Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Love Supreme

When there is an elephant in the room, one should not ignore the elephant.

I generally try to keep this blog kid-friendly and light.  After all, chess is only a game. Feel free to skip this post: it's therapeutic for me, and (I hope) for a few others.  But this post is not kid-friendly, and it's not light.

No offense is intended to the deceased or to his many friends.  Several friends and I are heartbroken and angry at ourselves.  (Well, I am.)

And we are not the ones who were closest to Isaac...

Our dear friend Isaac Braswell had a very difficult life. He was not fortunate enough to be raised by his parents. He struggled with serious health problems, with disability, with poverty, and (we now know) with depression. But he was the most cheerful person I knew in the Chicago chess community.

And Isaac was a genius. Although there are probably a dozen or more players in Chicago's African-American community who were stronger (Isaac would have been the first to tell you that he was nowhere near Morris Giles or Marvin Dandridge in ability), I believe that Isaac had the honor of being the highest-rated active African-American tournament chess player in metropolitan Chicago at the time of his death. (Apologies if I'm overlooking someone.) His tactical sight was amazingly fast, far faster than mine and (in my opinion) faster than that of many 2300 players. There were some obvious and gaping holes in his play (as there are in mine: that's why we 2100-ish players are not masters), but there was no reason to think that with good health and a little study, he would not break that barrier soon.

Isaac looked healthier than he had for years: he'd lost considerable weight and looked like the handsome teenager I'd met in the 1990s. But he was undergoing a crisis of chess form in this year's CICL play. Not a big deal, I thought, it's something all players go through, especially those who live by the tactical sword. For example, in our match against the Citadel / U of Chicago superteam some weeks ago, he got destroyed on the White side of a Milner-Barry. (Sidebar about chess opening references in obituaries: I met a NM who's a friend of Craig Chellstorp at the funeral of a mutual friend last fall, and immediately said, "Did you know that Chellstorp was the first to play the Benko Gambit against Benko?"  My wifegood at providing clues to the cluelessnudged me and said, "He really doesn't want to talk about chess.")   Soon after that game, Isaac told us that he would not be available for the remainder of the season. It wasn't us, it was his personal problems:

Shortly thereafter, I was scheduled to play for one of the Evanston teams on the U.S. Amateur Team North. I asked Isaac whether he'd be available, and he immediately accepted.

I picked him up on Friday, February 18th, at Chicago and Dearborn. He greeted a friend, apparently a fellow Lawson YMCA resident, with a hug before he got in my car. We drove to Northbrook, talking shop and listening to Little Steven's Underground Garage.  I knew he was a jazz aficionado, but had no idea his knowledge of rock music was equally deep.

Two days later, I picked him up in the same spot, but he crossed Dearborn from the west, apparently coming from his girlfriend's home. We talked openings and listened to A Love Supreme. Isaac had lost to NM Sasha Velikanov the previous day, but won his next two games.

Between rounds 4 and 5 (still Sunday the 20th), Isaac and I were analyzing in the skittles room.  It was driving me crazy that he could see so much more than I could, and yet missing so much because of his  impulsiveness. I was trying to get him to slow down his analysis by teasing him mercilessly for the benefit of a small audience (you know who you are).  He was making grand pronunciamentos about the relevance of chess to life: I was saying "stop making sweeping generalizations, look at the darn position." My ribbing was intended to be good-natured—getting to the truth of a position has a lot to do with stripping away our preconceptions—but I wonder now whether I hurt his feelings.

So we go upstairs for round five.  Isaac played a speculative attack against Daniel Parmet, which Daniel defused without too much trouble.  It seemed to me that the game had reached a typical moment.  The Black king was walking, but White had almost run out of ammo, and had to find a move to keep Black from  consolidating and winning easily. But Isaac found an amazing sacrifice (still objectively losing) that kept the game alive.  In a computer vs. computer match, Black would win every time.  But Isaac caught Daniel in a surprising mating net.  Cool game!  He caught a ride home with a friend, and I called him to congratulate his brilliant play.  We tied for second in the USAT North (only fifth on tiebreaks, but still a great result), and Isaac's wins were critical to our success.

Isaac was so buoyed by the weekend that he returned to CICL play.  He won a game against our worthy opponents at DRW that enabled us to hold DRW to a 3-3 tie and clinched the Rogue Squadron's spot in the Industrial League playoffs.  Later that same evening, a good friend talked to Isaac for hours, and learned of his many troubles.

