Although he is blind, James Slagle may have an edge over most chess players. As a computer scientist who works with artificial intelligence, Slagle studies decision-making processes.
"I've certainly thought about how people think and how they think up chess moves. In artificial intelligences I try to figure out how a smart person would solve a problem. That type of thought process-carries over when I play chess," said Slagle, 43, a resident of Marlow Heights and father of five children.
This kind of thinking heiped launch Slagle, who is head of the Naval Research Laboratory's computer science laboratory and president of the U.S. Brraille chess championship, besting 15 players, including the three top rated blind players in the country. He will represent the United States next spring at the International Braille Tournament in Belgium.
The slender, tanned scientist graduated summacum laude in mathematics from St. John's University in Brooklyn, then went on to get a masters and doctorate in math from Massachusettes Institute of Technology.
Math and chess go hand in hand, he said, because, "they're both logical and require planning, thinking ahead, keeping well organized and an ability to manage a lot of details."
Organization is one of his strengths. It helped him through college, where, unable to see the complicated mathematical equations the professors wrote on the blackboards. Slagle taped lectures then methodically went over them after class.
His organizational skills also helped when Slagle was a math instructor at MIT and Johns Hopkins University. Knowing that his lectures were designed more for the ear than for eye, because he could not rely on the blackboard, Slagle passed out worksheets to help his students follow his thoughts.
Asked if he ever feared that his blindness would prevent him from becoming a mathematician, Slagle said, "Until I met some failures, I wasn't going to assume I was going to fail." Did he ever fail?Slagle's "no" was quick. "People were kind," he added, speaking of the scholarship he received to undergraduate school, and the job he was offered at MIT's computer science lab when he was one of the few persons at his college who expressed an interest in the fledging field.
The job at MIT exposed him to pioneers in artificial intelligence and led him to seek higher degrees with an emphasis on that aspect of mathematics. Artificial intelligence is no the far fringes of computer science and includes projects that sound much like science fiction.
For example, Slagle is now working on developing a computer-operated mechanical arm that would perform rescue operations on the seas.
As part of their research, scientists sometimess problems. While this not a method Slagle uses, he is familiar with it since such chess problems are often included in the professional magazines he reads.
He even played chess with a computer once, and won easily. "It wasn't the best computer," he said, "It didn't give me much of a tussle."
What is difficult, Slagle says, is playing against sighted players. The main problem is that it taken blind players longer to make moves, since they have to touch the pieces in order to ascertain their directions.
That factor is taken into account in tournament for the blind, which usually have longer [WORD ILLEGIBLE] playing times than regular tournaments. In regular tournaments, no such concession is made for both players.
Sometimes being blind can be an advantage, such as when an opponent relies on body language for threatening gestures to intimidate, Slagle said Laughing, he told of an incident when his chess clipp played at a federal prison.
"I played the fellow and after we left, a teammate said, "Good thing you couldn't see that guy, Jim. He didn't just sit on the chair. He was a big, hulking player who crouched over the table." Slagle won that day.
It has been only inthe last 10 years that Slagle has become a true chess buff. He learned the sport when he was 8 - the same age that began to slowly go blindbecause of an incurable disease.
During an adolescence crammed with backyard basketball, before his vision completely dimmed, and study, and during graduate school where he combined a job with study, Slagle had little time, for chess.
He did hava a special set for blind players-wooden board on which the black squares are raised. It gathered dust most of the time, however, until Slagle met another blind chess who was starting a club for the blind.
Slage urges other blind persons who are interested in chess to contact him at his home: 4101 Holly Tree Rd., Marlow Heights.