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Albert Chow, chess master who dropped out of Lane Tech to play and teach professionally, dead at 57

By the late 1980s, he was one of the best players in the Midwest, ‘He decided what he wanted to do at 15, and he did it for the rest of his life,’ said Bill Brock, a founding member of the Chicago Chess Center. 

Chess master Albert Chow.
Chess master Albert Chow.
Keith Ammann

Albert Chow gave his cats names like Boris, Tally and R.J. — world champions all, though only chess aficionados might recognize them.

Boris was for Boris Spassky, Tally for Mikhail Tal and R.J. for Robert J. Fischer, aka Bobby Fischer.

Mr. Chow, one of the best chess players in Illinois, died at Illinois Masonic Hospital Oct. 30 at 57. He’d been diagnosed with squamous cell cancer, according to friends.

Mr. Chow was a seven-time Illinois chess champion, winning in 1982, 1984 and 1995 and tying four more times. In 1994, he finished in a six-way tie for U.S. Open champion.

He dropped out of Lane Tech High School to make chess his career: playing professionally, teaching, coaching.

“He decided what he wanted to do at 15, and he did it for the rest of his life,” said Bill Brock, a founding member of the Chicago Chess Center.

For exhibitions, he’d face as many as 50 players at once in simultaneous chess games.

Albert Chow playing chess with 19 students simultaneously.
Albert Chow playing chess with 19 students simultaneously.
Al Benson

Clad in black, Mr. Chow cut a swashbucklingly Stygian figure.

“He had this long black hair, and he had these dark sunglasses, and he gave off this impression of being a cool, hip guy,” said Maret Thorpe, head of the Evanston Chess Club.

He was a regular at punk rock concerts and at the nightclub Metro. His cellphone ringtone was “Godzilla,” the 1977 Blue Oyster Cult song named for the movie monster he loved.

Growing up in Wrigleyville, he collected insects and kept lizards in terrariums and would tell his friends about giant squid, said his friend Lawrence Chachere, also a chess master.

While at Lane Tech, he started staying out late. His mother, worried, questioned him.

Young Albert told her he was playing chess.

“He’d say, ‘This might be a career for me,’ ” according to Chachere, a friend since childhood.

Junior year, he dropped out of Lane Tech and began to teach and play professionally.

By the late 1980s, he was one of the best players in the Midwest, said Dmitry Gurevich, a Chicago-based grandmaster, the game’s highest rank.

To the children he taught, Mr. Chow was serious but kind, said Suzanne Sheridan, the mother of one of his students. He coached first-graders at Dewey Elementary School in Evanston, including her daughter Wayra, now a sixth-grader the U.S. Chess Federation ranks among the top 100 11-year-old girl players.

“He encouraged them and took pride in students,” Sheridan said. “A lot of times, people at his level would not be caught dead at community clubs.”

Tutoring third–graders at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, he told them he’d help them win, he said in a 1996 story in the Chicago Tribune.

“The secret is right in front of you,” he said. “The secret is not only in the pieces. The secret also is in the squares.”

Mr. Chow took a classic approach to the game, emphasizing strong control of the center of the board, according to Kevin Bachler, who also coaches chess.

He was painstaking. If he had 15 minutes on the clock, “He would not hesitate to spend 14 minutes and 45 seconds to find the best possible move,” Brock said.

After a match, if observers questioned his strategy, he’d say he’d already considered — and rejected — exactly what they were suggesting.

“He was like an entertaining drill sergeant,” said Jeffrey Dixon, president of the Chicago Chess Center.

At one time, Mr. Chow contributed a regular Chicago Sun-Times feature that included a chess challenge for readers.

He’d arrive for lessons with “a bottomless-seeming bag” filled with chess books, Dixon said. “He would get dramatic sometimes and shout. But, during the play or the game — not a word.”

His Wrigleyville home was filled with books on chess and thousands of scoresheets from matches. He’d retreat there and study, “kind of like a monk,” said Glenn Panner, a chess tournament director.

Once, while being driven to a match, the confirmed city kid surveyed the schools, churches and cemeteries rolling past. “He said, if there were such as thing as hell,” Chachere said, “it would be the western suburbs.”

His aunt Karen Nickey said Mr. Chow cared for his mother Joyce until her death in 2018. Friends said he was a comfort to her after his father Albert Sr. died when he was in ninth grade, and his younger sister Ellen died by suicide at 15. He is also survived by his aunt Jean Sellar.

Visitation is planned from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at Christian Funeral Home, 3100 W. Irving Park Rd. Burial will be Nov. 12 at Rosehill Cemetery.

Given his fondness for the color, “He’s going to be dressed in black and buried in a black casket,” Nickey said.

For his gravestone, she said, “We’re going to try and have a chess piece on it.”