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The Road to the Blind World Champs: Interview with Alex Barrasso Print E-mail
By Bruce Leverett   
April 3, 2014
Alex Barrasso with his family
In the past few years, I've written articles for CLO about several U.S. Blind chess championships.  But beyond the U.S., there's an international chess scene for blind players, and it's lively and strong.  The IBCA (International Braille Chess Association) holds an individual world championship every four years (the next one is in May), and a team championship (the "Blind Olympiad") every four years (the next one will be in 2016). 

If you've never seen a large room full of chess players feeling the pieces on their boards and the faces on their clocks, or writing down their moves by poking holes in Braille paper or reading them into tape recorders, it's a little different from what you are used to.  But more striking than the spectacle is the strength of the tournaments.  The top of the crosstable always features IMs.  Years ago, when the U.S. had a team in the Blind Olympiad, it was led by Al Sandrin, who had won the 1949 U.S. Open.

I assisted our players in two of those events, but the last appearance of Team USA in the major IBCA championships was in 1980.  I have sometimes wondered, why couldn't we come back?  This year, we have a chance to play in the individual world championship in Katerini, Greece, in May.  For this article, I've interviewed two people who are trying to make this happen:  Al Pietrolungo, current president of the USBCA;  Al Pietrolungo, formerly of Baltimore, is retired and living in Pittsburgh and Alex Barrasso, 5-time winner of the U.S. Blind, who has agreed to be our representative in the upcoming world championship.

Alex Barrasso works for the U.S. Foreign Service and is currently stationed in Prague.  He is married and has one daughter.

Interview with Alex Barrasso  

Bruce Leverett (BL):  How (or when) did you learn how to play chess?

Alex Barrasso (AB):  I was 11 years old and attending a friend’s (Chris Phillips) birthday party.  After shooting baskets for a while, everyone went inside to play chess.  I had no idea what chess was.  Chris’ father took a board, let me feel the pieces, explained the basics, and walked me through a mock game.  He then approached the coach at my middle school (Alex Schanzer), who let me join the club and helped me locate an adapted chess set.  After a brief stint there, I transferred to Hunter College High School in New York, where we were fortunate enough to have Sunil Weeramantry as our coach.  I also joined the Staten Island Chess Club.

BL:  What were some highlights of your chess development?

AB:  At Hunter High, I had the opportunity to learn not just from Sunil, but from the other strong players around me.  I vividly remember the 1990 high school nationals in Kansas City, when I won first prize in Class C.  That same year, I also won Top Alternate at the Amateur Team Championships East with an undefeated 5/6 with the Staten Island Club team.  Of course, the U.S. Championship for Blind Players is in a category by itself.  The 3-peat (1996-98) will always be special, as will my first victory in 1993, when I competed in the event for only the second time.

Here is one of my games from the 1994 Blind Championships:


BL:  The Pan-American tournament for blind players in 2001 sounds interesting.  Where was it held?  What do you remember from that experience?

AB:  It was held just outside Lima, Peru.  My memories are not all good.  I played rather poorly, scoring only 3.5/7.  And to boot, I was a poor sport, taking my frustration out on my cabin mates.  Nonetheless, I was honored to represent the U.S.  I just wish I would have played better and been a better example for others.

BL:  How do you study chess?  What access do you have to chess literature, such as articles and books?  I understand that you play online and that you use Fritz to help with study.  Readers might be interested in how those work for you and how well they work.

AB:  Access to articles and books is somewhat limited for visually impaired players.  We cannot process material unless the diagrams contain annotation.  These days, it seems like a lot of literature depends exclusively on diagrams, which we cannot read at all.  Fritz is somewhat accessible with today’s screen reading technology after you configure it, but the two programs (Fritz and the screen reader) could be more compatible.  After several hours, you kind of get the hang of the interplay between the two, and you can make it work.  Without a specialized program written by Mike Mason in the UK that improves the interaction between the two pieces of software, I would not be using Fritz today.  I play on-line when I can.  I prefer Skype and other interfaces that allow you to physically speak to your opponent.  
BL:  Tell me about your career in the Foreign Service.  Where have you been stationed?  What is it like for you and your family as Americans to live in Prague?

AB:  Prague is a great place to live.  The public transit system is phenomenal, and the city is full of history.  The less Czech you speak, the harder it is to get around though.  

I love my job.  I get to learn new languages, experience different cultures, meet interesting people, represent the United States, and get paid to do it!  We have lived in Brunei, Thailand, Singapore, Colombia and the Czech Republic.  The downsides are that we have to relocate every 2-3 years and that the competition for assignments is very tough.  It’s not fun to pick up your entire house, leave your friends, and move.  We like to say that we enjoy the result, but not the process.  Everywhere we have lived, I have found chess players.  In Colombia, I studied with Alonso Zapata.  In Brunei, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Government hired a GM to run the Brunei Chess Federation and provide free instruction to all members.  Young kids there get a great start, learning the game and discipline for free.

For the tournament in Katerini, Alex has recruited a guide (an old chess friend) and is working on tournament preparation; and while that is going on, we are also trying to raise funds at the USABA Athlete page. Good luck, Alex!
Interview with Al Pietrolungo, president of the USBCA

BL:  I understand that you got started in chess here in Pittsburgh.  How has chess for blind players changed since then?

AP:   I learned to play chess 50 years ago, because a Master named Bob Bornholz took the time to start a chess club at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children.  Several friends learned the game, and when we would get together over the years, we would grab a chess board.
Over those 50 years, maybe the biggest change came with computers.  The US Braille Chess Association was established in 1967.  For the first 30 years or so, our group was both a correspondence group and an over the board group.  Gradually with computer email games replacing the much slower regular mail games, our new members became players who were able to play chess from the comfort of their home.

BL:  What is the role of the USBCA these days, and what would you like it to be?

AP: Over the past 15 to 20 years, the number of players competing in our email competitions has increased to over 60 while the number of players who compete in regular tournaments has declined. Further, instead of having 18 to 25 players in the USCF national championship for blind players, we are stuck on eight.

So, one of my goals as president of the USBCA is to restore that balance between our correspondence and over the board strength.  We realize that part of our problem is financial.  The year that we had 25 players competing for a national championship was one of those years in which a Lions Club paid for hotel rooms and meals.  However, currently there are a very small number of blind players competing in USCF tournaments close to their homes. 

So, I asked Alex if he would consider playing in the world championship in Greece.  My hope is that his trip to Greece will get some of our blind players excited enough to walk away from the computer long enough to play in a tournament or two just a few miles from their home.  Of course, now that means money is a big issue for us.
In that regard, the USBCA has the funds to meet the financial obligations imposed by the International Braille Chess Association, so we can rejoin that organization.  We will also meet a financial obligation to the US Association of Blind Athletes for the assistance they offer us.  So, we are looking for help to pay the expenses associated with the trip to Greece.
Back in 1978 and 1980, when USBCA members were competing in these international competitions, we had a half dozen extremely strong players including one or two who were Experts.  [BL:  Besides Sandrin, our team featured Experts Al Manetta and Mack Garner, and several Class A players.  With that kind of depth, we were very competitive at the international level.]  We hope that our chess friends will help the USBCA return to that level of play. 

Find out more about the IBCA World Chess Championship here
, watch a video interview with Joan DuBois of the USCF on Blind Chess here and find the fundraising link for Alex Barrasso here.