The Pressroom

Himmler2339
Dec 6, 2007, 12:00 AM |
2 | Chess Players

In the Hall of Columns, Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov played on a stage flanked by two large display boards. Karpov wore a gray business suit; the challenger dressed more casually in a sports jacket and sweater. Sometimes Kasparov strolled the stage between moves with his hands behind his back, as if he were walking in a park. When he sat at the table, centered on a large oriental rug, he would scratch his tightly curled black hair and glance furtively at Karpov. He was a tense young man trying to appear relaxed. The older and more experienced Karpov rocked in his chair, and his eyes rarely left the board until he was sure of a win; then he would pick at his teeth and look out at the crowd like a king. In the chess world Karpov is called the Fetus because of his diaphanous complexion and frail physical makeup. But in the early days of the match, while he built his lead, he grew immense. On the stage he seemed to tower above his younger and larger opponent, and when he looked at Kasparov he didn't bother to hide his contempt. For the first half hour of each game, Pandolfini, Josh and I would watch the two men from the balcony. Josh leaned his elbows on the railing and observed them through the wrong end of his binoculars. I was afraid he would drop the glasses and hit someone below on the head. After the opening moves we watched on television monitors in the pressroom on the third floor, but sometimes, when the players were under time pressure, we returned to the balcony. Then Josh would root exuberantly for Kasparov and throw rapid analysis at Bruce while spectators seated nearby gave us dirty looks. Most of his blitz tactics were pure fantasy. Excited by the crowd and loyal to his man, my son saw sacrifices and mating combinations all over the board. The Pressroom on the third floor of the House  of Trade Unions was jammed with chess stars of the past, notable Moscow personalities, journalists and television crews seeking interviews. There were banks of phones, telex machines and a score of screens showing closeups of the two brooding sportmen. At demonstration tables clusters of grandmasters unraveled an infinity of possibilities. When we were in the pressroom, Josh was on his own. He preferred to sit at the front table with a past United States champion, Grandmaster, Arnold Denker, Gary Kasparov's friend Eric Schiller, International Master Jonathan Tisdale and the oldest active grandmaster, Miguel Najdorf, Denker and young Waitzkin about the newest wrinkle in the current game while crews filmed the interviews for millions around the world. Late at night we would watch Josh on the television in our room. During one interview he demonstrated a winning line for Kasparov with bubble gum all over his chin. Each time Yuri Averbakh, past president of the Soviet Chess Federation and a FIDE arbiter for the match, entered the room, he paused to give Josh a hug and smiled like a politician while photographers snapped their cameras. The level of excitement at the match was equivalent to that at the Rose Bowl or an NCAA basketball championship, but from the point of view of an American who lacked sophisticated chess knowledge it would be difficult to say why. World championship chess is a strange and nearly unrecognizable relative of the game most amateurs play. Day after day passes without a checkmate, without a player's either winning a piece outright or making a recognizable blunder. The two best players in the world calculate and conceive of strategies for long stretches of minutes and then make the quietest moves. In the middle game they often calculate ten or more moves ahead; in the endgame, when most of the pieces are off the board, they may think ahead even further. According to a chess master who is also proficient at other games, Karpov's and Kasparov's deepest calculations, which involve the retention and mental manipulation of numerous possible positions, are roughly equivalent to doing the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in your head. They do all this in the hope of eventually weakening a square, doubling a pawn, giving a bishop a little more room, seizing an open file, overprotecting a strong point, improving the position of a developed piece or gaining a tempo. these advantages are hardly discernible. Each man tries to figure more deeply, but more often than not their calculations match perfectly, and a well-diguised offensive thrust is anticipated and answered with a compensating defensive move. Grandmaster of approximately the same strength aren't exactly playing to win but rather seek to maximize the possibilities of winning without taking an unacceptable risk. They are like two men balancing on a tightrope. Sometimes a player will strum the rope a little with a toe, as if idly passing time, in the hope that he will catch his opponent leaning the wrong way. But he knows that if he plucks the rope too hard, it is more likely that he will lose his own balance and tumble, rather than his opponent. While the game is being played in the air, the only ones who truly understand their sleepy feints, counterfeints, wiggles and taps are the two men on the rope. Far more often than not, the contest will end with both men still balanced.  

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