Meet the Players: All About the Benjamins

GM Joel Benjamin and GM Ben Finegold analyze their game at the 2010 U.S. Championship with WGM Jennifer Shahade.

By Brian Jerauld

As we lead up to the 2013 U.S. Championships, we'll be running a series of question-and-answer pieces designed to get you better acquainted with this year's field. Today, it's all about the Benjamins: Joel Benjamin and Ben Finegold.

Q&A with Grandmaster Joel Benjamin

You have always been clutch on the biggest of stages, including wins of the U.S Junior Championships twice (1980, 1982) and the U.S. Championship three times (1987, 1997, 2000). Does your secret come from behind-the-scenes preparation or performance under pressure?

I really don't consider myself a clutch player at all. For all those successes, there were lots of bitter defeats, too. I've come to realize not every story has a happy ending. The key is to block out the context and focus on the moves.

You were hired by IBM to help design Deep Blue, the first chess program to defeat World Champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. How was that entire experience, and how does it feel to know you helped the machines win?

Machines? I worked on a machine with a bunch of other people (cool and admirable people at that). I always thought the Man vs. Machine stuff was hyperbole. You want that, watch the Terminator. Deep Blue was a chance to work on a unique project and test my ideas and skills against the best player in the world. It was an awesome experience, and it felt great to win. It's just a shame Kasparov was such a sore loser; that sapped some of the pleasure out of it.

How did it feel to have broken Bobby Fischer’s record as the youngest-ever U.S. master and what did the title mean to you over your career? What was it like seeing your own record broken, first by Stuart Rachels and now held by Awonder Liang?

It was quite an honor, especially since the record belonged to Fischer, and it was only a few years after he won the title. But records are made to be broken, and I didn't miss this one when it was gone. 

You were inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame on May 2, 2008. Where does an achievement like that rank in your career? The WCHOF has since been relocated right across the street from the 2013 U.S. Championships in St. Louis. Will have you have time to stop in and look for your name?

To make the Hall of Fame is the ultimate vindication of everything a player has gone through in a career. I'm very proud of that honor. I was inducted at the Hall when it was still in Florida, and got to see my exhibit there. But I haven't been to the new museum yet and look forward to checking it out when I'm in town.

To put it mildly, you have had an amazing career. Can you pick a high point?

It's been a terrific journey. I'm proudest of my success against my friends and colleagues in winning three U.S. championships, and my strong results alongside them in several Olympiads and World Team Championships. If I had to narrow it down, I would say the 1997 title because I had thought my career might be over, and the two gold medals in the 1993 World Team Championship.


Q&A with Grandmaster Ben (Benjamin) Finegold

You were the Resident GM at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis for three years until 2012, and you are still, at the very least, a regular face there. Do you feel any “home-court advantage” for the 2013 U.S. Championship?

Yes. I think it is helpful that I can stay at my home and that I am more familiar with the Chess Club and the surrounding area.

Have you had any special preparation for the 2013 U.S. Championships? You recently tied for first in the Saint Louis Open, in early April. Is it safe to say you are headed into the Championships “hot?”

I am trying to lose weight and do easy tactical puzzles on the internet. I have lost 34 pounds in the last 7 months, but I need to lose a lot more. Nothing really special. Once I know my opponent and color each day, I will likely do 4-6 hours of prep per game, which is normal. I don't believe in "hot," I just believe in good moves. I will try to play well.

Your father, Ronald; your brother, Mark; and your son, Spencer, have all been USCF masters at one point in their lives. How often do you remind the three of them that you are a GM? What are your thoughts on genetics and chess?

I think we are all happy I became a GM. Genetics? Meh ... I think it is mainly nurture. I was brought up in a chess family. I liked chess a lot as a kid, and the reason I am higher ranked than my brother is that he stopped playing. I think if you love the game, and play a lot, and try hard to improve, that trumps genetics. If you don't agree we can bet $1.

At what point of your life did you realize you wanted to take chess to a professional level? What happened after that moment? How did your approach change?

I think even at a quite young age I wanted to be a chess player. I was not very good until I was 10. I played a lot of tournaments from ages 6-9, but not too successfully. Then, at ages 10-14, I really started to improve. So, maybe at age 10-12 was when I seriously thought about being a chess player. I don't think I had a new approach, as Bobby famously said, "I just got good."

You lived in Belgium for many years. Do you think chess is bigger in Europe, or other parts of the world, than it is in America? If so, what will it take for the U.S. to catch up to speed?

Chess is more highly thought of in Europe. More coverage in mainstream TV and newspapers, magazines, etc. Of course, the CCSCSL is doing all it can to change the chess perception in America. I think two things can help American Chess. 1) An American World Champion 2) Huge corporate sponsorship of top-level events. Will either happen soon? Maybe not, but maybe over the next 15-20 years, both will happen!