Dillon local to represent state at national senior chess championship
Josh Samuel also to play in this week’s Las Vegas National Open
Fans of the popular Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” in recent months have been provided with a portal into the abstract world of the game of chess.
It’s a world Josh Samuel of Dillon knows as well as anyone in the county.
Elements of the show foreign to many are familiar to Samuel, a 66-year-old New York native who will compete this week at the Las Vegas National Open. It was nearly a half century ago when Samuel, at the age of 19, played a grand master who’s name may be familiar to Queen’s Gambit fans: Rossolimo.
At the grand master’s club in Greenwich Village in 1974, young Samuel was up by two pawns against the Russian-born Nicolas Rossolimo, one of the most revered players of all time, before the grand master came back for a draw.
In “The Queen’s Gambit,” the series’ main character Beth Harmon plays against a world champion using the Rossolimo opening variation of chess.
“He managed to draw the game, but I remember going back to my club and just saying, ‘I just drew Grandmaster Rossolimo,’” Samuel said. “And people were so jealous because the best players in the club could never have said that. And Rossolimo said, ‘You’re a very good player.’ And I actually had a signed record of the game, but I can’t find it anymore.”
The lost signed record of the game may be a relic forgotten to time, but it’s just one of many for the Renaissance man Samuel. At his home in Dillon, he harbors his successful escapades of yesteryear, including water skiing, big-mountain skiing and other vintage items. Samuel was the 1998 World Overall Telemark skiing champion.
But the kitchen table is the setting for the passion Samuel’s had since the age of 4 when his grandfather would sit at a dining room table in New York City and play chess with his grandson between sips of iced coffee.
“He was a terrible chess player, but that’s how I learned how to move the pieces,” Samuel said.
The love for the game instilled in Samuel by his grandfather was further fostered when, at the age of 17, he entered his first chess tournament at Chess City in Queens. There, Samuel learned from Sri Lankan-born chess master Sunil Weeramantry — the stepfather of Hikaru Nakamura, a chess prodigy who, at just 15, became the youngest American to earn the title of grandmaster.
Samuel made the move from New York to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he joined the CU chess team. The team was a regional champion that competed at the Pan American Intercollegiate Championships against the continent’s best. The experience in school at Boulder began an adult life for Samuel, where when he wasn’t water or snow skiing he was competing in high-level events, including winning the Colorado state championship for players with an Elo rating of below 2,000. A rating of 1,400 is considered a mean among chess players, while 2,200 is the cutoff for master. Anything over 2,000 is closing in on the 98th percentile. Samuel’s score has been as high as 2,030.
Earlier this month, Samuel finished in third place at the State Senior Chess Championships in Manitou Springs. The tournament winner annually holds the title of Senior Champion for a year and qualifies for the fourth annual John T. Irwin National Tournament of Senior State Champions, this year to be held in New Jersey at the end of July. But this year, Samuel, for the first time, will be the Colorado State Chess Association’s lone representative at the event because the winner and runner-up can’t make it. He is Colorado’s 50-and-older representative.
Samuel said his participation in the national tournament is a sign of Summit County’s chess quality, as he’s the only Western Slope player to qualify in the tournament’s history. And Samuel won’t be the only local playing in Las Vegas this week, as Charles Alexander of Breckenridge is another one of the 25 Coloradans who will take part.
As for Samuel’s advice for all of “The Queen’s Gambit” fans out there who are now more curious about the sport?
“It’s a game of analysis and calculation as well as understanding positions and theory,” Samuel said. “There are no blanket rules, but there are blanket principles that most generally need to be followed. But there are always exceptions to these. Just pick up a set and play.”
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