Who Is Fpawn?

      Welcome to my biography page for fellow chess players and fans. I am an Engineering and Math graduate who enjoys acquiring knowledge (science, math, history, current events) and playing chess while cruising around in a motorized red and black wheelchair. I teach chess to intermediate and advanced students in Northern California, many classes online and sometimes face-to-face. Whenever I can, I still partake in the thrill of pushing wood at tournaments.


      I was born in Munich, Germany in 1974, home of the Oktoberfest! Indeed, I am a bona fide Münchner Kindl. My parents and I lived in the shadows of the stadium for the 1972 Olympic Games. I also spent a good deal of time with my paternal grandmother, growing up in the shadows of the beautiful Bavarian Alps.



      My family moved to the United States in 1980, shortly after my 6th birthday. Dad worked as a bridge engineer for the Seven Mile Bridge on the Keys and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across the mouth of Tampa Bay. Starting 1st grade, I quickly learned to speak English and attended regular classes. For grades 3 through 12, my family lived in St. Petersburg and I went to Bay Vista Elementary (3rd to 5th), Transfiguration Catholic School (6th to 8th) and St. Petersburg High School (9th to 12th). I graduated summa cum laude from the highly ranked International Baccalaureate program at SPHS in 1992, with higher level subjects Math, Physics and English. Go Green Devils!


      I learned to play chess at a young age, approximately 7 or 8 years old. My Dad showed me how to play, but he never let me win. Eventually, I beat my chess computer at the weakest levels and gradually moved up in skill. Finally, I beat Dad on a family vacation to the Appalachian Mountains. He hates to lose, and soon he refused to play me! Smart guy...

      At SPHS, I joined the chess club run by my favorite Math teacher. Although I was the best player at the school, I doubt that I was more than 1000 level at that time. Looking back today, I am shocked by my old chess motto: When in doubt, push a pawn!?

      One summer weekend, my Dad and I visited the St. Petersburg Chess Club at their building on the other side of town. Unfortunately, only two old guys were present when we dropped in. They played blitz, talking trash, cussing and (the worst for Dad) chain smoking. We immediately got a negative impression, and thus I never found out about organized chess or the US Chess Federation until years later. Remember, we did not have the Internet and Google back then! Today, I surmise there may have been a major tournament nearby that weekend. Sadly, those old wood-pushers at the club were not friendly to visitors.


      Upon graduating from high school in 1992, I followed my Dad across the country to Northern California. I began studying at the University of California at Davis. Five years and 230 units later, I graduated with highest honors in Mechanical Engineering with a double major of Mathematics and earned the M.S. Ghausi Medal. These five years were some of the best of my life. Let's Go Aggies!

      Midway through the first year, I stumbled across a newspaper story announcing the formation of a local chess club. I visited the group, joined the USCF, and played in my first rated tournament. My initial ratings were 1602 quick and 1023 regular. At the end of 1993, I was an established player rated 1682 quick and 1535 regular. By then, I began attending the much larger Sacramento Chess Club and established my roots.

      For graduate school, I turned down UC Berkeley and moved across the Bay to Stanford University. My primary academic and research interests were modeling and simulating mechanical systems, such as the human body. I studied a computational model of human muscle incorporating concepts of continuum mechanics, distributed control, and the finite element method. I was hoping to have a Ph.D. within a few years, but the stress of school became too much for me. At least, I learned a lot about science and life in general, and ended up with a M.S. in Biomechanical Engineering. Go Cardinal! Beat Cal!

      At Stanford, I was honored to play on the chess club team. I sat mostly on board 3 or 4 at intercollegiate competitions, including the Pan Am Intercollegiate each December and the Final Four in April. We played tournaments in Bowling Green, Toronto, Dallas, Milwaukee and Miami, plus a much-hyped match against superpower UMBC in Baltimore (we drew). My master teammates included Adrian Keatinge-Clay, Etan Ilfeld, Philip Wang and Jordy Mont-Reynaud.

      One non-academic highlight of my years at Stanford was helping to advertise a visit by reigning #1 Garry Kasparov in 1999. The 13th World Champion spoke about the "Limits of Human Performance" at a symposium, drawing an overflow crowd to the largest lecture hall on campus. I sat next to the world's best player at a formal dinner the night before, with representatives of the Stanford administration and Russian department. The following afternoon, I introduced Kasparov to local juniors at a fun Q & A session.

Teaching Chess in the 21st Century

      Since 2002, I taught private chess instructions to many talented youngsters, most living in Northern California. During a typical class, the student and I opened a board on the Skype. My first student, Daniel Schwarz, rose through the ranks from 1500 to master, setting an example for others to follow. I have been fortunate to teach quite a few future masters over the years. Some reached for the stars and achieved success at the world stage, winning the World Youth Championship for their age and earning the official FIDE title of International Master.

      Not all of my students reached 2200, but most found some degree of success at their skill level. A few picked up big prize checks at tournaments in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They won 1st place in Elementary, Middle School and High School at the annual CalChess Scholastics; indeed my students captured all three at the same time. The Saratoga High School team, comprised mostly of private students, dominated the High School division, taking home a half dozen state championship titles in a row. Check out my photo pages, many taken at tournaments with students.

      I enjoyed the challenge of teaching elite children, in part because they forced me to stay sharp in my own games. While other coaches may have possessed more chess knowledge than me, I shared an appreciation and love for the royal game. In order to improve, it is critical to have fun while playing on the 64 squares. As a teacher, my goals included developing chess analysis skills (for master games or your own) and knowing how to utilize tools (computer software) for self-improvement.

      Unlike many coaches, I felt a burning desire to challenge myself at tournaments. I became a master, and beat my first IM, on the same day at the old Chicago Chess Club in 2000. My playing strength and ratings increased to a peak of 2340 USCF and 2298 FIDE. I won club titles in Sacramento, Burlingame and at the famous Mechanics' Institute in San Francisco. The biggest success came at the 2006 US Open, again in Chicago, where I tied for 2nd place overall and qualified for the US Championship. I had a great time, but was overmatched at the 2007 US Championship in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Sadly, I sank into a prolonged slump and, although just 2 rating points away at one point, never reached the threshold of FIDE Master.


      While my disability stands out from my physical appearance, I try not to dwell on it much. Yes, I was born with four short limbs, a condition called quadrilateral phocomelia. I scoot around on the carpet at home and drive a power wheelchair in the outside world. Certainly, the birth defect limits my life, but for 36 years, I handled it quite well.

      Unfortunately, my life turned upside down in 2010 with the onset of a mysterious neurologic condition. Towards the end of the year, I had an operation on my spinal cord to stop the rapid deterioration of my bodily functions. The surgery was an apparent success because my symptoms stopped worsening, but the gradual restoration of my leg and abdominal muscle control did not follow as expected. Over the years, improvement has been painfully slow and incremental. One day may feel OK, and the next could be full of pain and spasm. It is terrible! I lost all of my independence, and now must rely on a caregiver for a lengthy morning routine plus medical care every 4-5 hours round the clock. The days of traveling around the West on my own are over. After so many years, now I am truly disabled!

© 2015 Michael Aigner