MICHAEL CHEN: BEYOND STRATEGY

by Apr 24, 2020Paddle Profiles0 comments

24

April, 2020
By Peter Keiser
Paddle Profiles
The 2020 Nationals had finished. Now it was time for the rest of us to get back on the courts, to play within our own circles, our own tournaments, to move forward holding for awhile at least, the memories of amazing gets and spectacular rallies laid on us by the best of the best. And so we were to move on to the mid-month Wilton Y Open. And from there to the Winnable “Bs” in New Jersey at the end of March. Coronavirus ended all that, sorrowfully so. But in the midst of this pandemic, we need good stories. And when we talk about Winnable Bs, there is a good one; one that involves a team of legendary local “B” players and the 33 straight B tournament matches they won between 2011 and 2015 including six straight tournament victories with a skein ending loss in the finals of the seventh. 33 straight tournament match wins at the “B” level. So who cares? Why should anyone write about that? Let’s take a look and see why. Well, the B player is clearly not the best of the best. Nor is he or she the best of the rest i.e. those A-rated players who can compete at a high level but are a cut below the best of the best. These players are awfully good though, and often can hang with the elite. When you get to the B group you are really talking about the “meat and potatoes” rest of us. You are talking about Platform Tennis’ “Common Man/ Woman”. And a lot of people occupy that category. Arguably, B players comprise the largest slice of the paddle player pie. As such, they as much or more than any group form the backbone of the sport. It is where you find the rich blend of competition, passion, compassion, laughter and camaraderie at its zenith. You also find within such an enormous demographic a boat load of competition. No, these players will never be at the top. But there are scads of them, many of whom toggle between high-B and low-A ability, that vie for tournament championships at the B level. Under these circumstances, wresting 33 in a row is no mean feat, and there is good reason to take it seriously in spite of the frolicsome emphasis often placed on it by its perpetrators, Junius Clark and Michael Chen. Of course, when they do mention the streak, they are roundly pooh-poohed in the paddle hut by their local, Fairfield County, CT clubhouse cronies. But that should not diminish the pair’s achievement nor impede it from rising above a local curiosity.
Previously, I have written about one of the partners, Junius Clark. Now it is time to shine the spotlight on the other, Michael Chen. Both Clark and Chen had a love of sports as they grew up. Clark, however, was encouraged to follow his athletic hankerings; participating in organized physical activity and team play from the time he was a kid, through high school and college.

Chen did not have that kind of support. Both his parents had fled from Communist China at the end of World War II. His father would graduate from the University of Michigan, wind up with a PhD from Columbia in engineering and subsequently complete a 28-year career at IBM.

Chen’s mother would also attend Columbia getting an MS in Finance. In doing so, she became the first woman to receive a graduate degree from what would become the Columbia Business School. She would spend the rest of her professional career in the Finance Department of Columbia University.

There was a high priority placed on education and the arts. Born and raised in Manhattan, Chen lived the first 17-years of his life on Claremont Avenue right near Columbia and the Manhattan School of music. Early on, he took piano lessons and in the third grade he added voice instruction to his daily regimen. In the fourth grade, he entered the prestigious Collegiate School from which he would graduate having shown a serious aptitude for mathematics.

“When I was a senior at Collegiate, I qualified to take a freshman Math class at Columbia,” he remembers. “When I looked out the classroom window at Columbia, I could see both my parents watching from another building where at the time they both had offices. They were checking to see if I was in class. I decided to go elsewhere for college.”

A personal struggle between Chen and his parents began early. In his words, it was “a struggle between two cultures.” On the one hand you had tradition bound family expectations, strictly enforced, that saw sports as exercise or at best, a little treat to be dispensed infrequently if at all. At worst, it represented an out and out threat to any real kind of achievement or success.

Then there was Michael. “All I wanted to do was play sports,” he says. “My first sporting event was when my father took me to a New York Rangers game. I was seven years old. It was the last regular game of the 1970 season. The Rangers had to win, Montreal had to lose and the Rangers had to score enough goals to have more for the season than the Canadians in case of a tiebreaker. New York beat Detroit, 9-5. Montreal lost [to Chicago], 10-2 and the Rangers were in. 50 years later, it is being called the greatest regular season game in the history of the NHL.

“Another time, we got tickets to The Mayor’s Trophy game. It was an exhibition game between the Yankees and the Mets. I was so happy to be there. But during the game, I got sick. That ruined it especially for my sister who was a Mets fan. Even with getting sick, Chen still refers to both the hockey and baseball games as “some of the best moments of my life”.

