News » Features

Octopus' Garden

Greg Nowak, aka “the Octopus,” is a seven-time Montana State Chess Champion. What does he see when he sees a chess board?

comment

As the last few hours of 2003 slip away, Missoulians come in from the blistering cold to celebrate First Night within the warmer climes of the University of Montana’s UC atrium. Scarves and hats are stuffed into the bulky pockets of winter coats as revelers prepare for an evening of dancing to a live soundtrack provided by the Big Sky Mudflaps. At one end of the atrium, parents lead their little ones to a “fun center” to shoot basketballs and blow gigantic bubbles. At the other end, a crowd gathers to watch the Octopus play chess. The Octopus is, despite the handle, a man, and he is hemmed inside an inner-rectangle created by six long wooden folding tables. Atop the tables sit 19 chess mats, nearly all attended by players aged 7 to 77. The Octopus wears thick glasses, and behind them his eyes study a chess board in deep concentration. He raises his bushy eyebrows and the skin of his forehead seems to frown beneath a receding hairline and wild tangents of long gray hair. The atrium lights reflect off a gold octopus broach attached to his breast pocket, just below a row of pens. Within five seconds, he’s made a move. He steps aside to the next board, the next player, and within five seconds another move is complete. The Octopus plods his way around the rectangle—pausing, thinking, moving a piece and then his feet, and in approximately 90 seconds he’s back to the board at which he started. By the time the night is finished, this seven-time Montana State Chess Champion, whose real name is Greg Nowak, will have played 128 games of chess. He will have won 126 and allowed two draws in six hours of non-stop play. This record will be earned even though his opponents will have over a minute to decide their moves, while the Octopus himself takes only a few seconds. He calculates moves in the time it takes others to remember a friend’s phone number. The crowd of onlookers is unsure how to react. Some stand in awe. Others seem slightly annoyed, as if they wish the man behind the tables would stop showing off. But most are curious.

“How does he do that?” they whisper, as the Octopus offhandedly announces “Check-mate” yet again, signaling to the scorekeeper.

Most of the players don’t even come close to giving the Octopus a run for his money. Girlfriends ask boyfriends if they’ve lost yet. Parents tell their children, “Don’t worry, he’s a very tough opponent.” But there is one young grade school boy who surprises those nearby when the Octopus arrives for his turn.

“Check,” the boy says.

His name is Michael Schombel. He has lasted longer than his father did, and it looks as though he may have a shot at beating the Octopus.

“You are playing a good game,” the Octopus tells him.

The boy smiles, sticks out his hand.

“Offer a draw?” he asks.

The Octopus smiles back.

“Maybe next year,” he says, then makes his move.

The Octopus takes more time at Michael’s board than at most. He appears happy to be playing an opponent who is at least in the same general chess universe, and the Octopus knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the table. Almost 40 years ago, on May 15, 1964, he sat on the outside of a similar rectangle, just as Michael does now, waiting for Bobby Fischer to make his move. Greg Nowak was a teenager then, before he came to be the Octopus, when he played the first-ever world chess champion from the United States to a draw. He hasn’t stopped playing since.

This invertebrate’s life
At age 9, Greg Nowak walked into a Milwaukee dime store to buy a present for his cousin—a chess set.

“When I got it home, I was going to wrap it for him, but I never did,” Nowak says. “I read the instructions and all of a sudden something clicked. It was as if I had rediscovered something.”

Nowak bought a different game for his cousin and kept the chess set, teaching himself how to play without the aid of a mentor.

“It just came like ducks to water,” he says of his quick rise to prodigy status.

A Milwaukee newspaper sponsored an annual chess tournament at the Hawthorn Glen Fieldhouse and Nowak won his age division five years straight. The games weren’t close, according to Nowak, who describes them as “merciless slaughter,” and during the sixth year, the teenage boy was kicked out of the tournament.

“I remember the superintendant of the schools, Mr. Zusner, marched down the aisle and he said, ‘Greg, you’re going to play in the adult club now. You’ve won all these tournaments for five straight years. Give the other kids a chance.’”

Nowak beat most of the adults, too, and it was during his junior year of high school, in 1964, that he faced off against Bobby Fischer at an exhibition at the Pfister Hotel, earning the draw of which he is most proud.

After high school, Nowak worked 50 hours a week for a watch and clock wholesaler for 15 years, collecting and distributing the company mail, packing orders and unloading trucks. At night, he read chess books in his apartment overlooking Lake Michigan.

