The best I saw in chess - by Stuart Rachels

by Arne Kaehler
6/4/2020 – In the early 1990s, International Master Stuart Rachels was one of the very best US chess players. He played games against Garry Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand, Nigel Short, Anthony Miles and Boris Spassky, only to name a few. His chess adventures are funny, beautiful, interesting and honest. His book "The Best I Saw In Chess" which just came out, is a blast to read. We conducted an interview with Rachels about the book, the chess greats he met, his decision to quit chess and the ego of chess players. | Photos: Stuart Rachels

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"I've never regretted my decision to stop playing chess, because I played blitz games against Anand. Once you have done that, you realize that you will never become World Champion."

Before Stuart Rachels and I started the interview, he showed me some of his chess treasures. They were an original Life magazine featuring Bobby Fischer on the cover, a chess trophy he won in 1979, some Estonian coins with a picture of Paul Keres on them, and a box of chocolates which was handed to him by Garry Kasparov's mother in 1983. Just as Rachels said it in his book, the box is empty but the wrapper of the Russian chocolates is still in great shape.

Stuart Rachels grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and played over 1000 rated chess games from the age of 9 to 23. His rating surpassed the 2600 mark (USCF) when he was 20, and he became the youngest Master in American history when he was eleven. Rachels never played chess professionally though. A quote from his book explains this decision very well:

The exhilaration of competition and the joy of mental absorption - that's why I played chess. I loved it. 

Arne Kaehler: Dear Stuart, thank you for having this interview with me. Would you kindly give a short introduction about who you are?

Stuart Rachels: With pleasure, thanks for having me. I prefer to think of myself as nine or eleven, but I recently turned fifty. I love chess and played it for several years until I went to graduate school in Philosophy. Since then, I've been a philosophy professor in Alabama. After tenure, you have job security, and you are able to do what you want to do, so I started to write this book. I have really been pushing on it for a while.

AK: What life occurrence led you to write it?

SR: I have to admit it happened quite accidentally. First I was just interested to look at my old scoresheets and gathered all of them out from shoeboxes in the closet. Then I just wrote up a few things to maybe put them on a website one day. But I kept going and going, until I found myself writing a book.

AK: Your book is full of interesting games paired with a lot of stories and anecdotes around them. Were there any games and stories that didn't make it into the final version?

SR: The book is 400 pages long but originally I wrote more than 550 pages. I think it is good to write too much and then omit some of it, rather than using anything which comes to mind. I moved the chapters around, and used some of them for the appendix, quotes or anecdotes instead. My best stories are in the book, no doubt.

AK: One of my favourite chapters from your book is "Impression of the Greats" (Chapter 12) where you talk about your relations, meetings and experiences with Garry Kasparov, Yasser Seirawan, Nigel Short, just to name a few. Which is your personally favourite anecdote?

SR: I think it was the time when Garry Kasparov played a joke on me. In London in December of 1983, Garry was winning his semi-final candidates match against Viktor Kortchnoi. A mutual friend sent me up to Kasparov's room to fetch a package. I was fourteen years old at that time. Kasparov gave me the package and, due to the excitement, I ran back to my friend's room as fast as I could, jumping down two to three stairs at a time and dashing through the corridors. Arriving in the room, to my surprise, Kasparov was already sitting there, being quite pleased with playing this magic trick on me. Of course, he evidently knew some secret shortcut to the room.

AK: Did you ever regret your decision to stop playing chess?

SR: I never regretted the decision because I played blitz against Viswanathan Anand. Once you have done that you realize that you will never become World Champion.

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AK: Are there any chess related plans in the future?

SR: I cannot help myself and have started to write again. The next book is about fortresses which I find fascinating. To my knowledge, there has never been a chess book devoted exclusively to fortresses. However, that book won’t be comparable to this book, because it won’t be as long and won’t be nearly as personal. 

AK: In your book, you mentioned the ego of chess players a couple of times. What is your personal opinion about how much ego affects chess and chess players?

An outstanding talent: Stuart Rachels (center)

SR: It is a complicated relationship. Someone once observed that if you look at the players in the US Championship conducting post-mortems, they are all very objective about their played games. Weaker players will try to justify their moves, but for a strong player, objectivity may be a pre-requisite. However, I knew three people very well who became World Junior Champions, all of them phenomenally talented players - Yasser Seirawan, Max Dlugy and Ilya Gurevich. They had a certain confidence, even arrogance, deeply rooted into them, which helped them in stressful situations and important games. These are tough guys psychologically. Magnus Carlsen seems to be a very laid back and nice fellow, but I believe he must also have this psychological toughness and confidence which you cannot see from the outside. Perhaps great players have to have this.

AK: Thank you very much for taking your time for this interview Stuart.

SR: Absolutely and anytime again.

Cover text

At the U.S. Championship in 1989, Stuart Rachels seemed bound for the cellar. Ranked last and holding no IM norms, the 20-year-old amateur from Alabama was expected to get waxed by the American top GMs of the day that included Seirawan, Gulko, Dzindzichashvili, deFirmian, Benjamin and Browne.

Instead, Rachels pulled off a gigantic upset and became the youngest U.S. Champion since Bobby Fischer. Three years later he retired from competitive chess, but he never stopped following the game.

In this wide-ranging, elegantly written, and highly personal memoir, Stuart Rachels passes on his knowledge of chess. Included are his duels against legends such as Kasparov, Anand, Spassky, Ivanchuk, Gelfand and Miles, but the heart of the book is the explanation of chess ideas interwoven with his captivating stories.

There are chapters on tactics, endings, blunders, middlegames, cheating incidents, and even on how to combat that rotten opening, the Réti. Rachels offers a complete and entertaining course in chess strategy. At the back are listed 110 principles of play—bits of wisdom that arise naturally in the book’s 24 chapters.

Every chess player will find it difficult to put his sparkling book down. As a bonus, it will make you a better player.

Stuart Rachels (b. 1969) is an International Master who retired from chess when he was 23. He works as an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Alabama and has edited new editions of books by his father, the famous philosopher James Rachels.

Arne Kaehler: This book was a real joy to read. It is fresh, entertaining, and has funny stories and anecdotes about Kasparov, Kortschnoi, Anand, Seirawan and many others. But it also offers a lot of serious, deep chess analysis, and it is a pleasure to look at plenty of interesting games.

Four games by Stuart Rachels




Arne Kaehler, a creative mind who is passionate about board games in general, was born in Hamburg and learned to play chess at a young age. By teaching chess to youth teams and creating chess-related videos on YouTube, Arne was able to expand this passion and has even created an online course for anyone who wants to learn how to play chess. Arne writes for the English and German news sites, but focuses mainly on content for the ChessBase media channels.


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