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After Defection, Chess Whiz Kid Wants to Be King

May 29, 1989|JOSH GETLIN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It would have been a nerve-wracking moment for most anyone. As FBI agents paced in a Manhattan hotel lobby, Gata Kamsky, 14, was on the brink of defecting to the United States. But the unflappable Russian chess prodigy was not about to flee so fast.

A star participant in the New York Open chess tournament, Kamsky had one more game to play. The federal agents poised to whisk him and his father off in a limousine would have to wait.

"I'm sure the FBI people were stunned," says Allen Kaufman, a U.S. chess official who helped arrange Kamsky's defection two months ago. "But what could they do? They waited until the boy's game was over, which took three or four hours, and then everybody left."

'Chess ... Is My Life'

One week later, during a packed Greenwich Village press conference, the shy, gangly teen-ager with glasses perched on his nose introduced himself to the West. For someone whose arrival has touched off a furor in the chess world, he seemed curiously unemotional.

"Chess, always, it is my life," Kamsky said. "It is all that is for me. I am every day thinking of chess only. All day, all night. Chess."

Ever since the brilliant but unpredictable Bobby Fischer abdicated his world chess title at the peak of his fame in 1975, Americans have been yearning for a successor. So far, the Great Hope has yet to emerge. But there are some who think that Gata Kamsky--one of the most talented young players ever to defect from the Soviet Union--may fit the bill.

By the time he was 12, Kamsky had won the Soviet Youth Championship twice. He also had won the youth title in his native Leningrad and a smattering of other Russian tournaments. International chess observers have praised his mature style of play and some predict that he might be ready to compete for the world title in 1994. Although most players reach a peak in their late 20s, some are gifted enough to enter championship play at 18 or 19, experts say.

"We have a brilliant young man here, one who reminds me of Bobby Fischer when he was that young," says Lev Alburt, a former U.S. champion who is close to the family. "The minute he set foot on U.S. soil, he became the highest-ranked 14-year-old player in this country."

Alburt and other well-wishers have helped the Kamskys settle into a Brighton Beach apartment during recent weeks, and the family also has received financial aid from American chess groups. For the most part, they have been welcomed with open arms.

But others are critical of the Kamskys. Soviet chess officials sniff that the boy's skills are overrated, and charge that his father wants to turn Gata into a "robot for dollars."

There also have been angry rumblings from some prominent American players, who resent the publicity that Kamsky has received. Joel Benjamin, a former U.S. champion, says the hoopla surrounding the boy is "sick," because it distracts attention from home-grown players.

John Fedorowicz, who won this year's New York Open tournament, was more blunt: "He (Kamsky) is a good player, and he's 14 years old. But he's not American."

Told of such criticism, Rustam Kamsky shrugs his shoulders. Given the way his son was treated by Soviet officials, he says, the family had no choice but to seek asylum in the West.

Ranks of the Elite

Less than three years ago, Gata's future in his homeland looked bright. Soviets place a high premium on chess excellence, and it seemed that Kamsky might join the ranks of elite Soviet players who receive generous housing subsidies and compete for thousands of dollars in international prizes. Some, like Gary Kasparov, the current world champion, have become rich from commercial endorsements.

Rustam Kamsky, who has raised Gata since divorcing his first wife 13 years ago, says he wanted nothing less for his son. But it was not to be. Soviet authorities, who strictly regulate chess competition, did not give the boy enough opportunities to play in tournaments, according to his father. The reason, he insisted, is that the Kamskys are Crimean Tatars, a persecuted Russian nationality that long has been out of favor with government officials.

Young chess players need tournament experience to sharpen their skills, and Rustam feared that his boy's career would be destroyed. The decision to defect was inevitable, he says, but the family also paid an emotional price. Left behind was Bella Kamskaya, Rustam's second wife. He has asked Soviet officials to let her join him in America.

"We are thankful for freedom, even though there has been pain for us," he says emotionally. "We are here to win a world championship."

Ever since the Kamskys arrived in America, they have focused solely on chess. If the controversy over their defection has affected them, they don't show it. If a revolution broke out in the streets of Brighton Beach, they wouldn't know it.

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