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Geordie Derraugh’s Chess Wizardry

It’s a little known fact that there is a substantial underground chess scene in Toronto. Learn Buffet instructor Geordie Derraugh is at the forefront of this burgeoning community. Derraugh offers excellent individual private chess instruction – he even makes house calls.

The soft-spoken 24-year-old hails from a small town called oustide of Toronto. Neither of his parents played chess. He learned the moves at the age of five but didn’t play much until he was nine. He started taking it seriously at the age of 12, at which point he almost beat his coach the first time he played against him. Geordie has been regularly beating his instructors since, a fact that prompted him to start teaching chess himself.  He achieved his master’s designation years ago.

The game is one of daunting strategy and precision. With nearly endless mathematical possibilities to win (and fail), it is a game conducted in solitude, where reliance on calculating probability is as important as going for the jugular. “You have to be competitive. It’s just like in sports – you have to have that killer instinct to succeed,” notes Derraugh. Without it, players hold back, and fail where they otherwise would have succeeded. “The desire to win draws me to the game,” says Derraugh. “I’m very competitive and I always want to be the best.”

Derraugh can beat the computer when it comes to chess apps on Mac and PC, but hasn’t yet conquered the computer program Houdini (who, incidentally, no chess grandmaster can beat either). Derraugh claims that the advent of computers changed the landscape of chess considerably; the machines can forecast the mathematical possibilities of a certain move, and play accordingly – in other words, they present a far more difficult opponent than your typical casual (human) player. Players that grew up dueling with our machine overlords eked out a certain advantage. Magnus Carlsen (the current reigning chess champion and Derraugh’s idol) boasts a peak rating of 2872, the highest of all time. At 13, he was the third youngest grandmaster in history.

Derraugh’s teaching methodology goes something like this: he plays a few games against his student, carefully observing his/her patterns and technique. He then will offer critiques and play again, this time suggesting other strategies to achieve better ends. He presents his students with logic and math puzzles that encourage them to think laterally. In chess, there are infinite numbers of possibilities, and he focuses on an ‘end game’ strategy rather than putting the onus on initial impressive moves. His inspiration in this technique is renowned chess player Magnus Carlsen.

Derraugh has fun with the game still, it’s not all merciless battle. “One of the funniest moments was when I was a kid playing an intense last round game with a long-time rival of mine in Kitchener, named Justin McDonald. We were both already quite good for our age but for some reason in the heat of battle, with very little time on our clocks, we both started moving our pawns backwards, towards our own first rank. We didn’t realize what happened until the arbiter told us after the game was over!

Dan Lee has been Derraugh’s student for the past 6 months. Every two weeks, for an hour, Derraugh runs Lee through his paces, playing a few games, pointing out different tactics, even going to the point of playing blindfolded. Derraugh often plays against his parents blindfolded, an exercise which forces him to visualize the entire board and memorize what has already transpired (so he can anticipate moves to come).

Derraugh asserts that the most common rookie mistake is subscribing to faulty calculations in opening moves that can set you up for a downfall later. Often it is easier to teach chess to malleable young children because they don’t have deeply entrenched habits – the result of erroneous training. Children are more likely to be focused on problem solving (rather than getting overly fixated on the minutia of the game). The most rewarding part of all is witnessing his students steadily improve.

Advice for new players? Immerse yourself in the world of chess. Read everything you can get your hands on in terms of tactics and books. Learn actively and kinesthetically by playing as much as you can, against opponents who give you a run for your money. Most importantly, perhaps, is to think positively. A defeatist attitude will not get you far in this ruthless and Machiavellian realm.

Derraugh divides his time coaching and playing chess with finishing up his undergrad in mathematics at U of T. “I plan to improve my chess as much as I can and eventually reach grandmaster level,” says Derraugh. “I also want to continue teaching chess. Eventually I may switch paths but for now I’m enjoying this lifestyle.”