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The Sporting Life of Yasser Seirawan : He's Slain the Image of Chess Champ as Introvert, but Can He Beat the Russians?

November 09, 1987|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

He is hale, hip and handsome.

He swims, skis, surfs. His forehand, they say, is as devastating in karate as it is in tennis. He is a hustler, a snorkeler and a notorious ladies' man, surfacing a few years back as Cosmo's "Bachelor of the Month." He even reads, voraciously.

And on the side, Yasser Seirawan plays a little chess.

Seirawan, Syrian-born but quintessentially Yank, is the U.S. chess champion. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, he will play in Software Toolworks' $100,000 American Open tournament at the LAX Marriott. Then he will return home to Seattle, to hibernate. To hunker down with his intellect, his imagination. To commune with an intuition that comes from . . . "I'm not sure; a bolt from the blue."

In February, in Canada, Seirawan will plunge into the arduous, exhausting Candidates Tournament, a competition among 14 of the 15 best chess players in the world. The survivor will vie for the world championship against Gary Kasparov or Anatoly Karpov, whoever comes first. (After six years, K & K, both of them Soviets, are still at it, competing for the title. "By now," says Seirawan, "they must really hate each other.")

Can Seirawan beat Kasparov and/or Karpov? "I already have," he replies, serenely, confidently.

Can he win the world championship, scheduled for 1990? "Yes."

Lay it on the line: Will he win the world championship? "Yes. I am going to do it."

Seirawan, at 27, is gregarious, witty, affable and outrageous enough to justify his self-characterization as "the John McEnroe of chess." He is opinionated as well--competition chess is no metier for the mugwump--and more than willing to defend his positions:

--In spite of its elitist, vaguely wimpy image, chess is a sport: demanding, draining, hairy-chested.

--The Soviets, preeminent in chess, got where they are by cheating.

--Women, not to put too fine a point on it, are marvelous companions but terrible chess players, always will be.

Anent image, Seirawan tells of a recent plane trip en route to a tournament:

"My seatmate, a lady, asked where I was going. 'Madrid.'

" 'Business or pleasure?' she asks. 'Business.'

" 'What's your business?' 'Chess. I'm an international grand master.'

"She looks me up and down. Finally she says: 'Oh no you're not.'

"I'm young, articulate, well-traveled, well-read. I obviously didn't fit her conception of a chess player--either a prodigy in bottle-bottom glasses or a bearded old egghead.

"The image of the reclusive introvert may have derived from Bobby Fischer's heyday (Fischer was America's last world champion, in 1972), but most professional chess players are like me, young and vital.

"A 45-year-old is at a disadvantage because, damn it, chess is a sport . Wake up, America! This is not a dry, scientific search for truth--although it's that too. It's a fight between two individuals, a battle of wills , with an unbelievable expenditure of energy. During an extended match, a player can--does--lose 25-30 pounds!"

Excited? Seirawan is just warming up.

"I'm a very athletic person," he says. "You name it, I've played it. But listen, Ican play a game of full-court basketball for five hours in the blazing sun, and sure, I'm pooped, totally, but loving the fact that I'm sweating. Go shower, go out and have a wonderful time, a beautiful lady friend. I feel great.

"Now play a single game of chess, that lasts four to five hours. I am mentally and physically out. Sneak into a restaurant, sneak out, hit the hotel room and collapse, just hoping I have enough energy for the next day.

"The nervous tension! It can kill you! A fumbled pass, a missed free throw, a netted tennis shot can't begin to compare to a bad chess move.

"I mean, suppose you make a first-class boner. Your opponent is sitting there deep-thinking. All he's got to do is make a single move and bam! Five hours shot to hell.

"Now you've got to sit there as if nothing has happened. You feel your heart pounding, the blood rushing through your veins. You're sweating cannonballs. But somehow you've got to act cool or he'll sense your screw-up and destroy you. . . .

"Then, when the game is over, try to sleep. Mentally, your brain is a Ferrari and you've had your foot on the floor. Vroom! Fifth gear, 180 m.p.h. And now you've got to downshift, put it out of your mind, and you can't take a sleeping pill--no chess player can possibly use drugs. You've got to be entirely clear-headed, and in better physical condition than any sport I know."

Some, of course, can't make it through the night without a little help from their friends. Sex, Seirawan confesses, "would be a tremendous help. We joke about it on the circuit, but in many cases, mental relaxation comes only from drink or women.

"(International grand master) Alexander Alekhine was so destroyed, so emotionally shattered after losing a game, that the only thing he could do was drink. I mean, your whole ego's shaking; you must regain emotional equilibrium."

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