ChessMaine Interviews: Fred Irons
11.10.11 ChessMaine caught up with Fred Irons, former Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Maine and ardent chess player. Now in retirement, Fred is pursuing a number of interests including writing, art and music. We hope you enjoy this in-depth interview with one of the great pillars of the Maine chess community.
To find out what Fred is up to these days you may wish to visit his website.
ChessMaine: Let's begin at the beginning. Can you describe your childhood and your family life growing up?
Fred Irons: I grew up on a subsistence farm, about 30 miles from Cincinnati, Ohio, and while we did not have any money, we never felt that we were poor. This was after the big depression and during WWII. The original farm was 100 acres farmed by horses and we had no electricity, telephone, or running water. When I left to go to college, at Ohio State, we had 320 acres, much farm equipment, and both telephone and electricity. Growing up was a time of rapid change. My father's dream was to own a full square mile but he died young and never realized that dream.
CM: I understand you have had quite a distinguished career as a professor of electrical engineering. Can you talk about some of your professional career milestones?
FI: First was getting through the engineering program at Ohio State. I majored in Electrical Engineering and in the second year, there were over 200 students that signed up for the EE program. 19 of us graduated. There were not many scholarships in those days and so I felt fortunate to get some help from an Uncle as well as doing many part-time jobs. That proved to be a minor accomplishment when compared to getting through advanced degrees at MIT. I got paid to go there as a graduate teaching assistant. Going to MIT was a life altering experience and I have never regretted being there as I kept going back to MIT labs to work throughout my career. Milestones include: being involved with a startup business to promote miniaturized circuits for many critical (and well known) applications; working on the development and demonstration of spread-spectrum control and communication equipment; the development of an advanced lab at UMaine for the purpose of characterizing modern communication components, e.g., important analog-to-digital converters; and teaching has always been a favorite endeavor in my life. I also want to remember my biggest milestone was probably meeting my wife-to-be when I was in Boston. She provided the Maine connection for me as we have been blessed to live in Maine and raise our family here.
CM: What are you up to these days?
FI: That is a leading question to ask an old person as they feel they are so busy they don't understand how they ever had time to have had a career. Right now my life revolves around writing each morning, before eating; drawing and painting; and playing music. I also try to exercise on a regular basis with aerobic swims at the YMCA in Old Town. I started taking lessons at age 70, to learn to play the trumpet, and currently am still taking weekly lessons and playing in three groups: The Bangor Band, an adult ed band (Sebasticook Valley Community
Band), and a small group of eight musicians that like to get together and jam (the Penobscot Winds).
This last group is the most fun with ages running from mid-fifties to 93. We occasionally play at nursing homes but the main thrust is to provide musical exercise for these two old musicians that have been playing in bands for about 80 years. Last summer, between mid-June and mid-August I had 36 concerts between the three bands; in December there were 16 concerts. At age 75 I started taking drawing and art classes at different venues and now paint on
a regular basis. That has proven to be fun, as well as a social thing to do, as I have experienced both being in an art show and selling some of my work. It surprises me how people like to collect naive work! As far as writing goes, I am working on my 13th volume since retirement in 2000. The first few books were to clear things I wanted to get out of my system but the latest work has all been aimed at a form of memoir and essay called Commonplace Books' similar to journals of Quakers and early American philosophers. Along the way I have learned how to make one-of-a-kind books as well as publishing my journals.
CM: When were you first exposed to chess and by whom? Can you recall some of your earliest chess memories? What got you interested in the game?
