Meet the Players: GM Alejandro Ramirez

GM Alejandro Ramirez, a Samford Fellowship recipient last year, is hoping the investment in his game will pay dividends at this year's tournament.


By Brian Jerauld

You have a Masters in Arts and Technology, specializing in video game design, and you worked on Diablo III – which was released during the 2012 Championships. You were concerned then that it would be “difficult to handle both things.” How much of a distraction was the game release with last year’s tournament?

Honestly, I couldn't contain my excitement with the release of Diablo III last year. The project was of such scale and, although my contribution was of course very small, it was still extremely exciting to see my name on the credits of a Blizzard AAA release.  I was able to play a few hours [the night of the release] and I didn't go to bed until rather late that night. Fortunately I played a very interesting game and didn't lose the next day. It's been a constant for me that the more fun I'm having during tournaments and the more distracted I am the better I tend to do. In tournaments where I stress myself out or prepare for months, I seem to do mediocre at best. My Wizard is happily level 60 now and she shouldn't be any sort of distraction this year though :)

Do you feel like your approach in preparation is different this time around? Without a new video game impending to take the world by storm, you must have a boost in focus. How do you prepare for this large of a tournament?

This tournament is certainly different than last year. This year, unfortunately, there are many distractions that are preventing me from having the full preparation I would've liked. For example, I am just returning from Hamburg, Germany, where I was recording two new Chessbase DVDs (one dealing with the anti-Benko setups for White and one as a hypermodern repertoire for White). Although still technically chess it's not the strong preparation I would like to do. On the other hand, I'm benefited by the format of this year since with 24 players it is difficult to prepare against everyone beforehand. This year has been far from ideal for me in chess terms, and although my last tournament was a nice success I'm a little wary about how my play will be in Saint Louis.

You’ve expressed how much you enjoy your degree and would love to work for it. But being an active GM is a full-time job, too, and last year you spoke about being conflicted with the decision between the two. Where are you at now with that decision? Do you think it’s possible to do both?

I had the fortune of being chosen as one of the two 2012 Samford fellows. This was a huge blessing as it allowed me to focus on chess more and not make a decision right away. Of course since I accepted the fellowship it is my duty to dedicate more efforts towards the chess world, and that is what I'm doing right now. I still try to keep up with video games, and I will try to be attending some important conferences in the future (GDC next [Game Developer's Conference] is conveniently going to be in Los Angeles right before Blizzcon in Anaheim, so I will most likely do both). The more I see it the more difficult I believe it will be to be a full professional chess player and a game designer at the same time, but I do hope that I'm able to keep both up at least at some level for many years.

Were you home-schooled once you started rising in chess? How much chess was integrated into your schooling, and how do you feel about a larger chess presence in the U.S. education system?

I was home-schooled as soon as I finished 7th grade in Costa Rica. It wasn't just to dedicate more time to chess, it was also to avoid the slow tempo that was sung in the traditional education system. Once I was home-schooled I immediately starting learning programming, back with Visual Basic 6. I also started taking up chess more seriously, and was able to learn more about architectural drawing thanks to my dad since he had the patience to teach me. At some point I became less diversified and with my travels I was certainly forced to do so. Chess became my entire life when I was around 13 and up until the point I became a GM. Overall I believe that had I remained in the traditional school system I would still be in Costa Rica with nowhere near the opportunities I currently have.

I think the education system everywhere needs some important overhauls. I believe that adding chess is a good start as it gives the students an interesting way to engage their brains rather than the monotonous math and science classes they have to go to. As part of my game design education we had a lot of philosophical debates on exactly why 'play' was useful for people. One of the works we read was by M.J. Ellis and the book's title is 'Why People Play'. The book gives a critical analysis on what 'play' is, why people crave it and how it is beneficial to society. In essence, play is natural for young people as it is the way they prepare for the future. It is important to stimulate independent thinking, the ability to plan and analyze forward, the ability to cope with defeat, the ability to do quick calculations, and it is obvious that chess provides the perfect scenario in which to practice these and many other important day-to-day skills by playing.

You’ve credited your father for a lot of your early chess. Do you have any experiences to share? When did you first beat your dad, and what was that like? What kind of chess relationship do the two of you have today?

I'd like to point out that it wasn't just my father that was responsible for my chess growth, without my mom's cunning and ability to find tournaments when information was still scarce on the internet - not to mention an efficient way to get us there - it would have been impossible for me to ever become a GM. I honestly don't remember when the first time I beat my dad was, but it might have been before I ever played my first real chess tournament. My dad's rating must not be much higher than 1000. He understands the psychology behind the game perfectly better than most GMs, and has a keen understanding on how the mind works and how we use it to retrieve information - he understands Dvoretsky but probably couldn't solve a four-move checkmate. His is a mind that is more unique than any I have yet to encounter.

My favorite story of his is probably our experience in 2004 Cappelle la Grande. I was already a GM-elect and had been offered full conditions to participate in the tournament, including hotel. We had requested beforehand that I get a double room since my dad was traveling with me, and to our surprise they told us that this was impossible: the rooms were only for chess players. However they offered as a solution, they would give us the double room for free as long as my father played in the tournament! So for the first time in his life my dad played a huge international open! Halfway through the tournament my dad had really gotten into it, he had lost a few games but had actually managed to score a victory. I remember preparing for my game (I was having a dreadful tournament) and of course I had to dedicate a fair amount of energy to preparing for my games, but my dad kept insisting I teach him the 'Modern' defense as he was unhappy with the positions he kept getting from the opening! It is funny how tournaments can creep into you. I think he was very pleased with his result at the end. I think he finished with a solid 2.5/9 after he offered a 6-year-old kid called 'Francois' a draw after my dad had taken all his pieces!

My dad and I still talk often, but of course it's hard to be as close as we were since the distance is enormous and I'm consistently busy. It's one of the biggest downsides to my moving to the U.S.