“Then one Sunday night, an automobile came along,” Nowak says. “I had a walk signal, but this very quiet car hit me in the knee and I had to take off work to get knee surgery. While I was gone, my boss gave my job away after 15 years, and he never wanted to give it back.”

Out of work and low on money, Nowak moved to Missoula on April Fool’s Day, 1991, in part due to its reputed lower cost of living. But economic survival proved equally difficult in the Garden City. Nowak has a slight speech impediment and may be considered an eccentric by some, as are many chess greats, including Bobby Fischer. If that didn’t set the job-finding odds against him, the fact that his only reference was his boss from the watch and clock wholesaler did.

“He was something of a dirty dog because I found out that he was saying abnormal things over the phone during reference calls that didn’t pertain to my work ethic at all,” Nowak says. “So things didn’t work out too well finding a job in Missoula.”

As his unemployment benefits ran out, Nowak was preparing to hit the streets when a church benefactor supplied him with one month’s rent.

“I came very, very close to being a street person,” Nowak says. “It can happen—to anybody. I have some sympathy for street people because they’re not necessarily down and out, lazy people. They may be just a hardship case, so I try to give them a little bit when they ask.”

During the month that Nowak’s rent was paid, he turned to chess for income, offering lessons and founding the Clandestine Chess Club that he still heads up today. His bed was inadequate and gave his back trouble, his apartment was gelid through the winter, and he didn’t have the money to eat right. These days, Nowak says his situation is somewhat improved by government housing aid, but his back still plagues him.

The chess world is well-known for producing players who struggle with their finances, as is well-depicted in the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, wherein Fischer’s former teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, is portrayed as humbly accepting a lecture fee of $35. If you’re not world champion, the money doesn’t exactly roll in on the chess circuit. Nowak illustrates the point with a question.

“Guess how much money I won for winning the State Chess Championship last year?” he asks.

“How much?” I respond.

“No, have fun. Make a guess.”

“A thousand dollars?”

“This is going to knock your socks off. For winning the state chess championship—absolutely nothing. Zero.”

Still, combining income from lessons and games with governmental assistance, Nowak has been able to dedicate himself to his true passion throughout the years. In 2000, he played 59 simultaneous games of chess in the Kalispell Center Mall, winning 56 and allowing three draws. His goal is to someday play 76 people at once, which would put him one game over Fischer’s record of 75.

Nowak was a chess master for over a decade. That means he had rating of above 2,200, as determined by the United States Chess Federation (USCF), which ranks players on a point system based on tournament play. The USCF is a non-profit membership organization “devoted to extending the role of chess in the United States” by hosting tournaments and representing the U.S. among international chess organizations. The organization cannot sustain itself through membership, however, and therefore seeks generous sponsors, as does Nowak himself. USCF ratings are calculated by a complicated algebraic formula that draws on the frequency with which a player faces quality opponents. These days, Nowak says he’s “slumming it” with a rating of 2,147—a mere “expert” standing he attributes mainly to the fact that all the best area chess players have died, moved away or quit.

“I’d like to play in a tournament exclusively with people who are 2,300 and 2,400 players. When I get a chance to play with them, I’ve done pretty well. I just don’t get the opportunity too often,” Nowak says, because doing so would require travel to Seattle and Las Vegas—trips he can’t afford to take.

Nowak has played all the local chess names and beaten them, but unlike his graduation from the Milwaukee youth tournament, there is no “adult league” to move on to now.

“There’s no one left for me to play,” to earn more points toward his rating, the Octopus says with a tinge of sorrow.

One of the local chess enthusiasts who Nowak still does play competitively is Mike Jensen, a former Montana State Chess Champion with a rating of 1,920, and one of the few locals who beats Nowak from time to time. Jenson is a member of Missoula’s Clandestine Chess Club, which meets Monday and Tuesday nights in the back room (hence the “clandestine”) of a commercial space at 125 W. Main St. The meeting room is functional, if not necessarily attractive, bare save for a few old movie posters from the Wilma Theatre, a coffee pot, a handful of books on chess, Nowak’s latest championship plaque and chess-related newspaper articles pasted to walls. It could be a young boy’s clubhouse. The lighting is harsh and fluorescent. Within these walls, Jensen and the Octopus have played about 30 games, and Jensen is able to offer conjecture on his opponent’s nickname.

“He plays what’s called a closed game, where he tries to cramp your position,” Jensen says. “Every single game he opens the same way, and it’s not an open kind of game. There’s just a restriction to [movement]. This is how an octopus might kill its prey.”

