Lifelong Learning and Beyond

This post is authored by Austin Frakt’s mother and is about his late maternal grandfather. It has been published in the January-March 2010 issue of StrateGems (Vol. 13, SG 49, pp. 51-53), the U.S. chess problem magazine.

This is a story about “lifelong learning” that even stretches to the afterlife.

My father, a retired math teacher, enjoyed chess for most of his 91 years, but he was in his late eighties when he began composing and publishing an obscure type of chess problem called “helpmates.” A helpmate is not a maneuver that a chess player would make in a usual game. It is a problem in which Black moves first and cooperates with White to get checkmated in a specified number of moves. While cooperating to checkmate Black, both sides otherwise follow established chess rules.

Now imagine an elderly man in a Florida assisted-living facility. He hunches over a laptop computer and squints at font enlarged to accommodate severely limited vision. He has recovered from life-threatening illnesses and survived long hospital stays. Composing helpmate problems transports him to an invigorating inner life.

His method of composing problems and submitting them for publication is part touching and part comical. Using e-mail was too taxing for my father’s poor eyesight. Instead, he taught me (not a chess player!) chess notation and painstakingly dictated his compositions by phone. I e-mailed them to chess editors around the globe. Editors seemed tickled by an elderly novice as a composer. I read their comments to him or, if they were extensive or confusing, transferred them to paper (large bold font, of course) and snail mailed them to Florida. By this circuitous route, Dad absorbed and adopted the advice of the best helpmate composers in the world. He was as tireless as a nonagenarian could be. He loved it.

Editors and solvers commented on Dad’s age and promise. Around the time of his 91st birthday, one solver welcomed him as a challenging new composer and praised his problems as offering “simplicity and maximum annoyance for solvers.” Editors patiently pointed out stylistic flaws in some problems. They urged him to keep trying, and he had no thought of doing otherwise.

Dad’s first helpmate problem appeared in the British Chess Problem Society’s publication, The Problemist, in November 2006, when he was 90 years old. He considered publication in The Problemist a particular plum, and eventually published five problems there. His compositions appeared in seven additional chess publications around the world: two problems in Australian Chess, one in Best Problems (Italy), four in Diagrammes (France), one in Idee & Form (Switzerland), five in Orbit (Macedonia), eight in StrateGems (US), and four in Variantim (Israel).

Dad’s intense productivity suddenly came to an end on January 25, 2008. Some of the most touching messages of condolence came from chess editors. They had never met Dad, and they knew me only through my role as chess amanuensis. But they seemed quite taken with the old man who had become, so late in life, a devoted admirer and practitioner of their arcane and brainy pastime.

At the time of Dad’s death, some of his compositions were in the pipeline and appeared in print later in the year. As I was the keeper of the family archives, the editors sent posthumous publications to me. Although I had submitted all the problems and had corresponded with the editors, I had not kept track of the volume. It was only after Dad’s death that I tallied them up and gasped at a total of 30 publications over a mere 18 months.

Then the prizes started. One year after Dad’s death, the British Chess Problem Society awarded the prize of “first commendation” for his first composition for The Problemist. Next, Orbit awarded a “fourth commendation” for longer helpmate problems published in 2008. News of yet a third prize – second place for a tournament entry in StrateGems – reached me in late 2009, almost two years after Dad’s death.

When wise people say that the benefits of learning never end, they probably mean that rewards continue throughout one’s lifetime. Here’s an example of dividends accruing as a family legacy. Recognition from the international experts that Dad so revered can no longer fill him with well deserved pride or encourage him to continue delighting his audience. But his accomplishments still astonish the family and inspire us as an enduring tribute to lifelong learning. Dad learned and taught. He is still teaching us.

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