Conducting historical research through recorded interviews

Oral history is a method of conducting historical research through recorded interviews.

— UC Santa Cruz Oral History Research Guide

Frank Elley, Chess Life editor 1982-84

I joined the high school chess club in 1978, before my first adventures at the Springfield Chess Club. Involved with the Missouri Chess Association over the years, and played at Southwest Missouri State during my college years.

By the time I was in college, majoring in writing and English, my dad came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to inherit the family farm, feeding and watering pigs when it’s 20 degrees and snowing.

I worked for a short time at a Bass Pro Shop writing ad copy, then spent about a year at the Springfield (Mo.) Daily News on the copy desk. The CJA newsletter said there was this position open; I sent a résumé, the rest is history.

After I graduated, and living on my own, I wasn’t terribly active in the chess community. I was a typical club player, 1600 or 1700 at best. I presented myself more as an editor who knew something about chess than as a chessplayer that knew something about editing.

[The USCF] said they wanted two things: experience editing a monthly magazine, and master-level chess expertise. I had neither of those, but it didn’t cost much to send in that résumé.

I got one phone call from [USCF executive director] Gerry Dullea late July or August. I was working the night shift at the newspaper, and I was pretty tired. I don’t remember what I said, but they called back with a job offer. Now I’ve got a dilemma. I had a job I liked, while the Federation had serious financial issues, and it’s a very political place. I chose the latter, to go to the magazine sight unseen.

 

My only interaction with [The Queen’s Gambit author, May ’83 cover] Walter Tevis was one phone call with him. At that point, he was well-known for The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

I was a little nervous about talking to him, and the manuscript he sent us was quite long and immaculate — nothing to talk about in terms of editing or anything like that — but he was quite the gentleman, very easy to talk to. It was a pretty short conversation, but I was glad to have it; he passed away within a year after that.

I don’t know if any writers are thrilled with screenplays made from their work, but I’m sure he’d be interested in what’s going on now. Everyone who was active in the ’80s thinks there’s been quite a renaissance; the success of “The Queen’s Gambit” is the icing on the cake, so to speak.

Chess Life is an excellent magazine, light years ahead of when I was there. I get the magazine, page through it. Great content,  lay it down next to your chessboard and read with deliberation.

It’s remarkable that there are still identifiable things from the ’80s, like Andy Soltis’ column. What a run he’s had. Bruce Pandolfini’s still there with the solitaire chess thing.

You know how it is in offices, when they ask you to share something unique about yourself, or a great experience or great time in your life. Now [my old experience is] relevant: “I was once was the editor for a writer who was played by Ben Kingsley”.

Bruce is even better at promotion. Take the thing that came to us in the ’80s. The baseball player on the cover, what was his name. Ron Guidry. He was one of Bruce’s students; Bruce hooked us up for that cover. That led to me and Gerry Dullea threatened with a lawsuit by George Steinbrenner.

Pandolfini introduced us to Guidry, then set up the photoshoot [at Yankee Stadium, Sept. ’83 cover] with his friend the photographer. I met with our art director and came up with ideas for pictures. What I didn’t want was Guidry with a chess piece in his hand, throwing it like a baseball. I saw Guidry and the home plate umpire yelling at each other like they do, while pointing at a portable chessboard on the field.

Steinbrenner never went to games early, but this time he’s up there with binoculars, watching his multi-million-dollar pitcher on the mound with a chess piece, pitching it at the camera. Security guards show up, and the next day — this was before the Internet and before Google — there’s a FedEx package waiting for us, with a credible-looking lawsuit naming every member of the board plus me and Gerry Dullea. It said we got no authorization, turn over all the film, threatened us with dire consequences.

Bruce and [Yankees manager] Billy Martin got it all straightened out, but what was so impressive was how quickly they sussed out who we were — board members, executive director, editor — and their lawyers drafted the complaint before the next morning.

Every night I play against the computer on my tablet, and stroke my ego by turning down the skill level. I still play every night, just haven’t played a human in years. While I was the editor, and a couple years after that as assistant director, one of the things I took care of was the catalog copy for the computers. I played and tested lot of them when the whole idea was new.

They weren’t nearly as good as they are now. Art Bisguier would come to the office, and against any computer, he had a particular series of moves that gave him a winning position in 15 moves.

I work in marketing at microprocessor company ARM. We design, and license the design of microprocessors. Not supposed to talk about, but we’re in 90% of all mobile devices — one of those more obscure monopolies in tech world. I run marketing operations and automation, fits my nerdy disposition pretty well.

You wrote something on Facebook about working on old Compugraphic equipment. I remember sitting at the same Compugraphic; not WYSIWYG, had to type in code every time you wanted to change font or line space, or add a discretionary hyphen.

Years later, I’m looking at some Standard Generalized Markup Language, thinking “this SGML stuff looks a lot like the stuff I did on that Editwriter”. [Progressing through tech jobs], here I am sitting on the shoulders of that experience from 1980, sitting in a basement of a small building in Newburgh, New York.