Humans of Chess: Michael Humphreys

“It was when I was around 16 that I really started to get serious about chess. What happened was I lost a couple games against someone I was used to beating. I had to play that person again, I had to beat them, so I started studying. I realized how much that had benefitted me. The improvement was pretty obvious. So I kept studying. At that point I would have been around 1300, and I quickly went up to about 1600.

Around then, when I was 1600, I started to get an appreciation for how deep a game it was. I realized people were not only farther ahead than me, but unimaginably farther ahead. A 2100 player could wipe me off the board. But then there were people unimaginably farther ahead than that, people who could eat that 2100 player for breakfast. And it just keeps going. Like recently I’ve been looking at some really instructive games by Paul Morphy. What I like to do is first show my students the game, and it’s amazing how brilliant it is. And then at the end, I tell them he was playing blindfold. And not only that, but it was a simultaneous game – he was playing other games blindfold at the same time! So at that point I started realizing I didn’t want to do anything else.

The first year I was teaching, after I came to Toronto in 2009, I was keeping some notebooks, writing down what I was studying and so on. But reading through them recently, I saw there were a lot of notes about teaching – things I wanted to show my students. I had become as serious about being a teacher as I was about being a player.

I like the moments where a student realizes there’s something there that they weren’t seeing before. Something clicks, and they see there’s a new dimension to the game. One student back in 2015 I actually had a tough time with for a long time. Then one day I was showing how to checkmate with king and rook. Once he figured out the pattern, he realized how awesome it was. And he started trying to explain it to everyone else. He had to make sure everyone else understood.

One thing that you get from chess is your standards become higher, and that translates to other areas. Like really taking time with your moves compared to playing the first move that comes to your head.
Another thing chess really shows is the value of hard work. That’s something I try to get across to my students. It’s one of the best things they can learn from chess. Your ability to play chess is directly correlated with how much work you put in. Not exactly correlated, like sometimes you put in more than you get back. Or you might get lucky. But in the long term, it’s directly correlated.

Is there a level you can reach where you’d be satisfied? No, I wouldn’t say that.”