FI: These questions all go together. My younger (by 13 years) brother introduced me to the
game one time when I went home from college to visit on a holiday. I think he was in the second
grade. Tom was quite a game player as he had subdued his whole school (through 8 grades) at
checkers and he learned the game of chess from our game-playing brother-in-law. When he
beat me, which was a given, my family teased me unmercifully about losing a game to a 7 year
old. That event planted a seed to learn the game of chess someday and exact my revenge. So
when I came to UMaine, in 1971, I sought out the chess club, then run by George Cunningham,
and started the adventure of learning the grand game at the age of 38. George warned me that I
would never get good, like a master, as I was too old to learn the game it was like learning a
language. Occasionally, when I would lose to a good high school player, George would write up
our game for the Bangor Daily News to let people know there was no age barrier to playing chess. He wouldn't use my name but he would use "EE Professor" so everyone knew it was me he was writing about. But I did rise to about a 1750 level, eventually, and so when my brother came to visit one time
we played a couple games, which I did win rather conclusively. Tom said I played too fast even
though he could take all the time he wanted. He never played me another game of chess. I got interested to run a chess club by watching George Cunningham and so when I
moved to Massachusetts in 1977, I became involved with running the Westford Chess Club. That
became a premier chess club of expert, or higher, rated players and so it was tough winning there.
They needed a TD so I got certified and did that for several years. That led me to setting up
a club for kids between 5th to 9th grades. We met in the community center on Friday evenings
where I used to play simuls against them to teach the game (we would talk about each
questionable move). A highlight was taking them to a simul at the Billerica chess club against a
local master, Joel Johnson. They all lost their games rather quickly but I was hanging on and
soon a dozen kids were hanging around discussing my move opportunities and cheering on the
coach. Joel made a mistake and lost a piece and then his game degenerated with his ultimate
resignation. What a high! Right in front of my kids I became a legend by beating a Master!
That was the high-point of my chess career but I often wondered if Joel made a weak move on
purpose. It was a natural step to take on the volunteer chess coach position at Orono High School
when I retired in 2000 and that also provided many wonderful memories of working with
talented young adults. We had a lot of victories but never managed to win the elusive state
title a lot of individual titles but no team title. Chess has provided a many great friendships and memories over my 40 year involvement and I am happy that my little brother stimulated me to learn the game. No regrets. I miss not
being able to play any more but have replaced it with other stimulating activities of a different
CM: Do you have a favorite player?
FI: It has to be Bobby Fischer. I found studying his games to be very rewarding and
encouraging to the style I envisioned wanting to play. The second most helpful was Nimzovitch and his book My System.
CM: What advice would you give an aspiring or scholastic player?
FI: Play! Don't be afraid to lose. Take your time and think before making your move.
CM: Are there any chess books that you found particularly helpful in your chess education?
FI: A book that functioned as my Bible for most of my career was Horowitz's The
Complete Chess Player. It had good introductory material and then systematically laid out all
the openings in increasing order of open to closed. The openings were all listed in a systematic
order that I found very helpful to organize them into my mind. When I was coaching I found the modern books by Bruce Pandolfini to be well written and easy to teach from. They were also well received by the students.
CM: You have given much time and energy to playing in, coaching, organizing and directing chess events. Why? What makes chess relevant today?
FI: Chess is just the best game there is. Why did I become involved? I think it has to be the
community and the rapport that is there in all chess players. There is a collegiality to the
members of serious chess players that makes it one of the more civilized and rewarding activities
in which to be involved. Then there is the feeling of obligation that comes about that if you are
enjoying the rewards of an organization it is worthwhile to support it so it will be there in the
future. Chess is relevant for many reasons such as the quality of the game one can have, but also
for the effect it has on youngsters' development of mental capabilities across multiple disciplines
such as math and reading comprehension and understanding cause and effect. Playing chess is a
way to grow and to be socially involved with a group of pleasant like-minded people.
CM: Any additional comments you would like to make?
FI: Well, I've probably already said more than you wanted to know so there is nothing I can
think of to add at the moment. Maybe after you get some feedback!! Thank you for asking me about my chess career and the motivations that went into it. It has been a pleasant journey, one that I would surely want to repeat if I had to do it again.
CM: Fred, it's been a pleasure speaking with you, thanks for the interview.