His love of hockey and the Rangers in particular was used as an incentive for him to practice the piano. At the time, the Rangers televised their road games via network TV. You could only get home games on cable. “I loved listening to the Rangers on my radio and watching them on TV too. There was a lady in our building who had MSG [which broadcast all Knick and Ranger home games] and would let me watch. If I practiced the piano for an hour, my parents would allow me to go watch the Rangers on her TV.”

While Chen spent most of his childhood in Manhattan, he did attend a summer camp when he was a high school sophomore. Chen called it “a cool sports camp”. It was there that “a guy came up to me and asked:
‘Would you like to play tennis?’”

“I had never really played before and I got crushed by him,” says Chen. “But I wanted to prove that I could beat this guy. Chen got his chance at an end of camp tournament. He was ranked #16 and the fellow who crushed him was #1. Chen describes both the elation and realization he felt:” I beat him; I beat the number one cede. I can play tennis!” It was an affirmation of both his level of play and the fact that he was self-taught. “I was never taught anything, didn’t have any lessons. I picked up everything by myself.”

The independence Chen exhibited in pursuit of his passion for sports only increased as he grew older. His will to be free of other familial and cultural constraints began to assert itself as well. “I think I was in seventh or eighth grade when my best friend invited me to his co-ed birthday party. I wasn’t allowed to go.” It wasn’t a great way to kick off the vagaries of adolescent-teenage angst and rebellion. “I rebelled,” Chen says. “Starting when I was 15, after school I hung out in Times Square playing video games with friends. I learned to grow up fast on the streets of New York City.”

The one sport that finally got the OK was wrestling. He enjoyed success in both his junior and senior year earning the sobriquet “Rubber Man” as he grew three inches but gained only seven pounds, tipping the scale at 115-lbs by graduation. “You were just a single participant going against your opponent. There was nobody to fall back on. You were out there on your own. I think it was the hardest thing to do in my life. It made me mentally tough.” It was a critical time in Chen’s maturation and according to him, he acquired two important personal traits: “mental toughness and street smarts.”

During this time, however, the undercurrents of an adversarial, intransigent relationship between Chen and his mother bubbled to the surface. “I didn’t interact with my mother for two years (eleventh and twelfth grade). The situation came to a head when he was admitted to the University of Rochester.

“I wanted to go. My father supported my decision but my mother didn’t want me to go away from home. I said I was going to go and even if it wasn’t to Rochester, I would leave home anyway. “ This strategy and the will behind it was not lost on Chen’s mother. “One of the most powerful ways my mother showed me her love was letting me go to Rochester,” he says.

Chen had a year of college under his belt when circumstances hit him with another potentially life altering incident. By the end of his freshman year, he had exhausted the math courses available to him. He was then awarded a paid Teaching Assistant job, and it was in this capacity that he would meet Jeanette, a student in the class he instructed.

There would be a courtship and then the inevitable invitation extended by the girl and her parents to meet a serious suitor. The ensuing visit did not go well. “We went down to Maryland to meet Jeanette’s parents. I was cocky, making jokes, probably trying to act older than my age. Later in the evening, she went to speak with her parents about me. When she came back to tell me what happened, she told me that her parents didn’t want her to see me or speak to me, again. That left her having to make a choice between her family and me.”

The finality and thoroughness of the rejection could have floored Chen. Instead, he developed a plan. But in order for it to work, he would have to rely on an extraordinarily courageous leap of faith by his wife to be, Jeanette. She made the decision to go with him severing her ties with her family and the known and familiar while still a teenager.

At this point, Chen received aid and comfort from an unlikely ally – his mother. “Taking Jeanette in and accepting her was the second big way my mother showed her love to me.” It was an enviable display of support, this genuine commitment to a pair of youngsters. And all of this before Chen ever knew what a paddle tennis racquet was!

And he wouldn’t really find out until 15 years or so later – after he finished undergraduate work at Rochester, after completion of the Cornell Business School and after he set sail on a career path that began at IBM.

In the early ‘90s, Chen would move from Stamford, CT to nearby New Canaan where he put down roots and lives today. At that time, his major forms of physical activity were tennis, working out and playing softball. “A lot of the softball guys said that paddle was fun,” remembers Chen. But he didn’t get introduced to the game until the late 1990’s.

For four or five years he played mostly pick-up matches, nothing really competitive. “In the fall of 2003, we decided to create our own New Canaan league with the idea of “Let’s make it fun. Let’s make it an open that anybody can win. Steve Cacaam was the leader and we had one division of twelve teams.”

Subsequent years saw Chen venturing forward with his game, further whetting his already burgeoning competitive appetite. He joined the Darien Town team where he met Clark, travelled to a Rhode Island Invitational, and in 2008, joined, the Wilton YMCA. At the Y, he would play both on Saturdays with a Division I Fairfield County Platform Tennis League team and intramurally on Wednesday nights. “That’s when I took it more seriously.”

