When Sean Nagle settles in behind a chessboard to face an opponent, his first thoughts are not on how the game will unfold. First, he sizes up his competitor.
State champion or co-champion for the past four years and among a relative few active chess masters in Minnesota, the 30-year-old’s mere presence is enough to unsettle many opponents — and he knows it.
Ranked 63rd in the nation by the U.S. Chess Federation and second in Minnesota by a single point, Nagle expects to win. Since third grade, he mostly has.
“But it’s a delicate line. A strong ego helps you win, but getting egotistical can make you lose,” said Nagle, of Plymouth. “I know I’m good, but if I overestimate my skill or underestimate an opponent, that’s when I screw up.”
Nagle works as an attorney specializing in corporate law with Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis, a job well-suited for a chess mind. He is married to former state girls’ chess champ and National Merit Scholar Dr. Yana Turovskaya Nagle, a newly minted pediatrician.
“Chess is a game of skill, experience, intelligence and luck — and experience is the most important,” he said.
That said, it might surprise some to know that after he won the 2012 state championship, he didn’t play competitively until he placed in a four-way tie for the top spot at the Minnesota Open earlier this month. A playoff March 15-17 among the top six from that tournament will determine the 2013 state champion.
“I know, I know, I should be out there more,” he said. Because of his intense and unpredictable legal work, most of his daily chess play is reviewing books, solving problems on his board at home or playing computer chess.
Nagle is among the nearly 2 percent of the federation’s 77,000 members who qualify as master, and he’s on the cusp of moving up to international master. Following that, he’ll be a grandmaster.
“I think I can make international master, but grandmaster? It’s possible, but most of them concentrate solely on playing and coaching,” he said. “They don’t do other work.”
He talked recently about his passion for chess and applying these skills to the real world.
Does your skill at chess make you a better lawyer? “Yes, but probably not directly. To succeed in chess you need intense focus, patience, emotional strength and thinking ahead — poise under pressure. And physical strength, too — I try to exercise more before a tournament. I play two six- or seven-hour games at a tournament, and I can be wrung out. Then I may return for another day of play. It’s all good training for mergers and acquisitions.”
When do you expect to peak as a chess player? “Chess pros peak at around 30, then may start to decline — still strong players, but with not quite the edge they had. I might improve for another 10 years because I didn’t go the professional route. I’ve got more to learn. ”
How many moves ahead do you see in a game? “It varies, even within a game. Sometimes there are so many choices on the board it’s pointless to go too deep. Other times I’m five or six moves ahead.”
What makes a master? “There’s something about the qualitative way the mind works. You’re not born with it. It’s years of practice. You find you can see in a glance the essential features of a position on the board. A good amateur can work hard to see the same thing a master does instantly.”
Then how do some kids get so good at chess? “Kids learn phenomenally fast. Think how quickly kids pick up language. A kid who learns the rules and patterns of chess and plays good players may whomp a guy who’s gone to the chess club for 40 years but never improved. To be a grandmaster, you almost have to start as a kid and catch the passion that takes you deeper into the game.”
How can an average adult get good? “You do the practice. You can read books, practice classic patterns, play against your computer, go to chess clubs, enter tournaments, get coaching, and most important, have a good time. You won’t hit the top, but you’ll improve.”
What have you sacrificed to become a chess master? “I don’t feel like I sacrificed. Sure, I had to choose between the high school dance or a night at the chess club, things like that. Now I’m really sacrificing chess for my job. Legal work usually is fun. Chess always is.”
What’s next for you? “I want to continue to improve. You do that by playing very good players, but also by teaching. I understand what I do, but I’m not always sure why. I’d like to take on some students — especially very good kids — and see what we both can learn.”