Archive for July, 2007

No Rest for the Chess Weary

July 21, 2007

Irina Krush, 23, the new U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, is making her way today from Stillwater, Oklahoma, the improbable site of the women’s championship, to Montreal, where she is playing in the seven-round 2007 MonRoi International Women’s Grand-Prix Finale. The first round is tomorrowshe doesn’t even get a day’s restand continues through July 28. Chess organizers generally do not consult each other about the timing of their tournaments, and so the professional chess circuit can be grueling or even maddeningly impossible. (A ridiculous example of the latter happened in May, when Gata Kamsky, the top rated American player, had to sit out the U.S. Championship, also in Stillwater, because of a prior commitment to play in a strong tournament in Europe.) OK, Krush’s hurried travel to Quebec is made easier by the flush of victoryand the fact that chessmate Pascal Charbonneau is waiting there to celebrate with her. They are both two-time champions, he of Canada and she of U.S. Women’s chess, of course.

While Irina was tearing up the chessboard in Stillwater, which is America’s newest chess mecca thanks to the generous sponsorship of Frank Berry, Pascal was playing his first two games in the 2007 Eighth Montreal Chess International, one of the strongest chess events ever held in North America. It is so strong that Pascal, rated 2503, is seeded last! He lost the first game and then winged his way through an opening he barely new (the White side of the Two Knight’s Defense) to achieve a draw against “Chucky,” the No. 1 seed Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine. Ivanchuk, the No. 4 player in the world, with a rating of 2762, outranked Pascal by an imposing 250 points.

Pascal told me that he was happy Irina had won. Now, he said, he could try to focus on his own remaining games in the tournament (there are seven more rounds, the last on July 28) rather than worrying about how she was doing.

Thanks to MonRoi, the games in both and 2007 MonRoi International Women’s Grand-Prix Finale.

Irina Krush is the new U.S. Women’s Chess Champion

July 20, 2007

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Irina Krush, 23, is the new U.S. Women’s Chess Champion. She went undefeated in nine rounds, winning five games and drawing four.  She won the title once before, when she was 14 and became the youngest U.S. Women’s Chess Champion ever, a record that still stands. In 2000, she continued to break records by becoming the first American woman to earn the title of international master. Irina emigrated from the Ukraine in 1988 before she turned five, the age at which her father taught her the game.

Irina’s life revolves around the game. “I am very chessy,” she once told me, when I was interviewing her for King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game. Irina is uncomfortable giving interviews—she’d rather be playing chess than talking about the game. But one morning at 3:00 A.M., when I was driving home from a tournament with her and Pascal Charbonneau, she was unusually philosophical. Of all the top players I know, she is the most idealistic about the power of chess to give meaning to life.

“Chess is a gift that civilization handed us,” she told me. “I believe chess can bring me closer to the spiritual part of this world in a way that simple material stuff can’t.” She sees no intrinsic reason why women can’t play as well as men but doubts whether there will ever be many women in chess. “You have to be obsessive to play the game well, and women aren’t as obsessive as men,” she said. “I’m not fanatically crazy about chess. I like the game but I’m not going to study it ten hours a day like many male grandmasters did when they were teenagers.”

Fabiano Curuana Breaks Record to Become America’s Youngest Chess Grandmaster!

July 20, 2007

Six years ago I watched legendary chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini (who is played by Ben Kingsley in “Searching for Bobby Fischer”) give a lesson to Fabiano Caruana, eight. I was observing the lesson because I was writing a profile of Bruce for The New Yorker.

Now, at the age of 14 years and 350 days, Fabiano has reached the chess stratosphere. He has become the country’s youngest grandmaster ever, breaking Hikaru Nakamura’s 2003 record of 15 years and 58 days. (Nakamura, for his part, had broken Bobby’s Fischer’s 1958 record by three months; Fischer’s record had stood for 44 years!) Congratulations Fabiano! In Chess Life Online, Jennifer Shahade reports on how Fabiano achieved the GM title (which still must be formally granted by FIDE, the world chess federation).