In 2011, after successful seasons with multiple partners in the Wilton Y’s top division, Chen teamed up with Clark and continued to win. “We knew we could be good when we beat Dave Tuttle and Frank Gallagher a couple of Wee Burn legends in 2009,” Chen says. “That’s when we got noticed.”

Two years later, the pair won their first “B” title and in so doing, began their string of 33 successive match victories. They would win Sound Shore B in 2012 and the New Jersey Winnable B’s three consecutive years (2012,2013,2014). “In 2015, we lost the finals of the New Jersey Winnable B’s to Max Gumport and Ari Borinsky so the streak ended.”

While Chen spent blocks of time on the “tournament circuit “, his greater focus centered on local play, specifically his captaincies of Thursday night and Saturday morning Division I teams in Fairfield County. To this day, he believes his greatest paddle achievement is the bond he has created among the players of his Thursday night team.

“Of all the things I’ve done with paddle, I’m proudest of how close our Thursday night team is,” he says. “I’ve always loved team sports and how you can be best friends on and off the field. When I became captain, I made two rules for the people who would play on the team.”

“The first rule was nobody leaves after they complete their match. Everybody watches the rest of the team’s matches. If you can’t stay to the end, I don’t want you.” Chen wanted the team to socialize after the matches as well. “ The first year people didn’t hang out that much. But now, we do it every Thursday night.”

“The second rule was that you had to play with anybody at any line. It meant that you had to play with different partners so everyone could get to play. I picked good players and good teammates and it wouldn’t be fair not to rotate all of them on different lines.”

What Chen did was build a closeness on the court that easily spilled over to shared friendships and good times off it. “After a match, we can all go out together, have food, drinks and celebrate close friends. Ten people laughing and enjoying themselves as a group. When you’re celebrating people as people, it becomes a bond that is more than paddle. I’ve always loved community and that’s what we have. “

Paddle by Chen’s own admission has brought a kind of balance between two potentially conflicting elements of his nature. “There are two sides of me,” he says. “There is a side that honestly enjoys making people happy. Then there is the other side that is fiercely competitive.” In paddle tennis, he finds a way to reconcile the two.

The great thing about paddle for Chen is that it permits him to exercise, perhaps exorcise, within a social framework, his keen sense of competition. It is a framework that encourages, practically demands fair play as part of its DNA. Its “spirit of paddle “ as lynchpin tenet is no joke, no jaded, cliché-riddled, toothless mantra, but rather a vibrant, kinetic fact that creates a positive symbiosis between the sport and its participants. What you give to it, it will give back to you. And more.

So paddle fans, you tell me: What’s better than being out there on the court with your partner, playing a game as hard as you can, matching your wits, skills, and talent against like-minded opponents? Not only that! All of you know, as you battle away that the sport itself will honor your efforts by eliciting from you the fairness required to self-regulate the field of play. What a great feeling!

Of course, there will always be the cut- throat, win- at- all cost bozos who spit on the simple notion of sportsmanship. That’s the way of the world. But what a relief it is to have paddle where the momentum is to do the right thing – to make the call against
yourself, to acknowledge a little better than grudgingly an exceptional play by the other team (excepting net dribblers) – inducing you to play the right way rather than the wrong. It is a process that lays the groundwork for the joy so much a fabric of the game. Or in the words of Thomas Todd: “The camaraderie is so great- I mean there’s so much kidding going on, it makes you feel good to play.”

As Chen puts his own experience so succinctly: “What started as an outlet for competition morphed into an opportunity that’s community.”

Michael Chen has an abiding sense of fairness, and he believes strongly that playing paddle tennis encourages him to expand it. It is a fairness that has been both tested and annealed in the crucible of corporate culture. Over a 25- year span, he climbed the ladder reaching divisional President and CEO at both General Electric and NBC Universal. He knows the breadth and reach of corporate politicking and has bumped up against the gaping void of integrity too often rewarded by the seamy underbelly of Big Business.

“In the corporate world there is a lot of talk about teams, teamwork and teammates. But I found that I spent time trying to find out within my own company who was my teammate and who was my competitor, who was really on my side or who was a backstabber.”

“Paddle encourages you to be a good partner and teammate,” continues Chen. “Your teammate is your teammate. He has your back or you don’t win. In corporate, that’s not always the case. During the recession, the corporate world was too vicious with so many ruthless corporate games. That’s why I walked away from business at the height of my career and started my own company.”

“Paddle has taught me mental toughness,” he says. Well, yes there is no doubt it has. But it is equally true that he provided good wood for the game to work on. Starting early on in life, Chen exhibited sobering amounts of mental toughness as he carved out a life of his own, straddling two cultures as he did so.

