Light lasers, swizzle sticks and killer moves

Daaim Shabazz’s Triple Exclam!!! The Life and Games of Emory Tate, Chess Warrior may be short on great games, but it provides a compelling picture of a remarkable chess life

Michael Healey

Russian chess players use the somewhat untranslatable word творец [tvorets] to describe a particularly inspiring chess player. A tvorets prioritises elegance over rating points, values the quality of his games rather than his standing in the tournament. Above all a tvorets is someone who keeps the beauty of our game alive, inspiring us to follow in his footsteps. Emory Tate was most definitely a tvorets.” – GM Daniel Naroditsky 

Emory Andrew Tate Jr, aka “Dennis” aka “The Exclam kid” aka “Emory Mate” aka “Indomitable Warrior” aka “Tactical Assassin” aka “ET the Extraterrestrial”, tvorets, was an American IM, martial artist, intelligence officer, poet, father, drunk and general weaver of chess dreams. He claimed the only chess book he ever read was Vladimir Vukovic’s Art of Attack in Chess, and this is born out by the games we’ve been left. He distrusted computers and databases, but took the scalps of many grandmasters. He died in 2015 at the age of 56 after a heart attack playing chess. Opening theoreticians will be aware of his contribution, Alekhine’s Defence Tate variation, an early rook development: 1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. c4 Nb6 4. a4 a5 5. Ra3.

To the world at large, however, he is now more famous for producing Emory Tate III, aka Andrew Tate. He was the father of one of the most influential and controversial figures of our times. 

Tate the father ticks a lot of the “tortured genius” boxes. From a good family, ill-disciplined but brilliant in high school, he achieved a scholarship to Northwestern University in Illinois at 17, but dropped out both here and then at Alabama University. He joined the US air force and entered intelligence, picking up Russian in a record time of three weeks (one of his eight languages). While based in the UK he snuck away to Camden for blitz with Limey locals, among them IM Malcolm Pein (who shares his memories in the book and contributes an analysis of one game). He formed a family, took them back to America, separated from his wife (who returned to England), split acrimoniously from the air force, and continued his life as a chess player and teacher, taking cross-country buses to tournaments and living the life of an eccentric, very much at home among chess players. 

As an enjoyer of American writers focusing on this character type (Hubert Selby Jr, Charles Bukowski, John and Dan Fante), Tate very much appeals: the genius drunk living on the edge, circling the drain of life and finding beauty amidst the grime, loving and hurting everyone around him, exhilarated to suicidal from page to page. Reading through the book, the darker side is periodically hinted at: the paranoia and drinking, depression and resentments, critics and confrontations, not just involving Tate but fellow chess road warriors such as GM Aleksander Wojtkiewicz too. But we are mainly presented with the positives, chief among which are, of course, the games, such as this one against GM Leonid Yudasin in 1997.

Various Sicilians with both colours make up 20 of the book’s 35 full games, which give full rein to Tate’s penchant for sacrifices. He also shared my own desire for the holy move g5! (as did Fischer), as demonstrated in his win here against Alexander Beltre in 2001.

The main narrative thread is the paean to Tate, climaxing in a dramatic near miss of a GM norm in Curuçao 2007. Here, with White, he baffles GM Jan Gustafsson:

The question is presented: why was this man, a larger-than-life genius on and off the board, who played with such flair and scalped so many grandmasters (he claims about 80) not a grandmaster himself (he managed only – only! – IM)?  Along the way he is regularly compared to Tal and Alekhine (for their gamestyles and lifestyles) but also Fischer (showing more determination against Russians). “You’re afraid of success,” he was told. “You could be the first black grandmaster, but you’ll never become a grandmaster unless you get serious.” Serious? This was a man who ended up in positions like this, as Black against Glenn Bady (somehow, the game was eventually drawn):

The book’s tendency towards hero worship is a definite feature of American chess culture (try disparaging Fischer or Nakamura to any US player). The über-competitiveness and trash-talk also comes across (play chess online and stars and stripes tend to be a decent predictor of insults in the chat). We’re constantly told people’s scores and placings in open tournaments, using a strange match system of 7-2 rather than 7/9. There is only one game given from a team match, something truly bizarre compared with our own domination by league chess culture. Tate himself is constantly aggressive, trying to dominate on and off the board with words and pieces, often simultaneously. Everything is a fight, even with his friends. Here he is in action in 2013 against GM Artur Chibukhchian.

