ChessMaine Interviews: Searching for Kathy Richards
4.29.2006 While in high school, she won the first ever top female trophy at the state scholastic championships. Since then, Kathy Richards has become Maine's higest rated female player. In addition to playing chess, she does some boring stuff too, like white water rafting and skydiving! "Chess is," she says, "really for people who are thrill seekers."
ChessMaine: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you recall how old you were when you learned the moves and who taught you?
Kathy Richards: I was ten years old and a neighbor girl, Marie, thought it would be a good idea to teach me how to play chess. Marie’s whole purpose in teaching me chess, I think, was so she could beat me. Her rules changed every game and she always won. Someone at school straightened it out for me about a year later.
CM: What got you interested in playing chess and how did you get into tournament chess?
KR: After I taught my dad how to play one winter we played almost every evening. When we started we actually didn’t have a chess set so we took checkers and drew on the tops. It worked, you can be creative. We got a chess set really soon though but we started off that way. The middle school chess coach, Richard Maxell, told the high school chess advisor, David Richards (no relation), about the state scholastic tournament. A few of us rode the bus to Orono. I learned how to keep notation on the bus and came home with the girls’ trophy, the first one ever awarded in Maine.
CM: The year was?
KR: 1972. I believe the first state championship tournament was in 1971. It was started by George Cunningham a UMO professor. I guess the first year George ran the tournament there were no girls at all. The second year he offered a girls’ trophy. There was a girl named Cheri, who was a championship Ping-Pong player. She and I were the only two girls and after five rounds in one day we both had a score of three so we had to play a playoff game.
CM: Wow, you were really on the cutting edge, breaking new ground.
KR: I was.
CM: Do you think it’s changed much now? There’s still a huge gap between the number of boy and girl players, maybe 90% to 10%.
KR: I think it’s changing. I think it ties in with gender roles and gender expectations. I am kind of oblivious to that because I am the girl who plays so I don’t tend to think about it as much. I think, probably, my male opponents think about it when they play a female. I really didn’t think about it until my male friend told me it’s like getting beat up by a girl on the playground.
CM: Tell us a bit about your upbringing.
KR: I grew up in the sheltered environment of rural Maine in a time of much more self-sufficiency and multiple roles. My family’s home was on 10-acres, we had a cow and a pony; we churned our own butter. My dad was a carpenter and the economy being what it was in Maine he filled in with cutting wood or whatever else. He was also a trained auto mechanic so he did that sometimes.
CM: I suppose you had to be flexible back then.
KR: You still do. The economic opportunities are limited. You can never tell when the mill is going to cut back on their hours so it still helps to be flexible today.
CM: How has chess changed you as a person?
KR: Chess hasn’t changed me, but it has amplified my innate tendencies. Competitive chess doesn’t fit the stereotypes that most people have. It’s very competitive as you know. It’s a way of thinking and you have to connect things that don’t seem connected on the surface.
CM: Would you say you are a competitive person?
KR: Not so much in beating another person but in pushing my own limits.
CK: As Maine’s highest rated female player you certainly are a role model for young women players. How do you feel about that and what advice would you give to girl chess players?
KR: Well, I have an interesting story. I was at a tournament at St. Mary’s and a man came up to me, he had an accent so I could tell English was not his native language. He looked at me and thanked me for being a woman. I was a little taken aback and he said, “I can see from your expression I didn’t put that the right way.” He didn’t want to offend me but his daughter was playing chess there and I was the only woman playing in the open section. He thanked me for being a role model.
CM: And you teach chess so I’m sure your students look to you as a role model.
KR: I try to bring in my other interests also and tell them about that. I think one of the key things is to break that stereotype of chess. It isn’t just for nerds, it isn’t just for geeks. Chess is really for people who are thrill seekers. Those are the ones who will do the best. I’ve ridden horses competitively; I’ve been skydiving and loved it.
CM: Have you! That’s something I’d never try, I’m scared of heights.
KR: So am I! But you’re so high when you’re looking down it’s not even real. It’s like a video game. I’ve been white water rafting.
CM: A thrill seeker!
KR: A little bit. I like to do it in a safe environment so I can do it again the next time. Or at least the chances are pretty high I’ll be able to do it the next time.
CM: What council would you give aspiring players?
KR: Play stronger players. Listen to stronger players go over their games at tournaments. Play correspondence chess.
CM: Besides being a top player in what other ways are you involved with chess in Maine?
