After a childhood shaped by mob violence, Troy Roberts funneled his creativity and intellect into the game of chess, becoming a Life Master while navigating the mood episodes of bipolar.
Troy Roberts, 63, fended off his share of “checkmates” in life, emerging triumphant from a childhood shaped by the mob, violence, insecurity, and the “gift” of bipolar from both parents. Due in no small part to his resilience and ability to project several moves ahead, Roberts built a successful business selling high-end, decorative hardware and plumbing fixtures; earned the title of Life Master in chess; then wrote his first book, Next Move: My Terrible, Wonderful Bipolar Life. Meet the man behind the chess moves here.
This is your first book, yet it doesn’t read like a beginner’s initial try. How’d you do that?
I had a great story to tell and that’s it. I don’t consider myself a writer, because most writers live for writing, but not me. I had 30 years to think about the story, and it took me five years to write the book. I write it like you’re a friend and I’m telling you what happened.
So, what do you think of Next Move now? And don’t be shy…
It is best summed up by Ken Wells, author of Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou, who says: “Next Move is a roller-coaster ride of a read, alternately funny, sad, profane, and at times thoroughly audacious. And yet at its core, it’s a book about discovery—and the wisdom inherent in hard-learned life lessons.” I totally agree—and I’d add that it’s also a story of survival and resilience in the face of a serious mental health condition: bipolar II disorder.
What attracts you chess and inspired you to build your book around it?
Chess is like life and can teach us profound life lessons. It’s also like a symphony orchestra. It was my salvation, my coping mechanism, and it saved me from drugs and alcohol. Also, with bipolar, you can hyperfocus on something creative, and chess was that for me. It was, and it is, my life.
You write about your mother in a loving way. What did you get from her?
I’m proud of how strong she was. After making bad choices, she left prostitution and later became a nurse. I realized my mother, grandmother, and grandfather were very intelligent people, and I inherited that from them, as well as the gift of strength. They were late bloomers, as am I, with my diagnosis at age 52.
And your father?
I describe him as abusive, sociopathic, and psychotic. He was part of what I call “a human wave of toxicity.”
Given your upbringing, do you ever wonder how you survived?
Even some people who’ve written book reviews have reiterated how it was that I came out of it all relatively unscathed. But there were always problems under the surface, like my promiscuity and gambling, so the challenges of my childhood did manifest in certain ways. When my mother passed me off to the Jehovah’s Witnesses at age 13, their philosophy of “treat people the way you want to be treated” channeled me in different, positive directions—one of them being chess.
At several points, you didn’t want to continue living. How do you feel about those struggles today?
If I hadn’t made it this far in life, I couldn’t have “touched” all the people I have—and I love that I’ve been able to keep moving forward to do that.
Is there anything that still feels unsettling to you?
Most of all, I value my family—my amazing, wonderful wife I formerly didn’t fully appreciate. But I do now, and I love her deeply. I am proud of my daughter, Clara, who’s an amazing writer and is finishing her first book—and she also has bipolar. I love my miniature poodle, Millie—I am obsessed with her, in all good ways. And my love for everyone is constantly growing. I’m lucky to be alive, let alone functional. Even more so, successful.
What do you value and what do you want?
I want a quiet, simple life, watching Netflix movies. I love teaching chess and having students come to my Baltimore home. When I lost everything at one point, thankfully, I didn’t lose this beautiful house. I also value my career as an architectural and design rep educating designers for a major corporation that makes beautiful materials for homes and commercial applications.
You wrote that you were “born of conflict” and “it was perfect.” As if a life that wasn’t going to be easy was almost preordained. Why?
It was perfect—it was like a perfect storm. And it was perfect for the life that was I going to live, the life that was given to me.
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