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Netmate! A Match Made for the Web

Kramnik and Kasparov battle for $2-million purse as the world watches on the Net.

October 26, 2000|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a television studio in London, grandmasters Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik bend silently over a chessboard hour upon hour, plotting each move with the speed of a snail on Prozac. At stake: $2 million.

And at home computers worldwide, chess enthusiasts are logging onto Internet sites to follow the action rook-by-rook and pawn-by-pawn--and to get almost instant analyses and take part in guess-the-move competitions.

The game of kings has embraced the Internet.

"While you're watching the game, you can be playing a game yourself, and there are always half a dozen world-class players plus a bunch of wood-pushers like myself making comments about the game," says Chuck Smith, a retired civil engineer in Ventura County who's been watching some of the Kasparov-Kramnik match on the Internet Chess Club site (http://www.chessclub.com).

On the Internet, "You get the usual suspects watching every move," even though a match typically lasts four or five hours, says James Eade of Menlo Park, a U.S. representative to the Lausanne, Switzerland-based World Chess Federation.

Contacted at home in Orange, Sharon Ellen Burtman, the 1995 U.S. Chess Federation women's champion, was "just about to grab a chessboard and play over game 10 (of the Kasparov-Kramnik match). I have the moves in front of me."

Like others, Smith and Burtman see the marriage of chess with the Internet as a mixed blessing. "We've probably lost a third of the people who played [at the Ventura County Chess Club] on a regular basis," says Smith. Now they can play at home, against "people from all over the world--and you have a little dialogue on the side."

The Internet has helped "bring chess to the masses," says Burtman, but now "it's very difficult to get people to leave the comfort of their own homes when they can be in their pajamas drinking hot cocoa at 3 o'clock in the morning"--while playing at their computers.

George De Feis, executive director of the New Windsor, N.Y.-based U.S. Chess Federation, says the Internet has "reinvigorated an interest" in the game but acknowledges that it is "a double-edged sword," as it has lessened interest in over-the-board games played at clubs.

At 90,000, federation membership has in recent years been on "a flat curve, even slightly declining" among adults but growing among students and young people, partly as a result of computers and partly because it offers risk-free competition using brains, not brawn.

Eade, who works for a "start-up dot-com wannabe" trading educational software, says, "People used to take a lot of leisure time to travel to chess tournaments, but today people don't really have the time." The Internet links them to other players and keeps them abreast of news in the chess world.

In an online interview on Yahoo's Y-Life Web site, Kasparov himself said the Internet is a great vehicle for chess, a game that can't compete with contact sports for TV time. He even went so far as to call it "a savior for chess."

Play coverage resumes this morning at 7 local time, with Kramnik, the 25-year-old challenger, leading fellow Russian Kasparov, at 37 at the top of the game for 15 years, by six games to four.

The match sponsor, Britain's Brain Games Network (http://www.braingames.netq), is billing this as a "world championship" match, a marathon 16-game event that started Oct. 8 and will conclude Nov. 4. At their computers, fans are scrutinizing everything about the players, from their strategy to their self-discipline to their mistakes. Many, like Burtman, are surprised by what she terms Kramnik's "explosive" play against his formidable opponent.

Who's No. 1?

Although Kasparov and Kramnik are billed by sponsoring Brain Games as the reigning No. 1 and No. 2, who's on top depends on whom you ask.

"We have a problem in the chess world sorting this out," explains Eade. The World Federation has not recognized Kasparov as world champion since he split with them in 1993, subsequently starting several now-defunct rival groups. Of the current Kasparov-Kramnik match, Eade says, "It's an exhibition. It's not an official event."

The bottom line: money. Eade says, "To understand Kasparov, I think you must follow the dollars." And Brain Games Network is offering $2 million of those, winner take all. (In the event of a draw, the players will split the purse.)

All of this makes for uneasy heads wearing crowns. "To give you some insight into how strange this is," Eade observes, the federation ranks Kasparov No. 1, followed by Vishwanathan Anand of India and Kramnik.

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