KR: I don’t see myself as being a top player in Maine, but I like mixing it up with them when I get a chance. The primary one is coaching. I’ve been doing that in different ways for nineteen years. In 1991, I had a team that came in second in the state. I’ve been expanding the program gradually. I’ve been doing the K-12 program the past three years. Next week I will be starting a K-3 program so I’m pretty excited about that.
CM: And your role as Treasurer of the Maine Association of Chess Coaches, how long have you been doing that?
KR: When Mike Schaab finished, Ron (Lewis) and I picked up the role to start with and then other people came aboard.
CM: And the primary responsibility in that position?
KR: Just keeping track of the money. The USCF memberships are a big part of that. Making sure everybody’s name is spelled correctly and the addresses and DOB’s are correct. We had hundreds of memberships put in this year, but less than in past years though.
CM: Why play chess anyway? How is it relevant to today’s world and why should we encourage children to get involved?
KR: Chess is a way of thinking, of evaluating the impact of myriad variables on an outcome. The board and the pieces are just a concrete representation of the thought process. In today’s world, we tend to be shortsighted and narrow in our thinking and planning; we often don’t look at the overall, long-range impact of our own and other’s actions. Chess is a fun way of teaching children to think globally. With increasing diversity, chess also transcends language and many cultural barriers.
CM: How do you think scholastic chess in Maine can attract more girls?
KR: I asked some of my girls today why they thought so few girls played and across the board the answer was, "because it’s boring." I think until you get a certain understanding of the game and you see the possibilities and layers…people ask me how I can sit there and look at the board for hours. How can you pull yourself away when all this is going on? Like a basketball game can be dull if you know nothing about the rules. It’s just a bunch of people running back and forth with the ball, it makes no sense. So getting them acquainted with the game early on, boys and girls, there will be a certain amount who will drop out but if you go to a chess tournament and in the open section there are no women, then this is not something that women do. I went to the Eastern Class Championships a number of years ago. It was great other than the fact that I came down with the flu, I was really sick, which I picked up at the state scholastics by the way. It was awful, I had this raging fever. I didn’t realize it when I sat down at the board Friday night. I was playing my first game and my body started aching and I felt like I was going to fall asleep.
CM: I probably would have withdrawn.
KR: I did! I played three games until I said I can’t do this any more. But I went into the bathroom and there was an extraordinarily pretty girl of high school age just crying. Her mother was trying to console her. She was saying that she didn’t care that she lost but that she felt stupid about the way she lost. I thought what could I say. As I was getting ready to leave I said, “You know there are a bunch of men on the other side of that wall doing the same thing you’re doing.” Her mother looked at me like I had lost my mind but the girl looked at me and smiled. I left before I found out how it turned out.
CM: Are you planning on playing in the 2006 Maine State Championship in South Portland in May?
KR: Hopefully, I’m planning on it.
CM: Do you have specific ways in which you prepare for a tournament?
KR: I’ve improved the most by playing correspondence. For a couple weeks before a tournament, I usually work on David Brown’s “Key Krackers” in Chess Life.
CM: Do you prepare for specific players or take a more general approach?
KR: I haven’t attained a level of play where I’m ready to prepare for specific players. I’m just focusing on improving my understanding of the game and each position.
CM: How would you describe your chess style?
KR: Evolving. I’ve taken big breaks. Right now I’m working two jobs in addition to coaching chess. I work here at the school (Piscataquis Community High School) and at the Charlotte White Center where I do behavioral mental health services. I’m studying half-time at UMA and I like gardening and other activities too. So right now I’m not really developing my chess but there was a period for about five or six years when I did and during that time I played correspondence chess.
CM: I noticed you had a correspondence chess rating.
KR: Yes. I grew tremendously during that time period. Anyone who wants to improve their chess, I would recommend correspondence. I would sometimes spend three days on one position looking at all the possibilities and that really helped me when it came to over-the-board chess. When I sat down, I realized there were a lot more possibilities here than the two obvious moves. You know, the two obvious moves are probably not going to be the best.
CM: Which world champion players do you have an affinity towards?
KR: The Polgar sisters come to mind. Susan, especially, has done so much to promote the game.
CM: Which chess books have you gotten the most out of?
KR: I like books that cover general principles, not specific lines.
CM: If you could have dinner with one person living or dead who would that be and why?
KR: It wouldn’t be anybody anyone would recognize. I’ve had family members who have died so if I could have dinner with them one last time. The thing I would be most interested in in a famous person would be their work, their personal struggles.
CM: Thanks for the interview it was a pleasure talking with you.