Here’s what I wrote in The New Yorker (June 4, 2001):

Fabiano Caruana, the top-ranked player in the country under the age of eleven, was happy to see Pandolfini when we reached his parents’ Park Slope apartment. He folded up his scooter and plopped down at a chess table in the front room. He is small for his years—he is eight—and has curly brown hair and bright, alert eyes. Pandolfini was eager to show Fabiano some new rook and pawn endings, but Fabiano insisted on playing a game. Pandolfini chose a cramped formation called the French Defense, a favorite of Botvinnik’s. Fabiano, a tenacious attacker, couldn’t sit still while he played; he stood up or slung both legs up on the table, and stared off into space while Pandolfini was thinking. When Pandolfini moved, he responded instantly with a move of his own.

“The little machine is eating me alive,” Pandolfini said, “but that pawn move can’t be right. It weakens the dark squares.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Fabiano said.

“Of course it does,” Pandolfini said.

“No, it doesn’t,” Fabiano repeated.

“Fabiano’s greatest strength,” Pandolfini told me later, after Fabiano had lost the game, “is that he has the courage of his convictions. He is stubborn and sticks to his ideas, come hell or high water. That serves him well in tournament play-you need to believe in yourself-but it makes him harder to teach. When he has a misguided idea, it’s not easy to talk him out of it.”

Chess Preparation, the Canadian way

July 19, 2007

Today, a very strong international chess tournament starts in Montreal, and my friend Pascal Charbonneau, a grandmaster and two-time champion of Canada, has been warming up this week by playing blitz games on the Internet against a world-class opponent. Each side had only a mind-whirling three minutes. (Three chapters in King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game feature Pascal’s struggle to earn the grandmaster title and achieve a respectable performance in the 2004 world championship in Libya. It was in Tripoli, when I wasn’t being harassed by Libyan intelligence agents, that I first saw how Pascal avoided serious preparation for his opponents by spending serious time on Internet speed chess.)

After seventeen moves in one of this week’s blitz games, Pascal reached the following position as White in the opening known as the Sicilian Dragon.


His opponent had “sacrificed the exchange”–given up a high-valued rook for a lesser-valued knight–to fracture the pawns around White’s king and accelerate an attack on Pascal’s king. Moreover, Black’s wily knight is both attacking Pascal’s corner rook and threatening to deliver a devastating check that would fork the queen. What did Pascal do?

When you want to know the rest of the game, please see chess problem answers.

U.S. Chess Queens Call a Truce

July 18, 2007

Irina Krush, the No. 1 seed in the 2007 U.S. Women’s Championship had a short draw last night with No. 2 seed Anna Zatonskih in the fourth round of the nine-round tourney in Oklahoma, an unlikely chess mecca. Krush’s official chess rating is only a hair higher than Zatonskih’s. I had expected Irina to go all out to beat her chief rival because she’ll need to lap Zatonskih, who is half a point ahead of her, if she is going to win the coveted title of U.S. Women’s Champion. But Zatonskih chose an unambitious response to Krush’s Queen’s Gambit Accepted and the two cerebral gladiators agreed to a very quick draw, on the 11th move.

Grandmaster Pascal Charbonneau, who watched the game from Montreal over the Internet, told me that the drawn position was dull. “Neither of them wanted to continue this boring game,” he said, “because there wasn’t much fight in the position.” He said that, even with the 1/2 point deficit, Irina stood well in the tournament, because she would have more Whites than Blacks in the remaining five rounds and had already faced her strongest adversaries.

Is the Twelfth World Chess Champion a Billionaire?

