He looks like a kid, plays like a master

Chess: Christopher Kanamine can barely reach the board, but his game rises to new heights.

March 28, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

It's one thing to lose money to a chess hustler in full view in a public park. It's another thing when the hustler is 8 years old and is blithely polishing off a bowl of ice cream (with sprinkles) while he beats you.

This painful truth is being discovered by a succession of chess players who have tried to rise to the challenge of Annapolis third-grader Christopher Kanamine.

On sunny afternoons this spring, Christopher has, under the supervision of his mother, set up a card table and chess board at the Annapolis City Dock with a sign inviting passers-by to play him.

There is, technically speaking, no money riding on the games (the authorities might disapprove), but players are encouraged to drop a few bills into a plastic jug beside the table. The proceeds, the sign explains, will go to purchase stuffed animals for orphans in Russia.

What the sign doesn't say is that the delivery of the stuffed animals to a St. Petersburg orphanage will be a sideshow to the main purpose of the 10-day trip Christopher is making to Russia in June with nine classmates: attending a chess academy run by grandmasters. What the sign also doesn't say is that Christopher, after just 18 months at the game, is a very good player.

`How old is he?'

So there was the spectacle on a recent balmy afternoon of Mark Jaffe, a broad-shouldered, self-assured lumberyard owner from Massachusetts sitting down, with am amused smile, to play Christopher, who is so diminutive that he perches on his knees to reach the board.

Jaffe, who had been in Washington on a lobbying trip, had come to Annapolis to sightsee and celebrate, with his wife and daughter, his 52nd birthday. He jokingly played down his chances against Christopher, saying he hadn't played in five years.

This brought scoffs from his daughter, who said she had played him just recently, and his wife, who said her husband was quite a good player and a "self-proclaimed genius."

As it turned out, Jaffe's self-deprecation was in order. After 30 minutes and a fairly close-fought game, with a small crowd watching, Christopher checkmated Jaffe, mumbled a victor's platitude and reached his hand across the board to shake Jaffe's much larger one. Jaffe rose from the table and stuffed some money in the jug.

"How old is he?" he asked. When told, he laughed. "That [stinks]," he said. "He could've let me win for my birthday. I usually don't get beat."

Christopher took the victory in stride, restraining from the kind of gloat that had earned him a scolding from his mother, Beate Kanamine, on a previous day, when he followed a checkmate by turning to his next opponent and saying, "Next victim, please."

That cockiness was particularly inappropriate, his mother pointed out, because the man to whom he addressed it then defeated him - his only loss at the dock so far.

Not that he hasn't had his share of losses elsewhere. Hard as it might be for his park opponents to believe, he is not all that far beyond some of his peers in the chess club at the Naval Academy Primary School, according to Igor Tsibulevsky, the club's adviser.

Enthusiasm for game

What sets Christopher apart, the adviser says, is his enthusiasm for the game. This month, he played at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in his first adult tournament.

He lost most of his games, but got experience in serious tournament play - which could serve him well when he competes next weekend in the national scholastic championship in Pittsburgh.

"He has a lot of potential," said Tsibulevsky. "He's a fighter. I like that he works very hard at it."

It's because of the tough games he faces elsewhere, Christopher said, that he enjoys playing at the City Dock.

"It's pretty fun," he said. "At the tournaments I go to, the players are really hard. Some people down here are really bad."

He said this after dispatching Will Phillips, 27, an Annapolis resident out for a stroll with his girlfriend, in two games that were both done in a matter of minutes. After losing the second time, in similar fashion to first, Phillips shook his head.

"He beat my pants off," he said. "It's a humbling experience."

After beating Jaffe, Christopher played Rob Haberlein, 49, a consultant who had left his car double-parked to get some coffee when he saw Christopher playing Jaffe. When he read the sign, he assumed that Jaffe was the hustler raising money - not his tiny opponent.

Christopher beat Haberlein in about 20 minutes. When Haberlein made an illegal move at one point, Christopher pointed it out, then added dryly, "But why would you want to do that [move] anyway?"

"I didn't want to play real intense, or I'd have been here an hour," Haberlin said. "I really am double-parked."

The dock visits are not Beate Kanamine's first moment in the public view with her son.

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