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Chess meets history: Spotlight on Ron Nurmi

Ron Nurmi has two passions in life: chess and history. He retired after serving as IASCA secretary for nine years at the 2017 board meeting. And his service throughout the years left its a mark on IASCA history.

Nurmi plays at a tournament in 2009

Nurmi learned how to play chess while he was still in junior high, but the game didn’t pique his interest until he was around 30 years old. By that time, he had earned an undergraduate degree in social studies from the University of Minnesota in Duluth. Nurmi studied toward his Master’s degree, but didn’t see much future in earning a doctorate in history. Instead, he decided to pursue a career in sales.

At a tobacco shop in Minneapolis, he came across a group of chess players and joined in playing.

“I got hooked on chess there, and then I started playing in tournaments…” Nurmi said. “I guess it was the problem solving, excitement of the game. It was a way of trying to beat an opponent, but not physically. You didn’t have to get hurt yourself. It was just the sheer excitement of playing the game and trying to out-think an opponent. And whether you did or not, it wouldn’t make a difference. It would just be the attempting. You’d get a great deal of satisfaction with problem solving—abstract problem-solving, which I was never very good at. But still that’s what chess really turns out to be. It’s a nebulous thing, but it gives me the sheer pleasure of playing an opponent and trying to out-think somebody.”

The Louvre Museum is the world's largest museum and a historic monument in Paris, France. Nurmi visited in June 1999

Soon Nurmi moved to Iowa, and in 1975 started working for McMillan Publishing as a college textbook sales rep. At this new job, he had plenty of time to play chess on weekends.

As white, Nurmi plays the London System, and as black against e4 he plays the Scandinavian. Against d4, he plays the Slav.

He chose those openings because as a working man, he didn’t have the time to spend hours delving into theory. And he would rather learn a few openings in depth than know many only superficially. Moves such as e4 never appealed to him, because he didn’t want to study all the theory of the Sicilian.

“These are not theoretical openings … you can play them as a busy person,” said Nurmi. “They are sound. They’re fundamental. They won’t get you into trouble.”

Back in the 1970s, Nurmi said his favorite openings were “off-beat.” Not many people studied them, and thus he’d gain an advantage in time as they pondered their moves. He’d utilize the time advantage in the mid-game as needed.

Mikhail Botvinnik was his inspiration. Nurmi prefers positional counter-punching to rapid-fire tactics—he tries to grind his opponents down.

“If you notice now, the London system is starting to crop up at high-level play. Magnus Carlsen plays it, for example,” Nurmi said. “It’s because the idea of chess that he and some others have is, ‘We’ll play an opening that gets us into the middle-game, and then we’ll really start playing chess, and I’ll beat my opponent.’”

Chess players at the club Nurmi attended in 2009

Nurmi found himself as one of many drawn to chess during the Fischer boom, and when that ended, he joined others in stepping up to try to keep the IASCA financially sound.

“During the Fischer boom in the early and middle ‘70s, there were a lot of chess players in Iowa. You would go to tournaments. There’d be a 100 to a 125 people in the open section. There generally weren’t too many sections, but you had a lot of players. The money came in by dues,” Nurmi said. “When the boom declined, there was a group of young players who wanted the prize money to stay the same, so they didn’t understand that if money isn’t coming in, it can’t go out. They virtually bankrupted the organization. So, a group of us decided you couldn’t allow the state organization to be involved in that way.”

The remedy? The Constitution had to be re-written.

“We decided we would rewrite the constitution, and we did,” Nurmi said.

Nurmi was elected to the constitutional committee to help write the constitution. It took two or three years to write the new constitution and pass it. With a few amendments, that constitution is still the document which governors the IASCA today.

During the mid and late 70s, Nurmi believes the IASCA balance hovered around $200 to $300. When tournaments were held, they had to make sure there was enough cash prize money on hand. If there weren’t enough people who attended a tournament, prizes had to be reduced.

“There was some really strong fiscal management, that was Mike Coveyou more involved with that. He was an 1800-level chess player,” Nurmi said. “And of course, John Osness: he’s Mr. Chess of Iowa. He was an organizer and a player from Waterloo. He actually was involved with re-writing the USCF chess rules back in the early ‘70s. He was the guiding force for chess much through the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s in Iowa. The Iowa State Chess Association probably wouldn’t be around—it might be—but he was a driving force to keep chess and maintain chess. He was not a strong player, but it didn’t make any difference.”

Nurmi visited the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis TN, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, in Oct 2010.

During the 1980s, Nurmi served as a director. He also served as chair of the Iowa Chess Trust Fund for between six and eight years.

“They wanted to make sure management was competent because they had some problems with management before. I was in charge of that. After a while we turned that money back to the IASCA,” Nurmi said. “I’ve been involved off and on since the early 80s in one capacity or another.”

The biggest change he has seen in chess has been the advent of the computer—which makes it much easier to find an opponent or use databases.

