How Being a Sore Loser can make you Rich (or crazy)

a beautiful mind

I threw all the pieces on the floor. I’m almost embarassed to tell you this. When someone says to you, “I was playing a game of chess and I lost and I threw all the pieces on the floor,” you might think: ok, he was four years old. Thats cute. But I was 17.  I was shaving. The other guy had just captured my queen so I did what any 17 year old shaver would do in the middle of a match of North Brunswick High School versus Matewan High School: I threw all the pieces on the floor and ran out of the school.

I was supposed to be good. But now this nothing kid from Matewan had beaten me. And the thousands of people at school who cared about chess would know about it the next day. So I didn’t go to school. Would you?

I called up John Nash. Yes, THAT John Nash. Of “Beautiful Mind” fame. Only it was his son. He had a Phd in Math but stayed at home all day looking at chess games. He was a strong master-level player.

He picked me up at the busstop (I told someone I was sick and couldn’t go to school. Either that or I just took the bus to Princeton instead of the bus to school and told nobody. Nobody ever asked) and we went over his house. Along the way, we talked about the Modern Defense, the Bc4 version. Is it drawish if white castles too early and Black equalizes in the center?

We played chess all day. He had a habit of stroking his unkempt beard or scratching his hair where it shot up from his head in odd angles. I felt like I was in a swimming pool, and making moves was how I would tread water or else I would sink and drown. We started moving faster and faster until the clocks were set for one minute each. “Maybe if you had opened up the b file,” he said after one game. But I was drowning and I couldn’t breathe. Reset the clock. Play again.

I would never meet a woman if my chess rating wasn’t high enough.

Technique for getting better:

  • I memorized every opening. I was a mental encyclopedia of the latest chess openings. I’d write them down on notebooks and play over game after game.
  • I studied the history of the game. Games from the 1800s. Bronstein’s book on the Zurich International in the early 50s. Alekhine’s collected games. The Informant from Yugoslavia that came out every six months.
  • I studied with a strong grandmaster. I was jealous of him. Michael W. He had just graduated Yale and was about to become US champion. He was also very good looking. It was like a trifecta: good school, good looks, good at chess. I wanted to be him. He had one piece of advice for me before I went off to college::  don’t tell any girls you play chess and you’ll get a blowjob every day. I didn’t follow his advice.
  • I played in every tournament I could. At one point I won 24 games in a row against strong players. My rating shot up from nothing to a point where I felt I could now ask a girl out on a date.

[this is, by the way, my technique for getting better at anything]

So I asked out Marina Svetlov. Smart, and she seemed shy and accessible. I couldn’t believe she said yes! The day we were supposed to go out there was a little snow on the ground. My dad refused to let me drive the car. There weren’t any cellphones then and I had to pick Marina up outside the school and there was no way to call her. She waited for me for two hours. I’m making that part up. I don’t know if it was two hours or if she even stood out there all night. We never spoke again.

First my self-worth was defined by my chess rating. Then by my Go ranking. Then by whether or not I could sell some writing. Then by whether or not I could work on a TV show. Then by how much money I had. Then by whether or not the other people in Atlantic City thought I was a good poker player. Then by how much more money I had. Then by whether or not other Internet entrepreneurs would respect me. Then by how many positive comments I got on my articles. Then by how many people signed up for Stockpickr. Then by how much thestreet.com would pay me for Stockpickr. Then by how much money I had in my fund of funds. Then I was lost in outer space.

My lifelong dream is to anchor my self-worth with who I am right now, this second. The sun trickling in through the leaves right outside my window. Cars honking outside. I hear children laughing in the school across the street.

I wanted to find out what happened to John Nash. The last time I saw him we had played in a pair tournament at Rutgers. The other pairs were father-son teams. Then there was John and me. I looked him up right now. According to wikipedia he wasn’t given a name for the entire first year of his life. HIs mother wanted his father to have a say in the name and the father, at the time, was institutionalized for schizophrenia.

How do you like that? He had no name for a year. I wish right now I had no name. What a beautiful thing that would be.

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  • Index1000

    You try to hard i think, people who are really good at things and i mean really, really world class good at it make it look so easy like walking and breathing. They still work hard at it of course but they sort of let it flow not beat it into submission.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      I sort of agree with the Malcolm Gladwell “Outliers” theory on this. 10,000 hours of solid practice and that gets you to world class level. I’m sure talent plays a role but not that much.

  • Exlibris4

    Dear Mr. Altucher:

    Have fallen heels-over-head in love with you, today, after being sent your blog and spending two hours on it. Dropped out of college and went back to finish much later, after Europe and India and misfires and good years. You’re right about several things, and you’re funny. And you’re open.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Exlibris4, thanks for this! What were your misfires and what were your good years? What brought you back to college?

  • Proteinbenny

    Did you really attend the illustrious (well Tim Howard famous and now you!) North Brunswick High School in NJ?  Wow, go Raiders!

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      I did. You? Do we know each other? Jim Norton was in my class also. Perhaps much more famous.

      • Proteinbenny

        So “no”, I don’t know you other than through your blog, which I really enjoy, but I’m convinced we have a one degree of separation.  I graduated HS in 1986, but not in NB.  But I have been here for over 10 years and have gotten to know a bunch of lifers through my kids.  Also, there were a few of my high school classmates who went to Cornell.  How do resolve this interesting challenge?  Shall I throw out some names?

      • Proteinbenny

        So “no”, I don’t know you other than through your blog, which I really enjoy, but I’m convinced we have a one degree of separation.  I graduated HS in 1986, but not in NB.  But I have been here for over 10 years and have gotten to know a bunch of lifers through my kids.  Also, there were a few of my high school classmates who went to Cornell.  How do resolve this interesting challenge?  Shall I throw out some names?

  • http://twitter.com/8020Financial Adam

    ‘I wish right now I had no name. What a beautiful thing that would be.’Little late to the party here, but those two sentences have made my day. Thank you James.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Thanks Adam! Never too late to comment on one of my favorite posts. 

  • Howard Rossman

    My name is Howard Rossman-father of Jordan Rossman of North Brunswick NJ High School.
    Jordan founded the Chess Club of North Brunswick by convincing the principal _Mr. Rimmer or Simkin that they should finance a Chess Club for $350. He told them to hire the Custodian- a rated chess player and Gary Tenucci in 1981. As a result of his efforts
    the club was formed and you joined it in 1982 , You became the NJ State Chess High School champion.
    There is still chess club at the High School. Some of your teachers are still there-Ken Adone-Math, Mr. Lucas-math, Ed Maroon computers-business.Greg Anderson-political science-economics. Mr. Pilazzo-physics.
    It did not harm you for your push to Cornell and Carnegie Mellon. You were quoted in NYTimes on Dec. 2-article on anti college similar to your thesis in the NewYorker on going naked to college.
    Good luck. Send a check of generosity and appreciation to NBTHS, c/o Pete Clark -principal to help stimulate and motivate others to maybe reach your level of success and good fortune..

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Hey Howard, thanks for writing. Please tell Jordan I said hi. I enjoyed playing him in school. I actually joined in 1984 or 85. And in 86 I was NJ’s HS champion. And yes, when I joined the club the custodian (Ron) was the best player in the school. It took awhile for me to catch up to both Jordan and then Ron.

      I wrote to the school once, offering to give a talk (I am happy to give my time to schools, even colleges, rather than money) but got no response. Thanks again for posting here.

  • Brian Tan

    discovered James Altucher’s blog…

    goodbye weekend.