Maxwell Airman soars to top of chess world

by Jodi L. Jordan
Air Force Culture and Language Center Outreach Team

11/8/2013 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- In just 11 years, the finance officer for Maxwell's Air Force Culture and Language Center has risen to the top of his game in a sport that can take a lifetime to master.

First Lt. Gordon Randall recently brought home four trophies from the U.S. Armed Forces Open Chess Championship, held at Ft. Eustis, Va., Oct. 12-14.

Randall, a 2010 U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, bested 34 top players to achieve a four-way tie for first place in the main event, a two-way tie for first place in the 10-minute Blitz tournament, first place in the Bughouse team event, as well as earning the award for the best sacrifice move in the two-day tournament. The scores from this event pushed his ranking in the United States Chess Federation to "expert," and placed him in the top 5 percent of all chess players in the USCF.

Ratings like that don't just happen by accident in chess. His success is the result of hard work and countless hours of playing and studying chess. Randall typically spends one or two hours in self-study and practice every day, with two separate three-hour formal practice sessions each week. The arduous schedule is necessary, he said, if you want to be the best.

"To be great at something, you have to want it," he said. "In chess, everything is right there, like it or not. There are no real tricks. The outcome depends on how hard you work and how deep you're willing to go."

Randall first began playing chess competitively for his high school team in Germantown, Md. Following a successful high school career, including helping his alma mater place in the top 10 chess schools in America, Randall entered the USAFA. He was a member of USAFA's chess team, although he said most of his playing was during his junior and senior year, when he "finally had time to play," he said with a smile.

This year marked his third trip to the U.S. Armed Forces Open, and it brought back fond memories - and a bit of redemption - for the lieutenant.

"One of the best things from this tournament was beating two of the West Point cadets. We had a big rivalry when I competed as a cadet back in 2008 and 2009," Randall said.

The wins didn't come easy, though.

"I barely won my first game. I only had 17 seconds left on the clock," he said, referring to the play clock, where taking more than the allotted time means an immediate loss.

Randall credits his work ethic for much of his success, but he also cites an ability to use

"selective memory" as important to being a winning player. Where much of the conventional wisdom about chess focuses on memory skills, Randall has a different perspective.

"It's a game of memory, but it's also a game of forgetting," he said. "If you go into a game thinking about what happened in the last game, you'll make mistakes. Maybe you're playing someone who's beat you before, or you're playing someone you've lost to, that result doesn't matter. You've got to play one game at a time."

The big wins at the USAFO are just another stepping stone for Randall, who now sets his sights on the reaching the "Master" level - a level that is currently populated by the top two percent of all USCF players. He estimates that he'll reach that goal by 2015, if, he says, he continues to work hard.

"It's just going to take more time, more dedication," he said.

He'll have many opportunities to gain those points, including as a member of the U.S. team competing at the NATO chess championship in August 2014, and at next year's USAFO tournament, which he's been selected to organize.

In addition to playing competitively, Randall is also very active in his local chess community. Twice a week, he and other members of the Montgomery Chess Club meet at local venues for open play. One of those weekly sessions is primarily focused on young or new players, an endeavor close to Randall's heart.

"I want people to learn about and to play the game," he said. "It helps with critical thinking, proven day in and day out. It makes you think of first-, second- and third-order effects subconsciously. It teaches you how to use what you have to succeed."

Randall supports the AFCLC's Language Enabled Airman Program. More than 1,000 Airmen from across the Air Force participate in LEAP, and Randall manages the travel costs associated for their training.

His proficiency in chess is no surprise to his supervisor, Zachary Hickman, the AFCLC's Language Division chief.

"Since coming to the AFCLC last year, it's been evident that Lt. Randall takes learning very seriously. He's worked hard to understand the ins and outs of our work," Hickman said. "It's clear he knows understanding his job is something he can't 'pawn' off to someone else."

For more information about the sport, see