The name was suggested by a friend of Nowak’s at UM who imagined the way Nowak played several games at once as similar to an octopus unfurling its tentacles.

There is another, and perhaps even more fitting explanation for the name, however. According to the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., a non-profit marine sciences research aquarium, “Octopuses have the most complex brain of the invertebrates. They have long-term and short-term memories as do vertebrates. Octopuses learn to solve problems by trial-and-error and experience. Once a problem is solved, octopuses remember and are able to solve it and similar problems repeatedly.”

“I can play a whole game in my head in one minute,” Nowak says. “My whole life, my natural ability was speed. I happen to have a kind of brain that allows me to see the game and make a move.”

While it may seem unusual that a man with such a skilled brain could wind up dangling dangerously close to homelessness, J.C. Hallman, author of the recently published The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession and the World’s Oldest Game (Thomas Dunne Books), says that conundrum is actually pervasive among many of the best chess players.

“Chess players tend to be very bright, and also tend to be very much like artists in the sense that there’s a toll that is paid for that particular form of genius, and this often manifests itself as disorganization in one’s life,” Hallman says in a phone interview. “It’s ironic because it’s often extreme organizational skills that lead to quality play.”

Hallman speculates that the game of chess may demand so much structural coordination from its masters that they are, in some sense, “robbed” of those same organizational skills in their daily lives.

Another member of the Clandestine Chess Club, Paul Mitchell, seconds the hypothesis by opining that what makes a chess player good is “being totally nuts and a bit obsessive.”

Mitchell says that Nowak is sane, though, noting that he doesn’t try to play above his capacity.

“People who play above their natural ability really do go nuts,” Mitchell says, “but Greg has a pretty high natural ability.”

Hallman paraphrases seminal artist and chess player Marcel Duchamp when he says that, “Real chess players are sort of messed up in the way that artists claim that they are as a badge of honor, but really aren’t.”

Greg Nowak might be considered eccentric. For one thing, he lives a lifestyle of frugality that can easily be misinterpreted as bizarre (when he hands me his notes on chess, they’re written on old Hallmark category divider signs that say “Birthday” or “Anniversary” at the top, with plenty of white space for writing underneath). His speech is slower and his footsteps more carefully plotted than most, and he’d usually prefer to talk chess than chat about the NFL playoffs. Yet the perception of his eccentricity may have more to do with the world around him than with Nowak himself. Missoulians, though friendly, are not entirely accustomed to striking up conversations with strangers—and definitely not conversations about chess. But that’s exactly how the Octopus has managed to make the acquaintance of what seems like half the city. He’s known by name in coffee shops and book stores. I can’t interview Greg Nowak for long in a public place without him running into someone he knows. This Octopus has made Missoula his garden; he connects with others during his daily constitutionals the way a politician ought to, but rarely does. Other times, he goes to art flicks at the Wilma Theatre, enjoys a good cup of coffee and the music of Enya. He describes himself as “a sociable loner” and “a free spirit.” But even if he’s not “messed up,” part of Duchamp’s statement rings true, for if you ask Nowak about chess, he won’t call it a game. He won’t label it math or science, either. He’ll say chess is “an art form.”

Artist at work
If playing chess is an art, then my match with the Octopus at Liquid Planet coffee shop is like watching Renoir out-paint a pre-school doodler. Nowak takes a chess mat out of his bag and lays the pieces on the table. Because I’m writing an article, he doesn’t charge me his usual, and nominal, fee of one dollar.

Jason Hagan, a former Missoulian who has played Nowak over dried fruit and coffee around town, says, “I think he should charge more than a dollar because he teaches you as he beats you.”

The Octopus certainly beats me. It takes him 29 moves to get me into checkmate, but at no point in the match does it feel as if I am in a position that could even remotely be mistaken for control. As we play, he teaches me about the Sicilian defense he is using. He tells me that it’s starting to look like he has me in what’s known as the Breyer’s trap. Though I can’t offer much of a game, he enjoys meeting a new opponent; Nowak thrives on the human interaction within a game of chess. Sadly, Nowak frets over the future of such interactions in light of the rise of computer chess.

“There’s too much emphasis on [World Chess Champion Gary] Kasparov versus machines, and not enough on the down-home level of local chess,” Nowak says. “It’s empty playing a computer. There’s too many people sitting at home playing on the Internet…it’s getting impersonal.”

