From prodigy to champion, Stuart Rachels was the best Alabama saw in chess

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A young Stuart Rachels looks at a chess board. (Courtesy of Stuart Rachels)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — There was a time when Stuart Rachels seemed to have a bright future in chess.

Rachels, a philosophy professor at the University of Alabama, was a chess prodigy who had become the youngest U.S. chess master in history by the time he was 11-years-old. By 1990, he was co-champion of the U.S. Chess Championship and had already played some of the best players in the world.

That all changed in 1993, when Rachels decided to walk away from chess.

‘Kids didn’t play chess’

Rachels recalled one of his earliest chess memories in 1977, when he was 7 years old.

“I remember trying to capture the queen of one of my father’s graduate students — his name was Greg — by moving a pawn backwards,” Rachels said in an email correspondence with CBS 42. “I was pretty irritated when he made me give him his queen back.”

Stuart Rachels engaged in a match against his father, James. (Courtesy of Stuart Rachels)

By the time he was 9, Rachels was constantly playing at the Birmingham Chess Club and rapidly improving.

“I never played kids when I was a kid, I only played adults,” Rachels said. “Kids didn’t play chess.”

Rachels’ family did everything they could to support him. His father, UAB philosophy professor James Rachels, organized chess tournaments in Birmingham and gave him the means to improve his game, including books, magazines and, later, a trainer.

However, Rachels said they never put any pressure on him to play.

“A good player will put pressure on himself; extra pressure will only give him stomach aches,” he said. “A kid who isn’t self-motivated doesn’t have what it takes, and parents who try to provide motivation from the outside are only being bad parents.”

New world chess champion Bobby Fischer of the U.S. is greeted by young chess fans in Reykjavik, Iceland as he returns to his hotel room after he won the championship following Boris Spassky’s resignation in the 21st game, Sept. 1, 1972. (AP Photo)

In 1981, Rachels became the youngest chess master in American history, beating the record previously held by chess icon Bobby Fischer. Rachels was 11 years and 10 months when he broke Fischer’s record. He remained the youngest U.S. chess master until 1994, when it was broken by Jordy Mont-Reynaud.

Rachels credits Kyle Therrell, a player from Fairfield, and trainer Boris Kogan with his early success.

“Without them, forget it, I never would have become good,” Rachels said. “It’s not something you can do on your own, with just books and magazines.”

Early on, Rachels had the opportunity to play against both former and future world chess champions. He lost twice against Garry Kasparov, often referred to as the greatest chess player in history, and he lost to Boris Spassky, Fischer’s opponent in what is considered the “Match of the Century,” the 1972 World Chess Championship. Rachels also drew against future five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand.

Rachels described each experience with one word.

“Kasparov: Exciting. Spassky: Terrifying. Anand: Exhilarating,” he said.

Rachels faced Spassky in the 1985 U.S. Open in Hollywood, Florida. In his book, “The Best I Saw in Chess,” Rachels recalled Spassky walking over to Kogan to ask why he was so nervous. By the time Rachels collected himself, it was too late: Spassky had out-maneuvered him.

Stuart Rachels facing off against former world champion Boris Spassky at the 1985 U.S. Open in Hollywood, Florida. (Courtesy of Stuart Rachels)

When Rachels resigned, the spectators applauded.

“I joined in, remembering Spassky’s sportsmanlike applause for Fischer when Fischer took the lead against him in Iceland,” Rachels wrote in his book.

Rachels went on to become U.S. co-champion in the 1989 tournament, sharing the title with grandmasters Roman Dzindzichashvili and Yasser Seirawan.

In 1993, Rachels retired from competitive chess, calling it a “whole-life decision.”

“I wasn’t good enough to compete for the world championship,” he said. “In 1993, the life of your average chess professional in the United States was pretty depressing: very little money, a lot of traveling, an all-male culture, no health insurance, no respect from the general public, etc. A lot of professional players moved to Europe, which I didn’t want to do.”

Rachels said his life didn’t change that much after he retired, gradually weaning himself from the game to focus more on his graduate studies of philosophy.

“The main change was not traveling to tournaments in the summer,” he said. “Also, I could stop worrying about how to fix problems in my opening repertoire.”

In his father’s footsteps

Even before stepping away from chess, Rachels took a keen interest in philosophy, something of a family business in the Rachels’ household. His father, James, was a moral philosopher and professor at UAB. His 1971 anthology, “Moral Problems,” shifted colleges from teaching meta-ethics to teaching concrete practical issues.

“When people know my father as a philosopher, I say, ‘He was an even better father,'” Rachels said.

