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ChessMaine Interviews: Bernard "Doc" Mann, Dean of Maine Chess

05.30.06 It's not every day you get an opportunity to talk with someone who learned how to play chess when Woodrow Wilson was president. At nintey-seven years young, Bernard "Doc" Mann still plays, teaches and enjoys the game. A gentleman and a scholar, Doc is one of Maine's great ambassadors of chess. After speaking with the man one gets the sense that if chess is important to him, it's worth learning.

ChessMaine: Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and where you were born?

Bernard Mann: Bangor, Maine 1909. Now it’s ’06. People ask me, “How old are you?” Well, I was born in ’09 now it’s ’06.

CM: I guess we can call you a nonagenarian.

BM: I’ve been called worse.

CM: And you’ve lived your whole life in Maine?

BM: Not yet.

CM: I heard the young lady refer to you as “Doc”.

BM: I did a lot of things for the Red Cross at one time and I was in the Health and Safety program for the Scouts. I was health and safety minded. So I began to do first aid work and one day I was coming down the path and I had a little black bag. My great uncle was a doctor by the way. Somebody saw me with my black bag and said, “We’re all set now here comes Doc.” That’s how names get born and it stayed all this time. That was way back in the 1930’s at the Boy Scouts camp. After working with the Boy Scouts for about thirty years a certain Bill Bennett decided he wanted me at the YMCA. By this time I had gone from thirty-two years as a bank assistant to the Eastern Maine Technical College—the pension was better. So in that college situation Bill Bennett’s son was in my class. He came up to me one day and said, “My father would like to talk to you.” He said, “How would you like to come to the YMCA camp? I’ll do the talking.” So I decided I would go there as a change of pace. I spent the next twenty-one years at Camp Jordan at the YMCA.

CM: What did you do at Eastern Maine Technical College?

BM: I was a librarian, golf coach and I taught English composition and speech. Technical people need to learn how to write so they can tell what they did or what they are going to do. If they make an invention they have to tell what the invention is.

CM: How about your high school and college years?

BM: I graduated from Maine in 1931 with a B.A. I got my Masters in ’33 in French.

CM: What field was your undergraduate degree?

BM: I was in languages, I did quite a lot with Latin. When I graduated the junior high school was looking for someone who could teach Latin and French and I thought I could handle that. They asked me, “Will you go there?” Where they told me to go, I went. I was quite willing to go, I like teaching.

CM: You graduated from a Bangor area high school?

BM: Yes, Bangor High School, 1927.

CM: When did you discover chess and who taught you how to play?

BM: Way back when I was in grammar school my brother saw a chess set and thought he would like to have one. So we got it for Christmas and we didn’t know how to play. No directions came with the set it so happened. My uncle came down to visit us one time from New York and he taught us the moves. That was 1917 or ’18. So then I just played hit or miss and it wasn’t until about ten years ago that I became serious with chess as amazing as it may seem. We enjoyed the game because it was colorful. So this fellow at St. John’s Catholic Church, I was working with him at St. John’s School, it’s now called All Saints School, he said, “You play chess? I used to play chess and I’d like to play some more.” So after a year or so playing with him, I actually went into it seriously, I delved, I dug, I explored. I was more and more fascinated with it than I had ever been before. So in teaching him I was teaching myself.

CM: The best way to learn is to teach.

BM: They say this is true, yes. So from that point on I became more and more enthralled by it. You can always learn something new each time you do something. There are unlimited possibilities. You say “What can this piece do?” Well, what can’t it do? There are very few things you can’t do in chess. You can’t put your own king in danger and of course you have to move the pieces according to the proper procedure. You can’t make a piece do something that it’s not allowed to do. Checkmate comes from shah mat, shah is the King and mat is dead. So you see how shah mat becomes checkmate.

CM: Is that about the time you started teaching chess at All Saints School?

BM: Well I couldn’t pinpoint the date, sometime around then. At one point I was teaching at five schools. Then the ’09 began to take its toll. I did go back to my old junior high school, now they call it middle school. I went back there this year, but right now I don’t go to any schools. I’m retired from retiring.

CM: You deserve it!

BM: That’s a moot point. What does anybody deserve?

CM: You deserve it, you worked hard.

BM: Well when you enjoy what you are doing it’s not hard work. It may be strenuous and difficult but it’s not hard. If you like what you are doing it doesn’t matter.

CM: What was life like in Maine back in the Depression years, the ‘30’s and ‘40’s?

BM: Horses. We don’t say horses we say husses. Your throat can get horse but they’re husses.

CM: No cars.

BM: No cars, if a car came up the street we’d say, “I wonder if he’s going to get around the corner.” Chug-chug, chugging along. We were surrounded by English Sparrows in those days. If the horse was kind enough to do something the sparrows would come, there were hundreds of them. I haven’t seen an English Sparrow for seventy-five years. They came a long way to get here from England didn’t they? They must have been having a famine or something.

CM: Have you ever played serious tournament chess?

BM: No just completely amateur. I can see two sometimes three moves ahead. If a person wants to become a master they will study six hours a day. Not one day a week, every day, and then at the end of the week, start again. They play chess all the time, that’s how they become masters. They can see seven or eight moves ahead no matter where it is, but I don’t have that talent.

Doc surfing the web and checking out the ChessMaine site.

CM: Do you have any advice for an improving player?

BM: Play times a hundred. Play, play, play… and play someone stronger than you. If you know someone stronger he can give you little hints. Some things you can do that everyone knows. You’re acquainted with the pin?

CM: Yes.

BM: If you learn how to pin you will win more games than someone that doesn’t know how to pin. A pin paralyzes a certain piece in your opponent’s arsenal of men so a pin is a very formidable weapon.

CM: Why do you think chess is a good activity for kids.

BM: It makes their minds work. They had studies in New York City; they took a class of children, third grade. Group A never played chess, Group B played all the time. After about four years the difference was not only remarkable it was striking. They had to conclude it was based on chess all other things being equal. You have to speculate well. You have to think, What will I do now? It’s like history, how would it have been if... The beauty is, it’s fun doing it.

CM: Bernard it was a pleasure talking with you, thanks.

BM: Thank you.

Comments

I just love these interviews. Thanks again

Dan -
Very interesting interview! How fascinating to speak with someone of his age and background. Loved his comment about being called worse than a nonagenarian!

mjk

Great interviewing, Dan
Jon

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