New York City Opera Flutist John McMurtery, On Chess

Notes on the Road asked New York City Opera flutist and uber-chess officionado, John McMurtery, to talk to us about his passion for the infamous 64-squares.

John weighed in with remarkable insights on what continually drives him to step up his game, what training methods he finds most effective, and which slippery tips and tricks to watch out for from a brand-new kind of opponent.


Notes: So. How are chess players ranked? Where do you fall on the scale?

John McMurtery: Players are ranked by a complex rating system that factors in how many games they've played, what their results were, and how strong their opposition was. For instance, we score more rating points for beating a higher rated player. An average tournament player is rated around 1500. A rank beginner might be about 700 - 800; a Grandmaster's rating will be 2500 and above (the current World Champion, Viswanathan Anand of India, is rated 2791). Right now I don't have a specific chess rating because it has been 15 years since my last tournament. I am currently training to become part of the competitive chess world again. My lifetime goal is to reach Expert level, which is above 2000.


Notes: How long does a game last? And how do you train?

John: In tournament situations, a game can last anywhere from an hour to 5 hours or more. Many playersplaying_chess_thumb prefer shorter time controls, like blitz, rapid, and speed chess. The video below shows one such game; the clock is set to two minutes per side for the entire game. At the end, white loses on time and black has 9 seconds left on his clock.

In online chess, one can play on an internet server at very fast speeds, or set up slower time controls (currently I have one game set to 14 days per move).

Right now I have 5 games going on simultaneously online - These are people I don't know, from all around the world, from Las Vegas to the Phillipines. That's one of the things that I love about playing online. You can converse with them through a chat window on the game screen if you so desire.

The training process is different for each player. I like to balance my study time between endgames, middlegame (tactics and strategy), and learning openings. Books are best for openings and endgames. For tactics and strategy, has two wonderful interactive features called Tactics Trainer and Chess Mentor, both of which assist the chessplayer in improving rapidly, if he or she puts in the time. Of course, there is no substitute for playing lots and lots of game.


Notes: When you play in person, doesn't charisma and presence play a big part in influencing your opponent?

John: Playing in person, the force of charisma can influence perception of the game. Russian Grandmaster Mikhail Tal was famous for staring his opponents in the eyes, nearly putting them in a kind of hypnotic trance. Other players speak of measuring their opponent's breathing, to find out if they are under stress during a game. Josh Waitzkin (of Searching for Bobby Fischer fame) writes about one of his opponents kicking him under the table at crucial moments. It's not legal, but these things do occur in competitive chess.


Notes: I bet there have been similar 'kicks' in the orchestra pit!?

John: Charles Wyatt, in his book Listening to Mozart, relates a story in which the principal flutist in an orchestra, while playing a solo, has his page maliciously turned by the second flutist. I've always wondered how fictional that story really is!

Notes: What is your advice to people who would like to start? Can you recommend websites, learning resources?

John: Many, many musicians are also avid chessplayers, so chances are great that someone who wants to learn the game already knows people who play regularly. I personally think it's more fun to learn from a person rather than a software program, though there are many programs available to teach you the rules and the basics. is my favorite chess website. There are articles and features there for players of every level. You can create an account and start playing immediately for free. As you progress, you can consider paying the nominal fee for the most advanced features.

For more information on John McMurtery, please visit:


Kasparov, Garry. How Life Imitates Chess. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2007.

Waitzkin, Josh. The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.

Wyatt, Charles. Listening to Mozart . Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995.