Stuart Rachels and James Rachels at Stuart’s high school graduation in 1987. (Courtesy of Stuart Rachels)

Rachels remembers spending a good chunk of his teenage years pestering his father with philosophical questions after he would come home from work.

“He was my Boris Kogan in the realm of philosophy. I knew, even back then, how lucky I was, but I know this even better now,” said Rachels.

In addition to his father, Rachels credits people like Donald Rutherford and Robert McCauley from Emory University and Derek Parfit from Oxford University as some influences.

There was one year of graduate school that Rachels was so consumed by philosophy that he let his subscription to his favorite chess magazine lapse. But that was only for a year.

Rachels said that he was consumed by chess and by philosophy, but was primarily a student first and a chess player in his spare time.

“Even people who have always known me are surprised when I remind them that I never took any time off from school in order to play chess,” Rachels said.

Rachels now teaches philosophy at the University of Alabama as an associate professor specializing in ethical theory.

Returning to the game

Back in June, nearly 30 years after retiring from competitive chess, Rachels took part in the 2021 Alabama Blitz Championship and the 2021 Alabama Quick Championship in Montgomery. Rachels won all of his games to sweep the Alabama Blitz Championship. With all wins and a draw, he pulled out on top in the Alabama Quick Championship as well.

Scott Varagona, reigning Alabama State Chess Champion and editor for the Alabama Chess Antics magazine, said he always heard older players talk about Rachels with a sense of awe, but he had never had the chance to play him. With Rachels returning, Varagona was not going to miss the opportunity.

Stuart Rachels is a five-time Alabama State Champion, a U.S. Junior Champion, a U.S. Co-Champion and an International Master. He also teaches philosophy at the University of Alabama. (Courtesy of Stuart Rachels)

“For him to resurface after all these years, and for me to finally get to face him in a serious tournament, was a big deal for me. After all, he was Alabama’s strongest player of the 20th century,” said Varagona. “Even though he hadn’t played competitive chess for over 25 years, whereas I was the reigning Alabama State Champion, he beat me very badly! I was impressed.”

Varagona said he was too nervous and starstruck against Rachels to play at his best, but believes he would do better if he got another chance to play him.

Rachels said that going back to those tournaments after years away was like sticking his toes in the water.

“For me, it was ‘sort of’ like playing in a real tournament. I didn’t consider it ‘fully real’ because the time control was accelerated, we weren’t keeping score, and it didn’t affect my classical rating,” he said. “But I enjoyed it, and I was relieved to discover that I can still push pawns okay.”

When asked if he will pursue more competitions or potentially seek attaining the coveted Grandmaster title, Rachels said he will probably play more.

“It’s a slow process,” he said. “I doubt I will play again seriously enough to pursue the GM title, but who knows.”

Larger than life

Rachels said that today, things are different for professional players in the United States. While he still believes it to be an odd life, players can make a living on social media platforms, like Twitch, where they can livestream games to subscribers.

“The internet brings grandmasters into everyone’s living room,” Rachels said, “or, indeed, everyone’s pocket.”

Over the last few years, there has been a boom in the game with more people learning chess for the first time, most notably following the popularity of the Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit.” According to The New York Times, sales of chess sets in the United States rose by around 125% since the show first premiered.

Rachels said he was thrilled to see how popular the game is continuing to be.

A young Stuart Rachels (center) at a chess tournament. (Courtesy of Stuart Rachels)

“I wish people would power down their screens and get out and play more in-person, that would make me even happier. It’s better for the culture to be in-person,” Rachels said. “Interest in chess also surged in 1972 when Bobby Fischer became world champion. This surge feels more real to me, though, because in 1972, it was about Fischer himself, and so when Fischer quit, people lost interest in chess. Now, however, it’s about people actually playing.”

Last week, Rachels was inducted into the first class of the Alabama Chess Hall of Fame.

Bill Melvin, a prominent player and figure in the Alabama chess community, played Rachels a handful of times over 30 years ago. While he wasn’t able to make Rachels’ comeback tournament, Melvin was surprised that he actually participated.

“Stuart’s impact on chess is simply as the greatest talent to come out of Alabama,” Melvin said. “His star was bright, but he quit chess at such an early age. He has explained his reasoning with me many times, but I still don’t understand.”

Varagona echoed Melvin, saying that Rachels proved that an Alabama player could reach the pinnacle of chess in the nation, something no Alabama player has come close to achieving since.

“There have been many great Alabama chess legends — but then there is Stuart Rachels. Stuart is larger than life.”

This weekend, the Alabama Chess Federation will host the 2021 Alabama State Chess Championship at the Hilton Garden Inn in Montgomery.

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