July 17, 2007

The current issue of New in Chess has a tantalizing blurb on whether Anatoly Karpov is a billionaire. In January, a Russian company called Petromir reported that they had found a new gas field in eastern Siberia, and financial analysts valued the company at more than one billion dollars. Karpov, the world chess champion from 1975 to 1985, was once the sole registered owner of Petromir, although it is unclear what stake he has in the company today. It would be interested if perhaps the greatest positional player in history was also by far the richest.

Garry KasparovKarpov’s arch-rival and successor on the world throneis doing pretty well on the speaking circuit, reportedly earning $50,000 a talk.  But that’s a rounding error and chump change if you’re a billionaire.

One View on Why Chess Players Have Difficulties in Relationships

July 14, 2007

Today marks the first anniversary of Aleksander Wojtkiewicz’s death, at the age or 43.  The Polish-American grandmaster lived in Baltimore and won his last five chess tournaments, including the prestigious World Open, played just a few days before he died of complications of alcoholism.  He was one of the most active and vibrant participants in the weekend tournament circuit in the United States.  

I have blogged here before about some of the funny stories that have been told about him. When I interviewed him for King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, I appreciated his honesty on the subject of cheating in chess and on other topics that weren’t always flattering to himself or other professional players.  “The longer you play chess, the more self-centered you become,” he told me. “It’s necessary in chess to put yourself first.  It’s easy to forget that anyone else exists.  That attitude doesn’t work in the rest of life.  That’s why few of us chess players can hold marriages.”

PC Fishing

July 13, 2007

Walking through a gourmet food market in Grand Central Station, I was struck by a sign promoting wild salmon.  “Line caught!” the sign trumpeted.

Now there is a legitimate food-safety debate about the relative merits of eating farm-raised fish versus free-ranging salmon.  At first blush, farmed salmon would seem to be the better choice because they have not bred in carcinogenic streams.  But the farm-fed fish actually turned out to have higher levels of carcinogens in them because of what they were fed, and they had undesirable traces of the antibiotics they’d been treated with so that they didn’t get sick in their over-crowded enclosures.

So wild fish are probably healthier (and generally tastier, not to mention free of the pink dye with which their raised-in-captivity cousins are sometimes injected).  But the issue of how a wild salmon is captured would seem to have little bearing on our physical well-being.   We’re not even talking about whether these wild fish had the satisfaction of a free-ranging lifethey all swam free.  We’re just talking about how they spent their very last moments.  It can’t matter to our own physical health whether a wild fish was “line caught”and heroically exited this world after a mano-a-mano struggle with a lone craggy angleror was instead unsportingly identified by radar and herded with hundreds of its hapless brethren into the mass grave of a mile-long net.  But I guess it could matter to our guilt-ridden mental health if we imagined the fish we’re about to eat as a noble fighter, nearly pulling the fisherman into the water, and not the victim of mass slaughter.

Chess in Montreal

July 11, 2007


Black just retreated his queen from e7 to e8, when I spotted a nice tactic. What should White play?

I was wondering around Montreal this weeked with my eight-year-son when we stumbled on two huge chess games that were being conducted in an open space known as Parc Émile-Gamelin, on the corner of rue Saint Catherine and rue Saint Hubert.  The space was made up of two-and-a-half-foot square stones.   An eight by eight array of these sqtones was demarcated as a chessboard, and every other square was colored.  The chessmen were huge plastic pieces that were filled with weighty material so that they would not tip over.

The man in charge asked me if I wanted to add my name to the list of players.  The wait was an hour, so we went off and ate French-Vietnamese food.  When we returned to the board, it was my turn, and I easily beat my adversary in a brisk game.  It was winner-take-all, so I played again, assisted by my son, whom I enlisted to move the pieces for me.  All in all, I won six or seven games in a row, until darkness encroached on my opportunity to shine further.  

My last opponent was the toughest, although he slipped up when he retreated his queen from e7 to e8 to reach the above postion.  I now had a killer tactic.

