Richard Christie – it’s your shot

Chess has beauty, says Richard Christie.

Chess is inherently cruel, we might argue.

It teaches children, adults and everyone the benefits of analytical thinking, identifying logical consequences and taking responsibility, he says.

He teaches them to identify the dreams of their opponents and to smash them, to find mistakes and to punish them without mercy, we answer.

Like any sport, there is a winner and a loser, he says. It develops resilience.

(Right now, here’s where we see our opening…)

But what did Bobby Fischer, incandescent gambler and serious moron, say? He likes the moments when he crushes the spirit of his opponent? See? It’s just ugly

I think, said Christie softly, what Fischer said was that he loves when he breaks a man’s ego.

(Ah, the old catch-a-reporter-misquote trick. Our position is just a little weakened.)

In truth, a conversation with Richard Christie is no tit-for-tat affair.

With his booming voice, he has a warm, enthusiastic and conversational demeanor rather than a hunched, bony-fingered strategist.

Christie is a nationally ranked Invercargill player, a leading South Island chess coach, national arbiter, organizer of junior chess events and he sells chess sets, books and accessories.

So let’s go back. Beauty?

Absoutely. He will often find himself in front of a good movement or a good position.

Christie’s also coached junior rugby, and it’s the same there. A pass that lands where you might want to have gotten there on a fairly straight path, or a graceful arc, or wobble like a wounded mallard. A chess move, or a position, can equally be considered beautiful or ugly.

Or funny, he says. When he returned, he found himself in a situation where the two queens could each take the other, but whoever did would be subdued. It was the first time in 45 years that he had hit something like this.

Alright, maybe you were meant to be there. The fascinations of chess only deepen with experience.

“Chess should be, if you break it down, totally scientific, solvable. But it’s not.

“It uses both sides of the brain. It is both a science and an art.”

And he enjoys helping people – young, adult, novice, developing, whatever – explore it.

In chess, what is the most important piece?

In chess, what is the most important piece?

Richie Christie grew up in South Africa and to this day is grateful to have been there to see the end of apartheid and the birth of a new society. He talks about standing in line for hours, waiting to vote in the first election, being hungover from the night before, but so happy.

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Constitution . . . Rugby World Cup!

In this changing world, he studied accounting, but his teacher said he didn’t have the personality for it.

We’ll let that sink in for a moment. Because what does that say about a person?

You’re too shy and introverted to deal with people, explained his lecturer.

It was true, admits Christie. At the time, anyway.

Better to be a statistician or an actuary, concludes the speaker.

Even back then, Christie wasn’t so shy and introverted that the prospect appealed in the least.

So after finishing college, he worked for a time in his family’s coffee roastery, became a director of a law firm, split up in the UK to run a huge bookshop, worked for literary agents – and became a stay-at-home dad; a more sensible option than the huge costs of childcare in London.

Then to Christchurch while his Wyndham-born wife Patricia (née Mitchell) put her own qualifications as a lawyer and accountant to good use and he spent time in accounting, business management and with his family.

Then Covid hit with a bang.

But for all that it has shut down, the pandemic has also opened up some things. Christie thinks that despite all the accolades, chess will only ever hit fashion temporarily as something cool, and it did, spurred on by the success of The Queen’s Bet, a massive Netflix hit for those who found themselves incarcerated domestically.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit.


Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit.

Good wasn’t it?

Yes, he said. And regardless of storyline, style, and music, the series has portrayed the game more accurately than the book it was based on.

Except for those times when heroine Beth would walk away from the tournament board without writing her move first, which you just can’t do. . .

But around the world, the combination of glamor and intrigue, and perhaps to some extent the curious personalities of the characters, have motivated a massive increase and resurgence in interest. Chessboards were sticking out of storage here and there.

And more than a few of them have gone online to take action.

Christie was no stranger to a bit of coaching, but it took a friend from the chess club to point out new opportunities in the online field, where he could bring his skills to people anywhere.

Which he now does professionally.

Richard Christie: The rewards of chess are long term, but his cool status is fading.

Kavinda Herath/Stuff

Richard Christie: The rewards of chess are long term, but his cool status is fading.

Although he is based in Invercargill, most of his students are still in Christchurch, some abroad, and he would welcome a few more.

He still seizes opportunities to host tournaments here and further afield – albeit on the scale of previous episodes of The Queen’s Gambit, when the excitement and drama of state championships played out in school halls and gymnasiums.

Then there’s the whole old versus young dynamic. – the young child gets crushed by the adults, the child begins to upset the adults, the child regularly beats the adults “and no one likes you” and the child becomes an adult who begins to lose against the children.

Players earn ratings but because kids can improve exponentially they can top their ratings in a season, if you catch them at the wrong time they can do real damage to a player’s ratings adult.

“Mine has taken a hammer blow lately, from playing with a lot of juniors,” he attests, his sadness tinged with admiration.

A semi-famous admonishment from an older player to a novice – you play every piece as if losing it hurts, is one he finds telling.

Good point, what matters is the final victory, each piece is only a means to achieve this goal. But for the young players he coaches, losing hurts, doesn’t it?

“A little boy I coach would cry if he lost a match. Now if he loses one in a tournament he comes to me and wants to know – is there even a mathematical chance that I can still win this tournament. If I say yes to him – that’s it. And that’s the attitude you want.”

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