'Chess action' is contradiction in terms

September 18, 1995|By MIKE LITTWIN

NEW YORK — NEW YORK: The thing to remember about chess is that it's not professional wrestling.

I try to keep this in mind as I'm sitting 107 stories above God's green earth, or at least above New York City, on the observation deck of the World Trade Center, watching bad-boy Garry Kasparov hunch over chess pieces. He is defending his world championship against Viswanathan Anand, known in the chess world as "Vishy."

The first thing that strikes me is that I'm at a world-class sporting event and nobody is tuning up with "We will, we will rock you." Not even, we will, we will rook you (that's chess humor, folks).

Another thing: The play itself is not exactly riveting.

Maybe that's not fair. Let me quote to you from the New York Times report of the match: "It's a fair guess that one reason Kasparov switched from a queen's pawn opening (1 d4) to the English Opening with 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 was to avoid Anand's impenetrable Nimzo-Indian Defense in Game 2."

There are chess fans, of course. Kas and Vishy are locked inside a soundproof booth, like it's "The $64,000 Question." Most of the 400 fans paid $15 for the ride up the elevator. On one side is maybe the world's most dramatic view. On the other side is a chess match on closed-circuit TV.

Although chess makes golf look like a contact sport, nobody's looking out the window.

Meanwhile, I'm reading the press notes. Believe me, I won't miss any action. It says here that Bogart -- yes, Bogart -- was a chess hustler. Is this possible?

To be honest, I never saw Bogie for a chess guy at all. I try to envision him Bogarting a cigarette, sipping his Scotch, slapping some broad because she deserved it, and then . . . castling.

Anything's possible here when you've got Intel promising $1 million to the winner and half that to the loser. That sounds like a lot of money, until you remember Ben McDonald is making $4 million. Ben, by the way, may not be championship-caliber on the chess board.

In case you haven't been following on ESPN, here's the most exciting thing that's happened: Kasparov put both fingers to his lips.

Mostly, what these guys do is think hard -- I mean, rock hard. You expect to see a vein burst, which might actually give the match a lift.

The first four matches in the best-of-20 tournament -- yes, you read that right; at four matches a week, this baby should outlast the O.J. trial -- ended in a tie.

And yet, this can all be exciting, if you're one of the ponytailed, computer-genius dropouts who have brought their miniature magnetic boards with them to follow the play and to match wits with the grandmasters, who do actual play-by-play, and Intel's genius chess computer.

"These guys are cool," says one fan, Bryan Thompson, of the grandmasters.

"They're accessible. You make a suggestion and they actually listen. You get to feel like you're one of the players."

Not everyone is so sure. There is, for instance, the reporter sitting next to me. He's here to cover the match for one of your major newsweeklies, only he's fast asleep. Most of the reporters here are from the chess world. In the press room, there are a half-dozen games being played. Think of the scene this way: sportswriters playing football in the press box during the Super Bowl.

Actually, the grandmasters are the show. Kasparov, at 32, may be the greatest player ever and the nastiest player ever -- the John McEnroe of his sport -- but the game just doesn't give itself over to histrionics.

"Let's look at Kas' face," says Danny King, a London grandmas

ter who would be considered --ing if you didn't know he played chess for a living. "Kas can do an entire storm on his face."

Actually, Kas looks calm. He's never lost a one-on-one tournament. Vishy, at 25, is a likely challenger, the experts say.

I don't know. The bio on Kasparov says he figures out mathematical formulas for fun and can speak 15 languages. How many languages do you have to learn before it's just showing off?

Can you be a chess player and show off at the same time?

For example, I once mentioned to my daughter that I played chess in high school (it was just for one year, before I understood the ramifications) and she said: "You played chess, like on a team?"

No, no. Not like on a team, exactly. In a sort of club. We were just fooling around. After the game, we'd all get some beers and beat up football players.

Mike Littwin's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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