I took his pawn with my bishop and checked him.  Now if he captures the bishop with his pawn. my queen can take his rook.  Nor can he retreat his king to g8 becasue his queen will be undefended and I’ll capture it with my lady.  He was dead meat, and my son was happy that I was champion of Parc Émile-Gamelin.

Record $55,000 Bet in Impromptu Chess Match

July 10, 2007


Down the street from where I stay when I’m in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a watering hole called Barcade, in which twenty-something hipsters play classic video games like Ms. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong while nursing microbrewed beer. There’s a chalk board that lists the names of the people who have scored the highest at these games at Barcade.  For months after he moved out of Brooklyn, the name of Greg Shahadean international chess master who defected from I-can-barely-pay-the–rent chess to I-can-buy-the building pokerstill topped the list. 

Greg is a gamester par excellence.  Thus it did not surprise me to hear that, during the recent world series of poker in Las Vegas, Greg took time away from the cards to play a best two-out-of-three chess match in which he severely handicapped himself by playing without one of his rooks.  Greg and his opponent had 60 minutes apiece for each game, but Greg handicapped himself further by giving his adversary the right to purchase additional thinking time for $300 a minute.  There was $55,000 riding on the games—it was a bet between two third parties who, Greg told me, “knew nothing about chess.”  Greg stood to be cut in for $7,000 if he emerged victorious.  Indeed, he won easily, two games to zero. 

I will wager that 55K is a record wager for a chess game.  And who says chess doesn’t pay?

Here, for the chess cognoscente, are the moves;  Greg’s opponent, like the $55K bettors, proved not to know much about chess.  Greg was White in the first game and was missing the king rook. 

1.d4 d5 2.c4 Bf5 3.Nc3 c6 4.Bf4 e6 5.c5 Qa5 6.a3 Bxc5 7.dxc5 Qxc5 8.Rc1 d4 9.Ne4 Qa5+ 10.b4 Qxa3 11.Nd6+ Ke7 12.Qxd4 Nd7 13.e4 Bg6 14.Ra1 c5 15.Qxg7 Qxb4+ 16.Bd2 Qd4 17.Qxd4 cxd4 18.Bb4 Kf6 19.f4 e5 20.f5 Bh5 21.h3 Nh6 22.Bd2 Ke7 23.Nxb7 Rab8 24.Na5 Rhc8 25.Bxh6 f6 26.Bc1 Kf7 27.g4 Nc5 28.gxh5 Nxe4 29.Bc4+ Ke8 30.Ne2 Nd6 31.Be6 Rc7 32.Ba3 Ne4 33.Bd5 Nc5 34.Bc6+ Kf8 35.Bxc5+ Kg7 36.Bd6 Rxc6 37.Nxc6 Rb6 38.Rxa7+ Kh6 39.Bf8+ Kxh5 40.Rxh7+ Kg5 41.Ne7 Rb1+ 42.Kf2 d3 43.Bh6+ Kh4 44.Be3# 1-0

In the second game, Greg was Black and started without the queen rook.1.g3 d5 2.Bg2 e5 3.d3 c6 4.Nf3 Bd6 5.Bd2 Bg4 6.Nc3 Qc8 7.h3 Be6 8.e3 Nf6 9.Qe2 0-0 10.Ng5 Bd7 11.e4 d4 12.Nd1 c5 13.f4 h6 14.Nf3 Nh5 15.Qf2 exf4 16.Bxf4 Bxf4 17.gxf4 Nxf4 18.Qg3 Qc7 19.Qh2 f5 20.b3 fxe4 21.dxe4 Qa5+ 22.Nd2 Nc6 23.Rf1 g5 24.h4 Nb4 25.Rc1 Qa3 26.Rb1 Nxc2+ 27.Kf2 Qb4 28.Nf3 g4 29.Qg3 Kh7 30.a3 Qb6 31.Bh1 d3 32.Ne3 c4 33.Qxf4 Rxf4 34.Kg3 Qxe3 0-1