Call it the "Nerd Factor." That's the image of chess in the United States: the guy with glasses as thick as Coke bottle bottoms, six pens in his ink-stained pocket, an off-key laugh that seems rather bizarre at best.
And that's the good image, considering the past. Consider Paul Morphy, the greatest American chess player of the 19th century. ended up a babbling madman, suffering from paranoid delusions. Consider Bobby Fischer, the greatest American chess player of the 20th century. After he won the world championship in 1972, he went into hiding in Southern California, avoiding all chess competition, surfacing occasionally only in odd rumors that he was spending his days distributing religious pamphlets in mall parking lots.
No wonder, then, that chess players tend to get a bit sensitive about image.
"I would very much like to dispel the nerd notion," says Ed Fowler, a leader of the Sunrise Chess Club in Sunrise, Fla., and an insurance broker who looks more like a button-down businessman than a chess geek. "You know, everyone has this idea that only people with glasses and white socks play chess. But it's really a wide range."
Consider the two best players in the world: Garry Kasparov, the champion, and Anatoly Karpov, his perennial challenger, who are in the midst of their weeks-long title match in New York. Both are Russians. Karpov is a loyal Communist, Kasparov an anti-establishment rebel, but both are regarded in their homeland not as geeks but as national heroes. In Russia, chess grandmasters are considered every bit as heroic as are great athletes in the United States, and they are rewarded with luxury housing and all sorts of special favors. No wonder then that Russians have come to dominate chess while Americans stand on the sidelines, groveling for scraps.
For all the diversity among American chess players, many tend to be foreign born, or the children of immigrants. Take Florida, for instance: The two highest-ranked active players are Anatoly Dozorets, raised in Russia, and Fabio La Rota, raised in Nicaragua.
Jim Meyer of the U.S. Chess Federation says this is a pattern that fits most chess players in America: "They're foreign born. Or they tend to be 'ethnics,' whatever that means. New York has a lot of ethnics, and it has a lot of chess players. I suppose that would be true of Miami as well."
Indeed it is. Many Cubans play chess, and their country has a long history of chess, which reached a pinnacle in the '20s when Jose Raul Capablanca was world champion. (No nerd was Capablanca; he had quite a reputation as a ladies' man.)
But chess has never really caught on in the United States. "It's like learning a foreign language," says Alberto "Yoyu" Fernandez, manager of the Little Havana Club in Miami. "You have to be exposed to it a lot, and it's best if you learn it while you're young."
Most players learn chess as children, taught either by a father or friend. Bobby Fischer learned chess from his sister, which was a bit unusual. (No women have ever approached the highest ranks of world chess, though three teen-age sisters from Hungary have recently shown flashes of genius that indicate at least one of them might someday beat some of the top men.)
If a child's father or friends don't know chess, it's unlikely the child will ever learn. "People have to have contact with it, to see how beautiful it is," says Fernandez.
But once kids are introduced to chess, there's no stopping them. Consider the experience of Arnold Denker, 76, U.S. national champion in the mid-'40s, now retired in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Denker assisted in a New York City program sponsored by the American Chess Foundation.
"I was involved with this one experiment, with a school in the heart of Harlem. It was a Spanish section. I gave an exhibition there two years ago, and we got this great response. We started teaching them chess. And the results were unbelievable. They suddenly became polite gentlemen. And then we went on a trip to Russia. They were so cocky when they left. They were `D murdered in the first match. The second match, it was a little better. Finally, we went down to the Black Sea, and we won a match. And that made them feel really great. It just goes to show you what kids can do when they put their minds to something. I can teach anybody to play in 20 minutes, and after that they can start enjoying themselves."
Denker, like many chess experts, believes that having the world championship in New York "will arouse interest in chess for a couple of months, and then, as usual, it will peter out."
That's what happened when Fischer won the world championship in 1972. Membership in the U.S. Chess Federation tripled, to around 50,000. Federation members are generally the most serious players, participating in organized tournaments. Some surveys indicate that as many as 30 million Americans actually learned the basic chess moves, though many quickly abandoned the game. After Fischer disappeared, chess interest America plummeted.
Slowly, however, interest has been climbing back to the levels of the Fischer Boom, and last year, the national high school championship attracted 900 players, the biggest turnout ever for a youth event.
One reason for the new interest, say some experts, is chess computers. Even if one's friends don't play chess, inexpensive (less than $100) computers are readily available. And they're getting quite good. Fidelity Electronics, a Miami-based company, now sells for about $400 a computer the size of a high-school yearbook that can defeat all but the top dozen chess players in Florida.