Tate clearly had a remarkable ability to impress himself on an audience, resulting in legions of fans on and offline. Not only his moves, but his general patter and joy were infectious, sprinkled with cheeky expressions. Apart from the eponymous “Triple exclam!!!” here are a few other Tate-isms:

Light laser: light-squared bishop
Swizzle sticks!: castling
Sweeper/sealer: a “tai-chi pawn move”
ROVER: Rook-up-and-over
Intruder alert! Intruder alert! (with klaxon)

After meeting in 2009, Tate formed a friendship with the American rapper RZA, legendary founder of the Wu-Tang Clan, probably bonding over chess, philosophy and martial arts. For the youth and aged among you, Wu-Tang were a disparate group of competitive street rappers who shared an appreciation for all the above. Indeed their debut album featured Da Mystery of Chessboxin.

When you look into the Clan, the sense is of a brotherhood of young black fatherless men, dropouts in and out of jail, becoming a mutually supporting family, going their own way and working together in an often predatory record business. They had built up their skills by travelling the New York boroughs competing against any contender in battle rhymes in front of an audience, before the best were selected for the Clan, with a famous promise from RZA that if they gave him five years of their lives, he’d take them to the top (he did). Did Tate wish he’d met RZA decades before, to focus him on that GM title?

This is something else that comes across strongly in the book – the plethora of references to a community of black chess players, not just in the US but across the world. “Tate’s Black Imperative”, “Rest in Power” and “The Black Bear School of Chess” mark out this especial American phenomenon. The need to support each other in the quest for rating, prizes and titles even led Daaim Shabazz in 2001 to create a website called The Chess Drum. Tate felt great solidarity with Pontus Carlsson of Sweden and Amon Simutowe of Zambia before he’d even met them. Back in America, future GM Maurice Ashley credited Tate for berating him into a switch from 1. c4 to 1. e4. When he plays other black players, another layer of meaning and importance is added:

I was lucky enough to play a few games with Simutowe, aka the “Zambezi Shark”, while he was at Oxford, sharing the spectators’ hysterics at various sound effects (the helicopter and Bruce Lee in particular). Were some of these adapted from the time he spent with Tate in the US?

One suspects this is the world Tate was happiest in – the fun, silly, competitive, adrenaline-fuelled buzz of blitz, a crowd of adoring spectators at hand. Yet his pride and ambition thirsted for achievement in classical chess, both in titles and prestige. He repeatedly brought up his five US Armed Forces Chess Championship titles. At one point he runs out of the tournament hall to celebrate a win over IM Georgi Orlov, noted for his expertise in the Black Knights’ Tango. “I beat the Tango guy!”, Tate shouts, determined to instantly demonstrate the game.

As the story comes to a conclusion, the tone becomes palpably darker. Tate himself was prone to a sense of foreboding about his end: “When you screw up the opening and the middlegame, then you’re going to have a bad endgame.”

A decade ago Simutowe put out a shortlist of his best games, intending to work on an autobiography. Sadly Tate did not compile his own games (he played in roughly a thousand classical tournaments, as well as rapids later in his career), so what remains are those collected and commented on by others (bar three taken from Tate’s lectures, with his own unique patter). There are also some tactical problems taken from his games but, quite frankly, there aren’t many jewels.

“I hope that for our younger students and our aspiring players, they will study my play and emulate my style,” said Tate in 2006. “I hope I’ll have a lasting influence. I understand that I’m creating a legacy per se, and I’m very aware of that. There is never a time when I play that I’m not aware of that.” So let this be a lesson to all of us: if you think you have games or positions which will be of interest to the wider world, get them organised and ready to go. Death always wins in the end.

I enjoyed the story of Tate and his world, more so than the actual games. It’s a wonderful tribute to the man that so many have contributed to this book in so many ways; Tate clearly touched many, many lives. We’ll leave the last words to his son, Andrew (Emory III): “The only thing that makes me feel better is knowing that he doesn’t know he’s dead. If he did, he would be furious!”