Soft-spoken Sasebo teacher is ruthless at the chessboard
Stars and Stripes June 8, 2003
A soft-spoken teacher by day, Dexter Thompson is a senior master assassin of knights, queens, kings and even bishops in his spare time.
The computer lab instructor at Sasebo Naval Base’s Ernest J. King School showcased his lethal chess prowess May 3-5 by ripping through a field of 50 premier players to win the 2003 All-Japan Golden Open Chess Championship in Tokyo.
“The first day was hard because I was very tired and sleepy and had trouble concentrating,” Thompson recalled. “I lost my first-round game to a weaker opponent due to my fatigue and lack of sleep, as well as some overconfidence.”
But on the second day, his killer instincts kicked in, and he began knocking off opponents the way assassins’ bullets rip through a cummerbund.
“I won the next seven games because, during the second and third days, I was back in my usual assassin form. I just smoked and crushed all of my remaining opponents,” said Thompson, who went 7-1 at the tournament. “I finished a clear one point ahead of the second-place finisher.”
The title elevated Thompson’s Japan ranking to 5th Dan in chess, comparable to the 5th degree of a martial-arts black belt. He’s also a Senior Master in the United States.
Before joining the Department of Defense Dependents Schools faculty at the Sasebo Naval Base school, Thompson competed full time and was ranked “in about the top 100 players” in the United States, he said.
In April, he tuned up for the Tokyo clash by capturing the 2003 Kyushu Chess Championship in Fukuoka, finishing unbeaten.
In early November 2001, he placed second in the All-Japan Open Chess Tournament, also in Tokyo. That’s “the second-most important tournament in Japan and is open to players from any country who want to compete,” Thompson said. “There were players there from Europe, China and even Africa.”
At the 1985 World Open Chess Tournament, Thompson beat three-time U.S. champion Joel Benjamin.
Based on his past performances, he was ranked in the top five by the Japan Chess Association — but that was before the 2003 All-Japan Golden Open. Now, he’ll likely move up to No. 1.
Using the United States Chess Federation’s rating system, Thompson is a Senior Master player, meaning that once he qualified as a Master, he continued playing at that level long enough to earn the title for life. The only higher rating is Life Senior Master.
Thompson, a single, generally unassuming middle-aged fellow, is in his fourth year teaching in Sasebo. The Wayne State University graduate’s chess-playing days began at the tender age of 10 back home in Detroit.
“I was about 9 or 10 when I noticed my cousins across the alley were playing chess, and they showed me how to play,” Thompson recalled. “It took me about a day to learn the moves, and within six months, I could beat any player in a 10-block radius.”
From that point, his early motivation came from a high school math teacher.
“I had this math teacher who was a very good player, so we had a chess club that met most days during lunch,” he said. “Then I used to go to his house all the time and ask, ‘Can I play you again?’ We formed a very close bond, and he took me to my first chess tournament, where I was crushed.”
Eventually, Thompson’s teacher took him to the state tournament, “where I got to see the really good players.” Again, though, he was far from the chess-playing assassin he is today, and was booted quickly.
“But I was resilient, and I came back every time. Whenever I got knocked down, I got back up,” he said. Chess takes practice, a lot of home study and tournament play to become a truly excellent player, he added.
There are three styles of professional chess, Thompson said. The long version, in which players have a long time limit to make a number of moves, is probably the best known. Rapid chess, where the game has to be completed in 30 minutes, is Thompson’s forte. In Blitz chess, each player has a time limit per game, usually three to seven minutes.
The game has three phases — the opening, middle game and end game, he explained. Most good players specialize in one facet.
“I’m known in the United States for my openings, and I’m known as a tactical player,” he said. “That means aggressive play and a willingness to sacrifice players. My games are quick.”
Studying and memorizing also taught him the opening moves of other masters. “When you play, you have to have these moves committed to memory. You have to be able to look at least five moves ahead. The great masters look 50 moves ahead, at least,” Thompson said.
Even though he played chess professionally in the United States, he said he always wanted to travel to Asia. “One thing here is that I don’t have anyone to play,” he said. “If there were someone here who plays at my level, I’d already know who they are.
“I do try to play the major tournaments here in Japan, but the problem with chess in Japan is there is no money. I actually earned my income for a while in the U.S. playing chess. Back in the ’80s, for a young guy, the money was enough.”
Thompson’s next opportunity to exercise his mental assassin skills is in late June, when he competes again at the 2003 All-Japan Rapid Chess Championship in Tokyo.
“My goal here in Japan has just been to get a collection of tournaments, and I have one more, then I’m going to retire from Japan chess, and that’s the All-Japan Rapid Chess Championship. Based on what I’ve seen, I think I can win that one,” he said.
“I might play again in Japan in a rapid because it’s the most fun tournament, but I just don’t see any challenge out there.”