Open section of the North Carolina Open had an average rating of 1976 Elo points, with one IM playing and many National Master level players. The tournament had a total prize of $12,000, split across different sections Open, U2000, U1700, U1400. In the USA, it is common for an organizer to run a parallel scholastic tournament on Saturday. In this way, young children can begin to appreciate the atmosphere of big open tournaments and their exciting games, while still playing kids of similar ages.

While playing in the tournament myself, I had the chance to interview the man who makes such a huge tournament run smoothly: Walter High. He is a long time chess player in addition to being tournament organiser. Without people like him, who devote themselves to running big tournaments, American chess players would have far fewer chances to play high-quality games with strong players over the board.

Walter High with his organiser 'hat' on | Photo: Davide Nastasio

Davide Nastasio: For how long have you organised chess tournaments? Could you tell me how this chess passion began?

Walter High: I have known how to play chess (move the pieces) since I was in high school, but I never played a tournament until I was 57 years old.  I did not know the names of any openings and did not know what en passant was at that point.

Walter and Karen

I started playing because my two sons, David and Zachary, were becoming very good players and I got tired of sitting in the hallways of hotels and schools waiting for them to finish their games.  I thought: "I can play this game! How hard could it be?" I found out the answer to that very, very quickly! I was given the opportunity to join the Board of Directors of the NCCA (North Carolina Chess Association) in 2009 when there was an unexpected Vice-President vacancy. I bonded very quickly with President Gary Newsom and we had ideas about how we could promote chess better in North Carolina. As we both ran small, private businesses, we began by applying our business experience to the directing of chess tournaments. We were quite successful and the Carolinas Chess Initiative was born to organize large tournaments in the Carolinas. In 2016, my wife Karen [pictured right] bought Gary out and we have recently begun partnering with Peter Giannatos of the Charlotte Chess Center and Scholastic Academy with several new tournaments for the Carolinas.

DN: North Carolina is very lucky to have you, but do you organize also in other states?

WH: Gary and I contracted to manage the South Carolina Open which we did from 2012-2015. When Gary bowed out in 2016, Karen and I decided to stop managing that tournament because Gary had been essential as he lived so much closer to Greenville, SC.  We have no current plans to host any tournaments outside of North Carolina.

DN: How many tournaments a year do you organise?

WH: This year we have hosted (or will host) The Ron Simpson Memorial, The North Carolina Open, the United States Masters Championship, and the ALTO (At Least Twenty-One) tournaments. We co-hosted the Carolinas Classic with Giannatos and are also co-hosting the new Charlotte Open in December with him. We also provided significant help at the NC State Scholastic Tournament.

DN: I also know you are a chess player. Do you play often?

WH: One of the problems with organising/directing half a dozen or more tournaments a year is that I do not get to play as often as I would like. I try to play some of the Saturday tournaments, such as the Asheboro Open and the Reverse Angle, but both are long drives for a one-day event. I always play the Land of the Sky (Asheville), the Chicago Open, the World Open, and the US Open with my older son David. All of these require either a long drive or an airline flight. Organising really takes a lot of time and effort to do it right, which doesn't leave much time for studying and playing. 

Walter High playing chess at a tournament | Photo: Walter High

Walter's son David High playing versus Dereck Laureano | Photo: Davide Nastasio

DN: Over the years I'm sure you have seen the meltdowns and moments of joy of many players. Any interesting anecdotes?

WH: I had my own meltdown in my first few years of playing when I was totally winning a game against my good friend, Julian Billings.  I got too low on time and despite an overwhelming winning position, I managed to flag because I could not figure out the mate fast enough. I remember jumping up and kicking my chair halfway across the room! A second less amusing incident was seeing my wife trying to separate an older adult player from the father of his opponent as they were about to come to fisticuffs over a TD ruling. Many problems at tournaments stem from people who have a rudimentary understanding of the rules but try to challenge a TD who has an intimate knowledge of them.

DN: What about the players? What should the players learn in order to make a tournament more successful, and enjoyable?

WH: Probably one of the most common problems for organisers/TDs is players who show up late for a round and miss all the announcements. If there is a problem later, their defence is often: "I didn't hear about that." I would also say the lack of common courtesy that players sometimes show one another has much room for improvement. Annoying behaviour at the board is one of the more frequent complaints TDs must handle and one of the hardest to enforce effectively.  

DN: Are there any experimental tournament formats, you'd like to organise one day?

WH: I have often wondered how important the prize fund is to a multi-day tournament. I would like to try a 3-day, five-round Swiss with no prize fund and a very low entry fee, maybe just enough to cover expenses (playing venue, rating fees, etc.). I am curious how many people just want rated games at low expense and don't really care about winning money.

DN: Do you think technology has made life easier, especially for pairing a big number of players?

WH: Pairing by hand is something that probably cannot be done accurately by most of today's TDs. Technology has made the functions of running a tournament quick, efficient, and most importantly, correct. It allows the necessary turnaround time between rounds to be much shorter. The digital clocks have made it easier to determine flag falls and have brought time controls with delays. That cuts down on "clock bashing." The use of increment time controls almost eliminates the time-scramble.

DN: What about cheating? The technology has made falling into temptation definitely easier, how are the USCF and US tournament organisers dealing with such a big problem?

WH: I sincerely doubt that there was ever a time when cheating did not exist in chess. Technology has just changed the methods used to cheat and also the methods used to prevent cheating. If a player is determined to cheat, it will happen. We cannot prevent it other than by making players face off naked in isolation from other players and all spectators! Technology is also used to help prevent cheating; metal detectors and wands are used to eliminate electronic devices from entering the playing venue. There is a point at large tournaments where anti-cheating measures can only go so far without making the tournament experience disagreeable for too many players. It is a trade-off we cannot escape. This problem will be as timeless as the eternal battle between good and evil.

Walter High and his times in the North Carolina Chess Association as VP | Photo: Walter High

DN:  You are now retired and have more time for chess organising. Why do you do this and how long will you go on organising events? Who will take your place once you lay down the sword?

WH: I will be 70 years old by the end of 2018. I enjoy organising chess because it is a way to give back to the community. I was a track and field athlete for many years and there were a lot of people who volunteered to create and run events where I competed.  I doubt I ever thought to thank any of them or recognise their service. Now it is my turn to do that for the community and "pay it forward" so to speak.

There are so many wonderful people Karen and I have met because of these tournaments. When you organise, you meet almost everyone who plays as opposed to playing when you often stay isolated in your small world of across the board competitors. It is hard to say when I will call it quits. I think it will be like when I retired from librarianship and then later from my bookstore: one morning I will wake up, look at the ceiling, think about the day ahead, and say to Karen: "I don't think I want to organise any more tournaments." You just know in your heart when it is time to stop. It has to be fun and you have to be healthy enough to do it. There are now so many great young people coming into chess; there will be people to step up and take over. Peter Giannatos is a prime example as he has done so much for chess in North Carolina and he is not yet 30. There only needs to be one or two more in the next ten years. I am confident they will emerge and move us forward.

DN: Thank you very much, Walter, for this lovely interview.

And now to the games!


IM Duhkin with White versus Iyer Rohan with black in round 3 | Photo: Davide Nastasio


Davide is a novel chess aficionado who has made chess his spiritual tool of improvement and self-discovery. One of his favorite quotes is from the great Paul Keres: "Nobody is born a master. The way to mastery leads to the desired goal only after long years of learning, of struggle, of rejoicing, and of disappointment..."


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