A Conversation with Ryan Milisits | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with Ryan Milisits

Ryan Milisits, a senior at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill, first played chess with his father when he was 5 years old, and now teaches children that young himself. When he was 13, Milisits was labeled a chess prodigy.

How did you get started in chess?
My dad taught me ... he's been playing for 40 years. He started taking me to tournaments, and I started getting serious about it.

You'd said that you sort of specialized in speed chess. Why do you like it?
There's a lot of pattern recognition, playing by instinct. You have to play with your gut reaction, recognizing openings you've seen before.

And it's five minutes per turn?
The whole game is five minutes. I play people on the Internet sometimes in one-minute games. It's more exciting. Games in long standard tournaments can be six hours. If you're playing two or three games a day, thinking all day, that's almost like work.

Do you memorize different moves?
There's things called openings, which are like the first 20 moves of a game. They have chess notation to describe them [coded moves indicating pieces' moves on the grid].

And you can read that notation, like reading music?
Yeah, I can visualize the moves. They say chess is related to music and math. The grandmasters, who are the highest, they publish their games like this. I have all the games I've played in tournaments in a database so I can call them up.

So this is a very organized, institutionalized sort of subculture.
There's the USCF -- the United States Chess Federation. When you start playing in tournaments, they give you a rating. The world champion is rated 2,800; 2,187 is my rating right now. I'm considered an "expert," that's 2,000, and 2,220 is "master," which is pretty close to my goal -- I wanted to be a master by the time I graduated high school.

Are there different styles among players?
Some people prefer to play more positionally, slowly building up their position. I myself am more tactical, which is tricks and traps. And that's what helps in speed chess. A positional style might be queen-pawn openings -- moving the pawn in front of the queen -- in which every piece defends each other, waiting for the other person to make a mistake. Tactical would be like sacrificing, giving something up to gain something and get to checkmate. For example, when I'm playing my dad, he's more of a positional player, he likes to keep the board defended. He keeps my options limited so as to give me less opportunity for tricks and traps.

Are there chess players you admire?
There's a local grandmaster, Alexander Shabalov in Squirrel Hill. He's also a very tactical, attacking player. What I enjoy most is the traveling and the competition. You meet people from around the country and, with the Internet, from around the world.

Do you talk while playing?
Only in fun games. You're not allowed to talk in competitions. I listen to music. Not a lot of players do that; it helps me pay attention, I guess. A lot of people say classical's relaxing, but I don't listen to classical -- I listen to anything [else], rock and rap.

Do players try to intimidate each other?
Not really. The only intimidation is the ratings, new players can be intimidated by that. I played someone in seventh grade that brought a teddy bear. There's a lot of psychology in the moves. I play fast, and that can be intimidating. There are people who like slam the pieces down or hit the clock hard. I've seen fistfights break out over moves -- that was more in sixth or seventh grade. It's more important to be coolheaded and calm.

What do you think of playing chess against a computer?
The lower levels are pretty easy, at the higher levels it takes a long time. I prefer playing a human. [With a computer], I just don't find it fun. You're not out-thinking anybody; I can't play them seriously.

Now what's Deep Blue, the chess computer? Is that different?
That's the computer built by IBM to play the world champion. It won't play strategy down the line, it'll just play one move at a time. It won't lose a pawn where it will see better options down the road, it'll just discard that option. They're getting to the point where they can almost beat humans, but there's a point where they can't beat the creativity.

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