We had a big ratings advantage for the Tradelink match (Rogue Squadron is an "alumni" team drawing from veterans of many different CICL teams, while the Tradelink players are indeed traders and thus a "pure" team). We were expected to win fairly handily on the lower boards, which we did.  But both Isaac and I fell into opening difficulties against Tony Jasaitas and Mack Smith, respectively.  I eventually won; Isaac told me that he was probably lost against Tony, but didn't look too worried, and was in apparent good spirits.  I left (we were leading 5-0).  Isaac somehow turned an unattractive ending into a win.  6-0 shutout: not bad.  Tradelink took the loss in stride, and the two teams exchanged analysis of several interesting games the next day, Friday, March 2nd.

That very same day, Isaac took his life.  According to one eyewitness account (third-hand to me, but I know the intermediate sources very well), the witness "stood next to Isaac on the L platform before he mumbled something [...] and made a swan-style dive in front of an L train."  The coroner's ID was only made two days ago (Thursday), and the chess community only found out yesterday.

If I did not know the man, I would say that was a selfish and inconsiderate way of ending one's life.  But I cannot judge Isaac by the last minute of his life.  None of us know, or can know, what he had endured.

Isaac was one of the kindest and most good-natured people I've ever known.  He "struggled daily with the demons of his past," as a friend wrote, but he made other people smile.  He was enthusiastic in his passions, whether mastery of chess or tyro at classical guitar, and he was enthusiastic about the success of his friends, always ready with smiles, laughs, and compliments.

In the last week of his life, someone reflexively asked Isaac what he did for a living, not realizing that Isaac was unable to work full-time because of his disability.  Isaac's response was classic Isaac: "I'm blessed."

Feeling depressed?  It gets better.  You have friends in this world.


Bill Brock said...

Now it's time to sing this song....

Zach Kasiurak said...

Very very sad. I knew him since I was young and he was always a cheerful and extremely nice guy. I will miss him. RIP Isaac.

Vince Hart said...

It is sad that he did not appreciate himself as much as others appreciated him. As Clarence said to George Bailey, "We do not realize how many lives we have touched."

Keith Ammann said...

A word to everyone out there who may be suffering from depression, anxiety, detachment, isolation, or feelings of insecurity or hopelessness: You can get help even if you think you can't afford to pay for it. There are mental health clinics all over that offer free or "sliding-scale" fees (based on ability to pay) for counseling services. If you have no idea where to start looking, try here.

And if you're too proud -- or too ashamed -- to ask someone else for help, you do have the power to help yourself. Read Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns. It may be the best $8 you'll ever spend on your own mental health.

I know because I've been there.

National Chess Day said...

Bill Brock has come through with first-hand and second-hand detail and perspective about Isaac Braswell. Thank you Bill

Ch1cag0Rob said...

Really well written, Bill. Thank you for that. As the guy who talked to him for 2 hours that night a couple weeks ago, and who still cannot believe he was that close to doing something this drastic, I have to say he'd have been proud of your write up. Such a hard loss.

The last couple months (as you've shown), he'd write "Checkmate you later" to sign off his emails. I started to write him back with "Have a good knight." I know he found that amusing, as he found almost anything new in chess amusing. He told me on that night that chess had really helped him to survive at least this long in life, and I think we all know he was happier because of his chess community.

RIP Isaac.

Bill Brock said...

Rob's last comment resonates for me. Most of us are familiar with social stereotypes along the lines of "Chess players are weird anti-social geeks."

When taken literally, that stereotype is silly. But I don't think it's silly to suggest that chess holds a special attraction for introverts, for those at the Asperger's end of the autism spectrum, and for paranoid/organized schizophrenics. (See the case of Bobby Fischer.)

I truly believe that chess HELPS these people: it certainly helped me! Of course, shuffling plastic figurines on a vinyl board is not enough to feel fully human. And ultimately, chess wasn't enough for Fischer, who we "lost" in another way.

Chess does not provide a roadmap to bring one from mental illness to mental "health" (good coping strategies for dealing with our sick world), but it's a partial solution. It gave solace and beauty to our friend Isaac.

A friend who recently had to deal with the loss of someone painfully close to him sent this along:

Understanding Suicide - Common Elements

Anonymous said...

This is very sad. Thank you Bill for the fine obituary.


David Franklin said...

Beautifully observed and well put, Bill. Isaac was a brilliant guy and a gentle soul who was unable to find a secure place in our often heartless society. Those of us who are basically fortunate in life will never be able to grasp what he dealt with in his childhood and on a daily basis afterward.

We will miss you, friend. RIP.

Fabrizio said...

I knew Isaac very well - I gave him a roof over his head for a few months. I sparred with him. I fought with him. I cared for him. And he for me. I was saddened when his disability took him down a few notches and gladdened when he started to take control again. He spoke to me on Facebook not even a month ago - despite my leaving the chess community over 10 years ago and we talked of old times and he thanked me. Thanked me?! What for I asked - he said for just being you and being there.

