Some folks saw him riding his bike through town. They saw he was most likely homeless and they thought no more of him.
Until one day, Randy told me his story. It’s as tragic as any Shakespeare play and twice as real.
I wrote it up for my local newspaper and I hope it sees its day there. But I also want to share it here because Randy and his hero’s journey need to be seen anywhere they can be. It is a story of incredible suffering, patience and eventual peace:
Sitting in the shade of a tree at Lithia Park, any day of the week and most times of the day, Randy Dollinger has his chess board out. A small sign reads “Chess?”
The peaceful scene gives no clue as to the long road Randy has traveled. “I always wanted to make money with chess, somehow,” the 63 year old Ashland resident tells me while waiting for his next student. That yearning was born of a short, tragedy infused career in the cut throat competitive world of tournament chess. It is as unforgiving as it is unyielding.
He began playing chess in his native North Carolina at the age of 12. Within two years he rose through the fierce world of tournament chess to eventually become the state champion at 17, ranked tenth in the nation.
Randy was among the few young, elite champions of his day, even spending time with international chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. “He showed me an opening which helped me win a tournament. He came to watch me play.” He smiles, “Sometimes people can’t believe that story. But it’s true.”
At the pinnacle of his playing Randy had one of his games published. “Two pages in Chess Life. It went all over the world.”
“ I played in all the great cities, I played in 30 tournaments.” He eventually became the only chess player with the ranking of “expert” bestowed by the US Chess Federation in his home state. “People came from all over the East Coast to watch me play.”
He was unstoppable until five years after he began it ended- in the seat of his friend’s car. “I was 17. The passenger in a car, “ he says slowly and thoughtfully. “We got into a wreck. My friend lost control and ran into a tree.”
Randy was injured in a life altering way. “I was in a coma for a week. Then the doctor said it’d be a couple years before my brain would be back in order before I could do the things I had been doing.”
But he couldn’t wait. He lost patience. He had to get back in the game. He went against his doctors orders and went back to playing. “I came to tournaments with my head bandaged, walking on crutches.”
He could not accept it. Randy feared if he took too much time out he would be forgotten.
“I started playing too fast. I lost tournaments, I lost rating points.” Randy leans in and tells the story which changed his life. He is not dramatic but matter of fact and precise. He describes being in a tournament with a crowd looking on and suddenly going blank, not knowing what to do. He had never experienced that before. “I just understood the game right away. I always knew it and then I suddenly just couldn’t get it to work. I would have these moments where I would freeze.”
His ranking fell. His sponsors withered. At 17, he felt finished.
“I stopped playing. It was too disappointing.”
Randy began traveling, trying to find himself outside of chess. He became a meditation student, a wonderer and often homeless. He came to Ashland 25 years ago, much of that time he camped outside and sought refuge in coffee shops.
But he never fully gave up on chess. “Ive been studying the game.”
Most people never knew his story. Briefly he was re-discovered but once again the game left him wounded.
He was offered a sponsorship to play a tournament in Grants Pass more than a decade ago. “I did great. I won second place. People gave me offers to play and teach.” But he couldn’t do it. “All the fear and apprehension came back. I literally had a horrible headache for three days. I couldn’t sleep.”
He figured it was too much. He gave up his dream again.
“I studied but hardly ever played. I wouldn’t play. I couldn’t do it.”
Randy says despite all the disappointment and pain he still had the hope that somehow, one day the game would come back to him.
“Then there was this brainstorm. Just set up my chess board and tell people I’ll teach for compensation.”
He sits on a bench most every day, all day, just within the sound of the park’s cellist with his board, hoping for a game.
“I’m enjoying it again. I love it, plus I’m actually making a little money.” He works by donation. He offers a game for a suggested five dollars and ten gets you a lesson from the master.
His years of patience shows. “Everything revolves around the four main squares in the middle,” he tells a student who stopped her stroll to play. “Every square means something. That’s the power of the game.”
Oakland resident Emily Santiago says in twenty minutes he improved her game. “He’s completely changed my strategy for playing. Chess is like life, I have to keep my most powerful pieces and leverage them, “ she says while staring intently at the board. “I learned to delay gratification.”
Randy’s life story could be told as one of delayed gratification. He’s waited decades for chess to pay him back for his devotion. “I wanted to support myself with chess. 45 years later and I’m finally doing it.”
Marcus Brown is nine. He’s visiting with his family from Arizona. The chess board is clearly calling to him as he circles Randy, looking at the pieces. Randy says he loves teaching children because he knows the power of the game. “I think it’s important to build skills, to plan and strategize,” says his mother Bobbie. Marcus is not talking, he is only sitting with the pieces and Randy. “Every game is now,” says Randy as he interrupts our discussion. “I have to concentrate.”
Twenty minutes later Marcus leaves the table. “That was great! Good job,” Randy encourages his student. Takes a sip of water and a breath. “I never knew how to give this gift to society. The only way to do it is to set up my board and wait. It requires me to be patient. You have to be patient in life and chess.”
He smiles. His green eyes shine under his gold wire rimmed glasses looking the part of the master. His fingers graze the pieces. He looks up and says to a couple passing by, “You want to play chess?”