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