A Tribute to Willie Speaks
Willie Speaks (right foreground) playing speed chess with Bill Price, 1990.
Photograph by Bernadette Geuy
Willie Speaks was the best chess sparring partner I ever had. I learned more about real chess in five years of playing Willie than in the previous twenty-five years studying books.
Willie had a unique playing style. I think that anyone who has played him knows what I am talking about. His play was extremely unorthodox, and ran counter to nearly every established rule in chess theory. But with Willie it didn't seem to matter. He still won games. And he won a LOT of games. Sure, he lost a lot of games, and could make blunders as well as the rest of us. But when he was good, he was very good. And I mean VERY good.
Willie had a very genuine and rare natural talent for chess. It was a talent which I greatly admired and respected, and of which I was quite envious. I am completely convinced that, had he had the interest and made the effort, he could have easily attained expert or perhaps even a master rating.
One speed game we played stands out in my memory. While conducting a particularly fierce attack, he made a move that forced the win of a major piece. I was certain he would cash in on the free piece and go for the "clear win", as I or any other ordinary chess player would have done in that situation. Instead, he instantly, and without the least hesitation, spurned the gift and plunged into an unclear variation that kept the momentum going for his attack. The result was a win that was more dramatic and forceful than had he taken the easy path.
When I see some of these cock-sure club players playing speed chess, I smile when I think what Willie could have done with them. Once Willie and I even considered entering a speed chess tourney, but, unfortunately, he lost interest when he saw the entrance fees. It would have been very interesting to watch Willie, in top form, play speed chess with an expert. I have no doubt that he could have put the fear of God into a lot of local club heroes.
Willie's artistry on the chessboard was thrilling, breathtaking, and at times astounding. He could make things happen when it looked like nothing could happen. Every game we ever played - and we played several thousand during the course of five and a half years - was thoroughly fascinating. Whenever you sat down to play Willie, you knew that you were in for a fast and furious roller-coaster ride. Every game was interesting, and every game came to a violent end.
The 19th century American chess genius Paul Morphy never wrote a single book on chess, but the games that he played revolutionized chess theory. Similarly, Willie Speaks was a chess illiterate, who never touched a chess book and never cared to, but whose games revolutionized my understanding of chess dynamics.
Thanks for the lessons, Willie.
Willie Speaks passed away on October 1, 1997, after a two-year battle with cancer.
Willie Speaks Photos, 1993
Willie Speaks (left) playing speed chess with Bill Price.
Enjoying another victory.