“When I started actively in the early 70s there weren’t a lot of chess books or chess magazines. In fact, there was even a book, Russian for Chess Players. If you were an active chess player, about the best magazine was called, well, it translates to “64,” and it came out of Moscow. To get the latest games, that’s where you went,” Nurmi said. “There were no databases out there of chess games, and you may have had an opening book, and a few other books, but there were not the plethora of books that have been poured out. And DVDs didn’t exist. There was no such thing as a DVD. Young chess players are so much further ahead of the people who were young when I was playing. …The availability of coaching via Skype or over the internet never existed back in the ‘60s.”

Nurmi prepares to kiss the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle, Blarney Ireland, June 1991

How would Nurmi’s life have been different had he not become a chess player?

“I would certainly have a lot more money, and I’d have a lot more room on my bookshelf,” Nurmi joked.

While he’s spent plenty on chess books and chess software over the years, chess still fascinates him.

It’s not unusual for Nurmi to have 15 to 30 correspondence games in the works at one time. He plays on servers including, ICCF, Scheming Minds, and CCLA (Correspondence Chess League of America). Nurmi has been a member of the CCLA since the 70s, and has watched the league transition from post-cards to emails to a chess server. And he’s all for the improved technology. Back in the days of post-cards, if a player wanted a bit more time, he could blame delays on the post office. If a card was sent to, say, Yugoslavia, with a week or two delivery time, that could be easy to get away with.

“With the servers, the record-keeping is done away with. There are no time complaints,” Nurmi said. “It automatically wins or loses, so I find playing on the server much more convenient than either postcard, which I did a lot, or email.”

50th Anniversary of the Des Moines Civil War Round Table - 2015

Today, Nurmi enjoys reading and still loves history, particularly medieval history and military history. He’s adjutant to the Des Moines Civil War Roundtable, and compiles a newsletter following each of their meetings.

His love of history has taken him to England, Scotland, Ireland and France several times, where he has visited the sites of many of the historical battles he studies.

“By going to these places, you could understand. It’s like visiting a battlefield. Once you go and visit it, and physically see, then you can understand what happened easier because you can see, oh, there’s this hill. … That’s why no one could see this troop of calvary coming because they were hidden kind of behind this hill. Or this open field—how did these guys run across this open field of 100 yards when people are shooting at them? It gives you a respect for things,” Nurmi said.

He enjoyed talking with people from the countries he visited. He has fond memories of visiting a twelfth century castle hotel in England near Adrian’s Wall, and speaking with an English couple there.

“If you’re willing to go that far, and you’re willing to visit people…” Nurmi said, “you can get some interesting topics."

And most of all, he noticed the universal struggle of mankind throughout the ages.

“I always remember this church in France. There was this oak tree in front of a little country church. The oak tree was a thousand years old. The church was a thousand years old. Here’s a little old country church in the middle of the farm country that people had been using for a thousand years. … A lot of these buildings were around and people were trying to live, and people had the same problems back a thousand years ago as we do today,” Nurmi said. “Of course, they didn’t have electronic stuff, but they still had the same problems.”

Visiting Flanders field and seeing thousands and thousands of graves of 18, 19 and 20 year-olds who gave their lives also made a great impression.

“You would see all of the sudden people from all over the world were involved in this effort at that time. … It made/ history real,” Nurmi said. I have a real belief that if you don’t understand history, you are not necessarily going to make the same mistakes, but you’re going to make mistakes that you might not have made if you realized you should probably not do that. Something for example is fighting a war in Russia in the winter probably is not a really good idea, as several others have found out.”

Ft. Pulaski National Monument Georgia, showing damage by Union artillery fire during the Civil War

Throughout his life, Nurmi has found inspiration in rational thinking and intellectual curiosity.

“I want ideas to be proven to me, and that’s one of the reasons I think I like history…” Nurmi said. “I’m interested in why things happen and why they exist.”

Nurmi decided to step down as IASCA secretary in 2017 because he doesn’t believe one group of people should constantly remain the leaders of the organization.

“I think you need to move people in and out of different positions,” Nurmi said.

Not having any new blood would be a loss to the organization, in his opinion. He calls his own nine years of service “nothing.”

“It was nothing, nothing. I was willing to volunteer, and that’s how most directors and officers get chosen. Their willing to do it,” Nurmi said. “Somebody’s always saying, boy, I hope he does it. I would probably do it, but boy, I hope somebody else volunteers to do this.”

Sometimes, it’s just time for someone new to step up.

“Chess in Iowa has had its ups and downs. I think it’s kind of on the up-swing now,” Nurmi said. “We have good management running the organization, and we seem to be doing well.”

Although Nurmi doesn’t play at tournaments anymore, he can often be found at chess clubs in Des Moines and Urbandale. He also listens to chess podcasts such as “Full English Breakfast” and “The Perpetual Chess Podcast.” And he watches livestreams of important tournaments, such as the U.S. Championships. He anticipates he’ll continue to attend IASCA meetings—and play plenty of correspondence chess.

Paris, France, June 1999

“People should keep playing chess and keep active, and there’s so much more availability of chess today than there was when I was young, or even when I got started,” Nurmi said. “It’s really a great thing to see that the availability of somebody to play a game at all ages, at all levels.”

Note: This interview is from March 2017.

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