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At Chess 'Wimbledon,' a Boy Makes a Champion Sweat

March 09, 2003|Daniel Woolls | Associated Press Writer

LINARES, Spain — On one side, the kid, dressed in black but baby-faced and fidgety. On the other, his opponent: the icy, scowling chess eminence Garry Kasparov.

Against all odds, Teimour Radjabov, 15, beat Kasparov, the world's top-ranked player, although the teen did benefit from a Kasparov blunder as the champ looked poised to win.

That duel of David and Goliath -- culminating in Kasparov's failure to shake Radjabov's hand afterward -- was a highlight of the Linares Chess Tournament, sometimes called the Wimbledon of chess.

The venue is an unlikely one -- this noisy, dusty town of 63,000 in the heart of Spain's olive-growing region.

But once a year it plays host to a world-class meeting of minds as a handful of highly focused people -- almost always young men -- gather for some quiet warfare.

The tournament was founded in 1978 by local supermarket tycoon and chess buff Luis Rentero. By the mid-1980s it had started to lure serious talent and it has managed to uphold that standard.

"They always try to get the best in the world," said Yugoslav grandmaster Ljubomir Ljubojevic, "and they succeed."

Although the World Chess Federation is pushing for new rules to speed up games, Linares sticks to a system in which they can last seven hours. An average game takes about four.

Names like Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov adorn the tournament's hall of fame, and this is Kasparov's 12th appearance. He has won seven times, but is struggling this year in a field of seven as the two-week competition nears its conclusion this weekend.

The double round-robin unfolds in a hotel reception hall, with three games played simultaneously on an elevated stage.

The players are a show unto themselves, frowning, wincing, playing with their hair or tweaking their nose. While waiting for an opponent to move, they often get up and pace like caged animals or go watch somebody else's game.

World No. 3, Viswanathan Anand of India, sips tea. Kasparov, a short, broad-chested man who is easily the antsiest of the bunch, gulps coffee. His face and body are a twitching kaleidoscope of energy and emotion. In a poker game, he'd probably lose his shirt.

The audience is small, maybe 100 people, but organizers say the tournament's Web page gets 40,000 hits a day.

Spectators watch in reverent silence. A skillful move draws no oohs or ahs, although you do hear an occasional whisper. Chairs creak and throats clear. A smattering of children dot the room, some clutching miniature chess sets, like mitts at a baseball game.

Anand beat Radjabov in the 12th round on Friday. The result moved Anand into a tie for the lead with Classical World Champion Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, who had the bye on Friday.

As they converge on Linares each year, the players lug suitcases full of quirks. Kasparov leaves a down pillow in storage at the hotel for use year after year, and celebrates satisfying play by eating grilled shrimp. At his side always -- his mother Klara.

This year Hungary's Peter Leko changed rooms seven times until he found one that felt just right, and several years ago badgered staff to find him an apple tree to meditate under before his games.

The only Spaniard in the field, a friendly, soft-spoken 20-year-old, Francisco Vallejo, gets psyched for games by listening to pop music at full blast. And playing in Spain provides no home-board advantage. "It's not like soccer, people don't yell," he said.

Permeating it all is language of battle and violence. Bishops attack. Pawns thrust. After a game, the players dissect it in a ritual known as the post-mortem.

Most travel with an aide who is half advisor, half bodyguard and called their "second" -- the title given to pistol-bearers back when men dueled to the death.

Radjabov travels with his father, Boris, though this time his mother, Leila, also came along because the tournament was so important. She quivers with pride watching her only child, her baby, try to speak and carry himself like a man. A young life consumed by chess and spent around adults will do that.

Radjabov started learning the game at 3; he's ranked 68th in the world and rising fast. He says he admires history's conquerors, like Napoleon, also a chess player, and Alexander the Great.

When Radjabov beat Kasparov on Feb. 23 in the second round, it was the veteran's first loss since 1996 while playing white pieces. These move first, giving the player an advantage like a serve in tennis.

Leila Radjabov, speaking halting English, groped for a word to describe her elation, then settled for "unbelievable." When her son and Kasparov met for a rematch on Monday, they played to a draw. Again, not bad for the kid.

The world is so small that Leila Radjabov went to high school with Kasparov in Baku, capital of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. "Maybe he doesn't remember me," she said.

Life for the Radjabovs and other chess families is reduced to a grueling game in which players last longer than tennis stars but tend to peak in their 30s and 40s.

Klara Kasparov once told a Spanish interviewer that enjoying life was for others; all she and Garry had was chess.

Kasparov has dominated the game for two decades with an aggressive style that shuns settling for a draw. Spanish chess commentators call him "the beast from Baku." But at 39, some say he's starting to lose his edge.

Nobody wants to talk about money. Organizers say Linares is more about prestige than cash. The prizes are symbolic and amount to a fraction of the players' appearance fees.

And these in turn are pocket change compared to the kind of money Kasparov commands: $750,000 last month for drawing a match against a computer chess program.

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