Picking up the pieces
Sitting in the shade of a tree at Lithia Park — any day of the week and most times of the day — Randy Dolinger has his chess board out. A small sign reads “CHESS teacher.”
The peaceful scene gives no clue as to the long road Dolinger has traveled. “I always wanted to make money with chess, somehow,” the 63-year-old Ashland resident says while waiting for his next student.
That yearning was born after his budding success in the world of tournament chess was tragically cut short.
He began playing chess in his native North Carolina at the age of 12. He quickly rose through the world of tournament chess to become the state champion at 17, ranked 10th in the nation. Both the North Carolina Chess Association and the Asheboro (North Carolina) Chess Club list him on their websites as the 1971 state champion.
Dolinger was among the few young, elite champions of his day, even spending time with international chess prodigy Bobby Fischer.
“He showed me an opening which helped me win a tournament. He came to watch me play,” he says, adding with a smile, “Sometimes people can’t believe that story. But it’s true.”
At the pinnacle of his playing, Dolinger had one of his games published. “Two pages in Chess Life. It went all over the world.”
He was unstoppable, and then five years after he began it ended — in the seat of his friend’s car.
“I was 17. The passenger in a car," he says. “We got into a wreck. My friend lost control and ran into a tree. I was in a coma for a week. Then the doctor said it’d be a couple years before my brain would be back in order before I could do the things I had been doing.”
But he couldn’t wait. He lost patience and feared if he took too much time off he would be forgotten. He had to get back in the game. He went against his doctors orders and went back to playing.
“I came to tournaments with my head bandaged, walking on crutches.”
“I started playing too fast. I lost tournaments, I lost rating points.”
Dolinger describes being in a tournament while a crowd looked on and suddenly going blank, not knowing what to do. He had never experienced that before.
“I just understood the game right away. I always knew it, and then I suddenly just couldn’t get it to work. I would have these moments where I would freeze.”
His ranking fell. His sponsors withered. At 17, he felt finished.
“I stopped playing. It was too disappointing.”
Dolinger began traveling, trying to find himself outside of chess. He became a meditation student, a wanderer and was often homeless. He came to Ashland 25 years ago, where for much of that time he camped outside and sought refuge in coffee shops. He now has an apartment.
But he never fully gave up on chess. “I've been studying the game.”
He was briefly rediscovered once, but again the game left him wounded. He was offered a sponsorship to play a tournament in Grants Pass more than a decade ago. “I did great. I won second place. People gave me offers to play and teach.”
But he couldn’t do it.
“All the fear and apprehension came back. I literally had a horrible headache for three days. I couldn’t sleep.”
He figured it was too much. He gave up his dream again.
“I studied but hardly ever played. I wouldn’t play. I couldn’t do it.”
Dolinger says despite all the disappointment and pain, he still had the hope that somehow the game would come back to him.
“Then there was this brainstorm. Just set up my chess board and tell people I’ll teach for compensation.”
He sits on a bench most every day, all day, just within the sound of the park’s cellist, with his board, hoping for a game.
“I’m enjoying it again. I love it, plus I’m actually making a little money.”
He works by donation. He offers a game for a suggested $5, and $10 gets you a lesson.
His years of patience show.
“Everything revolves around the four main squares in the middle,” he tells Oakland resident Emily Santiago, who stopped her stroll to play. “Every square means something. That’s the power of the game.”
Santiago says in 20 minutes he improved her game.
“He’s completely changed my strategy for playing. Chess is like life, I have to keep my most powerful pieces and leverage them, “ she says while staring intently at the board. “I learned to delay gratification.”
Dolinger’s life story could be told as one of delayed gratification. He’s waited decades for chess to pay him back for his devotion.
“I wanted to support myself with chess. 45 years later and I’m finally doing it.”
Marcus Brown is 9. He’s visiting with his family from Arizona. The chess board is clearly calling to him as he circles Dolinger, looking at the pieces. Dolinger says he loves teaching children because he knows the power of the game.
Twenty minutes later, Marcus leaves the table.
“That was great! Good job,” Dolinger encourages his student. He takes a sip of water and a breath.
“I never knew how to give this gift to society. The only way to do it is to set up my board and wait. It requires me to be patient. You have to be patient in life and chess.”
He smiles. His green eyes shine under his gold wire-rimmed glasses, as he looks the part of the master. His fingers graze the pieces. He looks up and says to a couple passing by, “You want to play chess?”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.