Furthermore, though his work life rewarded him handsomely for his diligence, time, smarts and strategic thinking (“you have to think three or four steps ahead”) it was not without its stresses. His personal life became wonderfully enhanced but also additionally complicated by the arrival of four sons. He would also bring his parents to live with his family in New Canaan making it a household of nine people. There was a lot going on.

In 2006, his mother died. He had tried and succeeded in giving her the same mix of consideration and kindness she had bestowed on her mother. “A third big way my mother showed her love to me was how she took care of her mother, my grandmother. “

“I was young but I remember how much time my mother spent with my grandmother, cleaning her apartment, making sure she had enough to eat, just really looking after her. Then she took care of my grandmother by visiting her everyday at the nursing care home for the two years before my grandmother passed away.”

If the seas were a little choppy at this point in his life, they got a quantum leap rougher. Beginning in 2008, Chen experienced turbulence on the job that culminated in Comcast taking over his NBC News division in 2011. “Those three years (2009-2011) were the worst of my corporate career. I felt humbled. It was the first time I ever thought I was irrelevant.”

During this time of crisis, Chen admits that his mental toughness needed some buttressing. “They were terrible years in my life, but I came through them with the help of a spiritual alignment with God.”

Already, an active participant of Grace Community Church in New Canaan, some “chance “ encounters served to further strengthen his faith. In one instance during the tougher times when Jeanette and Chen’s mother were struggling to live under the same roof, the pastor of the church, Cliff Knechtle suggested that Chen’s mother might have OBD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). In fact she did, and the treatment of it helped immeasurably to heal the relationship between daughter and mother –in-law.

Another “chance” encounter had brought to Michael and Jeanette a home health care aid to help his Mom and Dad when they were ill. Unbeknownst to Michael, the woman had been a doctor in China and understood OCD issues. Reflecting on these “coincidences” especially in a time of need revitalized and inspired within him further devotion to his secular beliefs.

He weathered the temporal storm and at one point, got back into the corporate side of things. But after a year, he left it, venturing forth on his own to start his own strategic advisory company, Chen and Associates. That was 2013 and the successful enterprise continues to follow a trajectory that reads “This side up.”

There are parallels between his approach to strategic planning as a business and how he approaches the game of paddle. He refers to them often. “With paddle there are three major elements I look at constantly: physical skill, strategic thinking and mental toughness. There is a fourth too, that I learned from paddle – patience. But without being mentally tough, you won’t have the patience to be strategic.” Setting physical skill aside, he has found this to be true in business as well, from finding a new job to securing clients for his business.

“There are so many things I love about paddle,” says Chen. “Every game is like market dynamics –conditions change and are different, competition is different. You’re constantly evaluating your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses as well as your own. And as part of your strategy, it is good to keep in mind that the more you respect your opponent, the better off you’ll be.”

About the game itself, Chen revels in the fact that “ regular “ tennis features power and speed, while paddle tennis emphasizes a balance between the two.

Finally, he enjoys it as a game of doubles thus presenting a strategist’s heaven on earth replete with opportunities for every kind of adjustment, trial and error, defense and offense – all usually employed on the run. According to Chen, being in sync with your partner is one of the greatest feelings in paddle. There are so many ways you can motivate and be motivated, uplift and be uplifted, adapt your game and have it adapted to. It helps also if both partners have had a common
experience that impacts directly on their game. Chen and Clark were high school varsity wrestlers and that may account for the never say die, we’ll never give in attitude they both share and understand.

Being a good teammate matters to Chen, significantly. He listens with understanding, offers advice in a positive manner, and does everything he can to make his partner feel good about himself and about the game. He brings the same qualities to bear in both his secular and non-secular involvement and activity.

“At this point in my career, it’s about giving back. How I can give back to the community gives me the most satisfaction these days.” He has found numerous ways to do so including projects ranging from assisting with people in need at his church to serving on the Advisory Council at his graduate alma mater, The Cornell University Johnson School of Graduate Management.

Furthermore, in this time of crisis, as vice chair of the Grace Farms Foundation he helps oversee the provision and donation of 500,000 PPE (personal protection equipment) to hospitals and healthcare workers in the fight against the Covid-19 virus.

Michael Chen’s life so far has been quite a journey and paddle tennis has been a big part of it. He is, as we all are, a mass of contradictions. He was a mathematics and then a finance guy but always considered himself a people person. He can present a detached almost aloof air on the court that more often than not masks an intense focus. He can be seen as calculating and over serious even as he generates good will, good humor and good times. But one thing is for certain. If you watch him after the warm ups are over, after serves have been taken and after he’s assumed his stance at net waiting for his partner to serve; after all that, if you look closely you just might see the little boy dancing inside him saying “I’m doing just what I always wanted to do!”

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