Shaking hands with the KGB

Jan 3, 2011, 11:44 AM |

One of the reasons I enjoyed the book The KGB Plays Chess: The Soviet Secret Police and the Fight for the World Chess Crown,  by Boris Gulko, Yuri Felshtinsky, Vladimir Popov, and Viktor Kortschnoi so much is because names are NAMED! Upon reading, I learned that I had encountered two of the people named as working for the KGB. During the FIDE congress in Atlanta in 1980 there was a five minute tournament. I was paired with Viktor D. Baturinsky, one time vice president of the USSR Chess Federation and also a former director of Moscow's famous Central Chess Club. I have never been particularly good at 'speed' play. I believe that is because I came to chess rather late, as an adult. A fifteen minute game is 'speed' to me. I was blown off the board by Baturinsky, who, after I resigned, muttered something about "Weak Americans."

"What did you say!?" I said. I wanted to make sure I had heard the man right. This time he muttered something incomprehensible, which I took for Russian. "Tell me what you said, and SPEAK ENGLISH!" I demanded. He motioned to the chess pieces. The loser was supposed to replace the pieces for the start of the next game. I said, "You do it!" There was fire in my eyes. At this point the Commie KGB stooge became visibly agitated. One of the directors intervened, probably hoping to ward off an international incident! I refused to shake the man's hand.

In 1983 Thad Rogers, the driving force behind chess in Georgia, and much of the South, told the Legendary Georgia Ironman and me that, if one, or both of us made it out to the US Open on the left coast he would put us up in his room. I arrived in Pasadena, California a day late for the tournament because there was a terrible storm in Atlanta at the time my plane was supposed to leave and I decided that discretion being the better part of valor, I would take later plane and miss the first round. I would have played IM Igor Ivanov. Every time I would see Igor after that, he would grin and say, "Me lucky!"

Thad was, no doubt, shocked to see me. I did, though, obtain a room key. Upon entering the room, I saw luggage, and it did not look like anything Thad would own. I learned it belonged to none other than FIDE President Florencio Campomanes! .I was initially told that we were to share the room. Then, Campo greeted me by sticking out his hand, which I took. I have told many people over the years that his had was the most 'greasy' I have ever shaken. He gave me a smarmy grin as he informed me that it was now his room and that I would have to vacate the premises! Thad was to bunk with someone else, and I was on my own! Thank you very much and don't let the door hit you on the way out!

I once had a landlord, who was from the great state of Virginia, tell me that he had read that the NASCAR driver Jeff Burton was planning on going into politics when he stopped driving. He said he thought Jeff would make a "fine politician," asking if I agreed. "What makes you think Jeff would come out smelling like a rose after getting down into the slime pit with the rest of them?" I have shaken hands with many men in my life. I had the pleasure of shaking the hand of the President of the US, fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter. He has one of the firmest handshakes I've encountered, while looking you directly in the eye. Campo averted his shifty eyes. After shaking his hand, I went straight to the men's room and washed my hands. Campo is named in the book as working for the KGB, which explains a great deal, if you think about it.