Remembering Glenn MacDonald
This Tuesday, longtime member of the Greater Worcester Chess Club, and dear friend to many of us, Glenn MacDonald, passed away after a years-long battle with cancer. I am lucky to have known him and experienced his infectious, childlike enthusiasm for chess. Every time I saw Glenn, he was brimming with energy, eager to share his favorite chess puzzles and openings. I recall more than one instance when his eyes would widen as he shared the undeniable beauty of the Lasker trap or a clever puzzle involving zugzwang (when a player has no good moves and would rather pass if it were possible).
Glenn was an avid chess fan and a strong player. We played many casual games at the club or Nu Kitchen over the years, and I believe I only managed to draw or win a handful of times. Throughout the physical setbacks over the years, his mind remained sharper than the tactical positions he was so fond of. When COVID took away in-person visits, we could talk over half-an-hour on the phone, discussing complex chess variations in great detail.
When I visited Glenn last week, that had finally changed. By chance, I happened to visit the same day as Joe and Bob, which amused the nurses: “Three visitors in the last hour!? He’s so popular today.” It had been a while, and I was excited to see him again. I brought along my chess set just in case, but it struck me as absurd once I saw him. Glenn was as chatty as ever, but he struggled to follow the conversation. At one moment, he perked up when I mentioned the Scotch game. The Scotch is an opening I share Glenn’s love for. When I told him I played it exclusively as White at the US Open this year, he exclaimed, “Oh, I’ve always liked the Scotch!” and then quite candidly, “I’m not really sure why…but I’ve always liked it.”
When I picked up my set to leave and told Glenn I would let him get some rest, he told me, “I look forward to playing chess again with you soon.” I smiled and told him, “Me too.” I knew it would likely be the last time I saw him. And in a way, his passing would come as a relief: although he would never admit it, I imagine the last stages were painful and difficult. But that didn’t stop me from sobbing the whole way out, barely choking out my words to the nurses and receptionist who had to open the doors. No matter how we rationalize it, or try to come to terms with the inevitability of life and death, there is that selfish moment where we still find it hard to let go. Yet my final words to Glenn were sincere: perhaps someday, somewhere, in some sense, we’ll get to play again.
I wanted to honor Glenn this week by sharing just some of the examples of the beauty of chess that he shared with me.
The Lasker Trap
I only know of the Lasker Trap because of Glenn. I’ve never encountered it in a game, since I tend not to play the positions that lead to it, but it is undeniably beautiful, due in large part to the rare underpromotion. (Click the circular arrow to flip the board and view as Black. More fun to be the trapper than the trappee right?)
Glenn was a huge fan of chess puzzles involving strange or clever solutions. He had a couple of favorites, and while I unfortunately cannot remember them exactly, one was very similar to the puzzle below, which is attributed to Paul Morphy.
A couple of us seem to remember that Glenn’s puzzle could be solved if it were set up on the other side of the board as well, meaning the pawns move the other direction. That's not the case in the above, so I’m probably misremembering the exact puzzle.
Bob Secino recalls an instance at Nu Kitchen where Glenn showed him a puzzle he created in a Q v R endgame. The Q v R endgame is notoriously difficult, but one technique is for the player with the queen to obtain the “Philidor position” (after François-André Danican Philidor, who analyzed such endgames extensively) with the opponent to move. From there, the attacking player can typically force a fork of the king and rook:
Although Bob couldn’t remember Glenn’s puzzle exactly, based on his description, I think it was likely similar to the following, which is a Philidor position with the attacking player to move. This requires a bit more finesse, with a maneuver called triangulation by the queen, effectively giving the opponent the move where they are in zugzwang. The following comes from John Walker’s The Art of Chess-Play: A New Treatise on the Game of Chess.
The Scotch Game
Below is a recent example of a Scotch Game I played in the US Open this year. I was quite pleased with how the opening went, and I think it would have made Glenn proud. Never mind that I went on to lose the endgame after being up two pawns (side note: if someone can help me see the beauty in endgames, perhaps I’ll be inspired to avoid similar embarrassing losses in the future).