It's child's play times 60 for chess grandmaster

Players: In a `simultaneous' game, former world champion Anatoly Karpov takes on five dozen schoolchildren.

April 07, 2005|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

It was a daunting task, but the more ambitious of the challengers could at least try to take some comfort in the odds: With 60 players arrayed against one former world chess champion, wasn't there the chance that someone among them could pull off an upset?

Those kind of thoughts were quickly dispelled for most of the elementary and high school students who turned out last night to try their luck against Russian legend Anatoly Karpov in a "simultaneous" game at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In the opening minutes of play, Karpov showed that keeping 60 games straight at once was not going to be a problem: He swiftly made his way down the long tables, barely stopping before making each move and shifting to the next board, like a man in a hurry sampling a salad bar.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Thursday's editions about a simultaneous chess game between former world champion Anatoly Karpov and 60 schoolchildren at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County incorrectly reported the outcome of one of the games. In addition to Alex Barnett of Silver Spring, the other student who played Karpov to a draw was Scott Low, 12, of Silver Spring.

For players who'd taken several minutes of nail-biting to come up with their next move, it was a deflating introduction. Success, it became clear, was going to mean no more than making Karpov think.

And lo and behold, after the opening moves, a few of the older players were doing just that: The grandmaster who dominated chess for more than a decade was, here and there, stopping to consider the board with his ice-blue eyes, one hand at his chin and the other fidgeting behind the back of his pinstriped suit.

"When he stops and pauses for you for a second, you think you're doing pretty well," said Janie Ginsburg of Phoenix, who was watching her son Jesse, a 12-year-old in an Orioles jersey.

Karpov was at the college for two days giving private instruction to its champion chess team as part of his U.S. tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of claiming the world title in 1975. But in a generous gesture, he offered to hold the match against 60 schoolchildren, first come, first served, on one of his nights in town.

For young chess enthusiasts in the region, it was an opportunity of a lifetime, akin at the very least to a Little Leaguer getting a chance to hit a Roger Clemens fastball. Vicki Lines, mother of 10-year-old Conner Lines of Pasadena, said her son - who belongs to the top-ranked elementary school chess team in the state - had been "talking about it all day."

"Sometimes at 10 you don't understand the whole magnitude of these things, but he's very excited," she said.

Perhaps the best player in attendance was Alex Barnett, 15, of Silver Spring, who at one period last year was ranked as the best player in his age group in the country. His mother, Penny Barnett, said her son also had been revved up all day, talking out loud about the types of openings that he should be prepared for Karpov to try.

Sitting at his board in his long shorts and munching on a cheesesteak, Alex was playing it more cool last night. Asked how things were going after an hour, when he was one of the few players to remain even in pieces with Karpov, he shrugged: "All right."

Also hanging in longer than most was Shinsaku Uesugi, 13, whose family moved to Potomac five years ago from their native Japan, and who recently won a scholastic tournament at UMBC that entitles him to free tuition at the college. An hour and a half into his game, both he and Karpov had lost only one pawn.

For most of the players, though, the game was a learning experience. Julius Wade, director of a chess club at a Curtis Bay recreation center, brought along four of his players, ages 8 and 9. He promised them a "special gift" if they made it past 20 moves; he doubted that any would succeed, but he said the event was a thrill for them nonetheless.

"You should have heard them in the car - they were singing and everything," he said.

Kids weren't the only ones drawn by the chance to see a former world champ. Eric Kahmann, an amateur chess player from Minnesota, was in the area accompanying his wife, a harpist, to a concert of hers when he saw a notice in the paper. He rushed to Catonsville and watched in awe.

Also looking on were some of UMBC's top-ranked players, two of whom took over for Karpov in playing some of the younger players as the evening wore on to speed things along.

Alex Onischuk, 29, a modern languages major who is one of the top five players in the United States, and who studied under Karpov in the past, recalled what a thrill it had been as a 13-year-old to take on grandmasters in events such as last night. Sometimes, he won.

He said that if Karpov did lose a game at UMBC, he would probably take it in stride. "It happens," he said. "It's not going to be a big deal for a grandmaster. He knows how to lose."

But for a kid, he said, it would be "very memorable."

Karpov, who relinquished his world title to rival Garry Kasparov in the late 1980s but holds the record for the most tournaments won, was circumspect.

In a simultaneous game, "you have a few moments to make a move," he said. "They have a much longer time. By probability, there is a chance you make a mistake if you don't think carefully."

In the last of his three hours of play, it seemed unlikely that anyone was going to pull off such an upset. Only a few players were hanging on.

But then came two bursts of applause: Barnett and Uesugi had played Karpov to a draw.

Barnett shrugged off his coup with teenage understatement. "I was trying to win," he said. "But I'm happy."

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