His decision to leave saddens me and I can only regret that I replied to him - well I feel the same Isaac. Instead I should have read deeper - understood what he was telling me underneath that. Because as soon as we finished our chat he unfriended me. I thought nothing of it - that is just Isaac I thought.

I will miss him.

May you rest finally in peace Isaac... You have definitely left an impression on me and I am better for it ....

Bill Brock said...

All my friends are now contractually required to live bis hundert und zwanzig before plotzing. (Or die trying.)

Joshua Flores said...

I will try to keep up my end of that contract Bill - I hope you do as well...

Maybe it is time I return to the community - I've hearing the call strongly lately.

Ted M said...

I am very fortunate to have met and spent time with Isaac. As far as I am concerned, he made chess in Chicago a much better place and he will be missed.

mcafide said...

Isaac would always call me when I was driving. I feel sad I usually tried to brush him off at those times.

It's true what everyone says, he never said an unkind word to me. He was good person and I didn't appreciate him in life. I am ashamed that it took his death for me to truly see him. He will be missed.

mcafide said...

And Flores, I wish you would come back to chess. I miss you.

Send me an email:

-Chris Baumgartner

pairnda said...

i loved isaac braswell though i knew him only briefly . .although isaac had a speech impediment it didn't stop him flirting or from trying to communicate with the world in his wonderfully inventive way an inventiveness which tranlated well at the chessboard . . but i'd like to take a moment to speak for him to the people who think they may have hurt him by their actions. he loved people and he would not have wanted you to be unhappy because of something you might have done to him. he wasn't that type of man. he was a man with forgiveness in his heart because he was always using that heart in the world and i guess now that he's gone maybe its time for us to use our hearts and forgive him in return. . . thank you for touching our lives isaac and may eternity be as lovely to you as you were to us

Maret Thorpe said...

" He was making grand pronunciamentos about the relevance of chess to life: I was saying 'stop making sweeping generalizations, look at the darn position.' "

Bill, you realize it's a gift to have a friend who will say that to you, who will tell you to stop and simply look at the board in front of you. Then look where you are: at a table of your friends who are looking at your game with you. You are about to go play another game, and five people will say "hi" to you and maybe wish you good luck on your way to the board.

We all need friends who will remind us to be in the moment.

Thank you for writing about Isaac.

Joshua Flores said...

in his fb wall

Sedrick Prude
The Family is having a memorial sevice for Isaac on Thursday at 3:30pm. The location is A A Rayner Funreal Home 318 East 71st Chicago Il 60619. Please attend the family memorial. Ike was truly love by all. RIP Big Brother IKE.

oldmangrimis said...

I am bless to known Isaac. As many have stated and many more will, Isaac Braswell was one of the most kindnest, warmharted, carining individual I have ever known. I will remember his big bright smile that greeted me whenever we meet. His contagious enthusiasm that always lifted my spirits no matter what was going on. He was always so happy to hear about anything that was going on in my or my family's life even remembering it years later. I will remember the countless hours we spent play chess, talking and discussing everything about life and what we felt was importent. Most of all I remember all the laughter we shared and how happy I was to be his friend. As many of you knew he battled with huge tragedies and hardships all his life but he work so hard to overcome. When he was around you he never complained about his problems but always cared about yours. I could see that he was searching for his own happiness but I don't know if he knew how truly happy he made others feel. Isaac stive everday to become the person what he want to be, I hope I can stive everyday to be the person that he already was.

Thank you Isaac for touching our lives.

mad max said...

I also would like to thank this guy bill brock, for writing some good words about our one and only isaac, and no it's not just the chess community in chicago that has suffered a huge loss, even if they don't notice it right now. I still don't believe he is gone for good. The man was an incredible talent- as i disagree with the idea that chess is for "people on the autism side of a spectrum" as the great knights of the past would contradict such a statement. Anyhow may isaac join the greats in a better place- only some of us will be able to join him again.

Bill Brock said...

I wasn't really thinking of Isaac when I made the mental health digression above: apologies for my maladroitness.

Just thinking that chess is a balm for the mentally wounded, and that we (I) need to be more sensitive & responsive to our friends.

Leon Akpalu said...

to everyone one who wrote "I should have thought"... "I wish I'd known..." -- peeps, suicide is a law unto itself. Some victims show clear warning signs; many do not. There's just no way to tell. If the little mistakes we make in interacting with one another caused suicide, let's face it: we'd all be dead.

Yes, we can all do more to help our fellow travelers feel better on their journey through life. But it's the way Isaac lived that should remind us of that, not the way he died.

Bill Brock said...

"Yes, we can all do more to help our fellow travelers feel better on their journey through life. But it's the way Isaac lived that should remind us of that, not the way he died."

You are very wise, Leon.