With a decisive 3.5 – .5 victory over his French adversary, Gata Kamsky of Brighton Beach now proceeds to the second and final round of the qualifying matches for September’s World Chess Championship in Mexico City. The final round—a six-game match—will take place in Elista, Kalmykia, from June 6 to 14. Kamsky’s success is impressive because, after a six-year absence from tournament chess, he has clawed his way back with a vengeance.
Kamsky, who defected from Siberia to the United States in 1989, is the second American to make a triumphant comeback after a long hiatus from tournament chess. Former women’s world champion Susan Polgar took an eight-and-a-half-year break from international competition before leading the U.S. Women’s team to a silver medal in the 2004 Chess Olympiad in Calvia, Spain.
Both Kamsky and Polgar’s absences from chess were voluntary. Not so for Alexander FyodorovichIlyin-Genevsky, a master whose story I tell in my book King’s Gambit: A Father, a Son, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.
Ilyin-Genevsky convinced Moscow to support the game and organized the first Soviet Championship in 1920. As a player he was not among Russia’s very best (although he was skilled enough to be the three-time champion of Leningrad and to defeat Capablanca once in 1925), but he had the curious distinction of being the only known master who had to learn the game twice from scratch, because a brain injury in World War I erased his memory of how the pieces moved.
During the Russian Revolution, when food shortages, power outages, and sub-zero temperatures brought Moscow to a standstill, Ilyin-Genevsky buried himself in chess. Even after the central chess club—along with the city’s theaters, and other venues of entertainment—had been destroyed, he would hike through the frigid, blacked-out city to play against a dozen other chess addicts in a basement apartment illuminated by match light.