whiteshark: <The Papa Gambit>
Mike Papa Jr. knows all there is to know about chess. In fact, he is a National Master. A National Master is the lowest of the three masters one can achieve as a chess player, but Mike can explain all the details of the game with ease and a sense of expertise.
“I can talk on chess forever,” he says.
Mike, a Thibodaux native and owner of Mike Papa’s Haircrafters, learned how to play chess at age seven. His father taught him the game. Mike grew up in his father’s barbershop shining shoes, sweeping the floor and playing chess or checkers against everyone who walked in who knew how to play.
Mike “started earning his stripes” in that barbershop.
“I can still remember some of those games,” he says. “I was playing with these grown men when I was just a kid. I can still recall how they would checkmate me. I didn’t have the experience, but I learned from it. They didn’t beat me the same way twice.”
As an eighth-grade student at E.D. White High School, Mike started a chess club. Chess was very popular at that time because of Bobby Fischer, a Grand Master chess player who was on top of the game. The team enjoyed playing different high schools in the area. One of Mike’s fondest memories is of an invitational at Central Lafourche High School when his team went in two men short and still won the event.
Mike has played chess with people all over the world via postal mail. The National Master said it might take a few years to finish a game that way, naturally. He has played opponents in Czechoslovakia and England as well as against men serving in the U.S. armed services who were stationed around the world.
“It was interesting playing that way,” Mike says. “I still have all those games saved in storage from way back even in my high school days.”
Mike has also participated in chess competitions in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Fort Worth, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and throughout Louisiana and the South. In Philadelphia, he competed in a national tournament with “all the big boys.” He battled famous chess player Joshua Waitzkin, the prodigy who is the subject of the book and movie, “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”
“It was a really exciting game,” Mike recalls. “It was drawn, a tie. I had a chance to win it, but I was getting short on time ... so I went for the sure draw because he was famous. I published that game in my book.”
Mike published his own book on chess, “The Papa Gambit vs. the French Defense,” in 1991. There are copies of his book on at least four continents that Mike is aware of, and he is “kind of proud of that.”
Today, Mike continues to study chess. His last competition was about a year and a half ago in Baton Rouge. He placed second. He was most active between the ‘70s and the late ‘80s and does not compete as much now due to his lack of time. He still studies books and hopes to win a state championship someday.
“I think I play better now than I ever have,” he says. “I’ve been itching to get active. It’s just not as easy as it used to be. I will. I’m working on it. I’ve been studying for a reason.”
Mike teaches chess at the two e-learning schools in the Houma-Thibodaux area and also tutors those of all ages at his barbershop. He hopes to host a chess camp this summer.
“Chess is an interesting game for a person who likes a good mental challenge,” Mike says.
For the National Master, chess has been a good avenue for competing, expressing creativity, traveling, meeting people and experiencing personal growth.
Though it is hard to be original “these days” because so many games have been played, Mike says there is still room for creativity and originality, and that is what he enjoys the most.
“The more I studied back in the old days when I was active, I kind of started wanting to not learn many of the secrets of chess and kind of create and do my own thing,” he says. “I’m always trying to find an original position as early as possible.”
The feeling Mike gets when he is about to win a game is something
“Your heart starts beating fast ... you get that rush,” Mike says. “It’s just like that pump that lets you know you’re alive. It’s a good feeling.”