During his teenage years, Robert M. Snyder was a bit of a hustler.
But his turf was not in smoke-filled pool halls filled with the aroma of stale beer. Snyder was a regular at the outdoor chess tables of MacArthur Park in Los Angeles and in the whisper-quiet game rooms of various Orange County chess clubs.
“I used to play speed chess for a quarter a game. That was a lot of money back in the ‘70s for a game that would only last 10 minutes. I could make a few bucks an hour doing that. Sometimes I played for dollars--that was big time. I always won.”
He’d been mostly winning since he began playing chess at age 12. By age 18, Snyder was ranked among the top 0.5% of all players, earning the title of national chess master. He taught himself how to play.
“Unfortunately, back then all the chess clubs were for adults. There weren’t any places for kids to go,” said Snyder, 43, who remedied the situation by founding Chess for Juniors in 1983. “I just liked the game so much, I wanted to keep studying it.”
Before the chess bug bit, Snyder’s passion was collecting reptiles. But after a friend introduced him to the game, he was intrigued and spent his allowance on a chess book. One book led to another.
“I read lots of books. I now have about 1,500 volumes on chess. Some of them were gathering dust during the Civil War. I built up a humongous library.”
He progressed from the mastery of chess club tournaments to professional play, becoming Western United States champion at age 19. He was also in demand as a teacher.
“My parents did not think this would lead to a lucrative career, that’s for sure. And for the most part, it is not a lucrative career. Playing this game, unless you’re one of the top few players in the world, is a poor man’s sport, which is unfortunate.
“Around 1976, I had to decide whether I wanted to be a professional player or a professional teacher. Since things were getting better and better for me as a trainer, and it was more stable, I decided to become a professional teacher. And it just kept on growing and growing.
“I don’t have any regrets, because I see what happens to these other professional players. They basically just go from tournament to tournament; they never own anything; most of them cannot afford their own car, much less their own home. They beat their brains out. It becomes very stressful when you have to make a living at it.”
Snyder, now a senior chess master ranked among the top 0.25% of all players, began teaching private lessons in his Garden Grove home. But with a shortage of qualified chess instructors, he soon found himself overloaded and turning away students he wanted to help.
“By 1983, I had so many students I decided to expand and make it into more of a club. We had uniforms, and it was at my home for years. Finally, it grew so big I had to move it out of the house.”
In 1989, he leased a shopping center space in Garden Grove, moving to Huntington Beach in 1995. With about 150 students, Chess for Juniors is considered the largest private youth chess club in the United States, Snyder said.
His days of professional competition are over. Snyder plays only exhibition matches, playing simultaneous games against his students, who have won 28 titles at national championships, along with five first-place team awards.
“If you want to really become one of the best, it requires a fanatical dedication to the game. It requires parents who are willing to foot the bill and allow the student to travel and get involved.
“And of course, the kid has to have good analytical skills and a natural talent to perceive and visualize patterns. Chess is a game of pattern recognition. It’s sort of like math--some people are good at it and some people just aren’t.”
The ability to think through a large number of possible moves is valuable, but not always necessary during play, Snyder said.
“You only need to think deep enough to establish what the best move is in a given position. Sometimes, only thinking ahead one move does it, and sometimes you must think many moves ahead and look at many variations.
“But often you can narrow it down. There are so many moves you can eliminate--that’s where pattern recognition teaches you to focus on the more important candidate moves. That’s not what the Deep Blue computer was doing when it played the world champion, Garry Kasparov, and beat him.
“So what if it can do so many millions of variations per second? Deep Blue is just a power number cruncher. Most of the moves should not have even been considered in the first place. It’s much more important to focus on pattern recognition. I have a feeling that Kasparov will learn how Deep Blue ticks a little more, and he’ll beat it in the next match.”
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Profile: Robert M. Snyder
Hometown: Los Angeles
Residence: Garden Grove
Education: Bachelor’s degree in geography, Cal State Long Beach; studies in business management
Background: Began playing chess at age 12; became a national chess master at age 18; champion of western U.S. at age 19; earned the highest score on the U.S. Correspondence Olympic Team and qualified for the semifinals of the world championship by winning two international tournaments; chief game analyst at many tournaments and a certified senior-level tournament director; currently senior chess master, ranked among top 0.25% of all players
Teaching career: Began private lessons in 1972 and earned a state teaching credential as a chess teacher at Rancho Santiago College at age 18; founded Chess for Juniors in 1983 and has since introduced chess to more than 130,000 students through school presentations; conducts chess programs for recreation departments of several cities; runs Chess for Juniors National Camp during summer; students have won 28 individual championships and five team championships in national competition; author of “Chess for Juniors” (Random House)
In the beginning: “I did not have a teacher. I had to learn it all by reading books. There were no teachers or trainers; chess was really dead in Orange County back then.”
Source: Robert M. Snyder; Researched by RUSS LOAR / For The Times