Nowak has played and defeated a computer Chessmaster 4000 and 5000, but he finds computer chess “an ego thing” in that “no one can see you lose.”

“It takes a bit of patience to come along in chess, which, in the instant America, there’s not much room for,” Nowak says.

If there is merit to the argument that chess is an art form more so than a science, it surely lies in the fact that human beings are still able to beat computers.

“They can compute a lot faster than we can, but we have strategy and a sense of the indefiniteness of situations,” the Octopus tells me. “Computers want more concrete variations, but humans can appreciate the abstractness of some situations.”

In his book, Hallman agrees with the chess/art comparison.

“The chess world has hung its star on the association with science and math,” he says. “They like talking about chess having beauty and charm, but they don’t like all the baggage that comes along with being associated with art. In Arabia [where chess originated], those ancient players were considered artists and the association wasn’t with science at all. But that shifted at some point as memorization of games became part of what it was all about.”

Hallman compares chess to modern art in particular because it takes some degree of knowledge to differentiate a boring game from a beautiful one, just as it takes a sense of art history to understand the underpinnings of much modern art.

That chess players aren’t commended for dedicating themselves to chess the way an artist might be lauded for dedicating him or herself to painting is a result of society having placed emphasis on the final product, Hallman suggests, rather than on the creative process itself.

In essence, artists are “celebrated for being dickheads,” Hallman says, while chess players are scorned for being “irascible.”

But even if the Octopus isn’t about to find an annotated history of his games on display at the MOMA, he nonetheless finds meaning in chess beyond winning and losing—and sees things on a chess board far beyond utilitarian game pieces.

“I think some religious guru in Persia plotted chess to be the game of life,” he says. “The king can be symbolic of the soul. The queen could be symbolic of the personal energy or power. The bishop could be symbolic of the vision. The knight could be intangibles like feelings. The rook could be the temple of thought and the mind. The pawns would be the gates to the mind and the squares could be the universe’s digital space.”

It is this artistic dimension to chess that Nowak contends you just can’t find playing against computers.

“There is no substitute for human interaction,” he says.

The people’s champion
At First Night, back inside the UC atrium, I ask passers-by what they think makes the Octopus so good.

“Practice,” says 11-year-old Matt Parker, dipping a breadstick into a container of marinara sauce.

Mike Carlin, the volunteer scorekeeper, suggests that natural talent is the larger part of it, checking off another win for the Octopus.

“I think he’s an honest-to-goodness prodigy.”

It’s a debate with no correct answer, but the Octopus sides with Carlin, while admitting that practice is important.

How does one explain such a phenomenon? God? Genetics?

“If I have a gift, if you want to talk genetics, I probably got it from my ma. But really I think people overdo genetics,” is the Octopus’ answer.

Hallman believes that Gary Kasparov was on to something when he answered the question in broader terms.

“Kasparov said that to understand what makes a good chess player, you have to understand that not every chess game is the same. Some require you to be creative and intuitive. Some require you to be distant and calculating…His point was that one needed to be a well-rounded person to play well in all possible situations.”

Nowak thinks that he is that person, even if his financial situation can sometimes limit his pursuit of well-roundedness.

“Some people look at me one-dimensionally, as if I’m just chess,” he says. “Back in Milwaukee when I had money, I’d always go out to dinner theaters and operas and art museums.”

And Nowak thinks of the social nature of the game too, not just whether to use a French or Sicilian style.

“I wish more women would play chess. It’s unfortunate that it has a reputation for being a man’s game. I think women could meet some nice guys over a game of chess,” he says with a wide smile, squinching his Octopus eyes.

But Nowak is encouraged to see the number of young children who sit down to play him on New Year’s Eve. They are proof that even if the game he loves is being altered by the interjection of computers, it will not be killed.

On this night, young Michael Schombel will not beat the Octopus, just as his father didn’t. But he plays a very close game, cedes nothing without a challenge. When the game is over, the Octopus shakes his hand and says, “Good game.” He gives the boy’s father a flyer for the chess club, says he should bring Michael by. Though he lost, it’s clear the boy is proud of his skillful efforts against Montana’s reigning champion.

Unlike the crowds gathering in anticipation of the Big Sky Mudflaps, the Schombel family find themselves in the UC atrium on New Year’s Eve for a different reason. They are not just “killing time” with a game of novelty chess like many of the others.

Earlier in the day, Michael’s parents had asked him what he most wanted to do for New Year’s Eve.

“I want to play the Octopus,” Michael had said.

Add a comment