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Sunday, September 24, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In chess world, Seattle becomes major player

Seattle Times staff reporter

The financially strapped United States Chess Federation had decided to tip over its king and call it a loss. That was until Yasser Seirawan, the closest thing U.S. chess has to a caped crusader, stepped in.

His boyish face has thickened at 40, and the childish politics of the international chess scene sometimes get him down.

But his passion for the game is strong, and the world's top-rated American player, a Garfield High graduate, has now helped ensure its U.S. future.

Beginning tomorrow, the nearly canceled national championships will take place in Seattle for the first time, featuring 22 of the nation's top-ranked male and female players. That's just the start for the newly minted Seattle Chess Foundation, the brainchild of Seirawan, venture capitalist Erik Anderson and Microsoft graduate Scott Oki.

Together, they hope to turn Seattle into a chess Mecca, promoting a pawn to a queen.

They're encouraged by the fact that more kids than ever are playing in Washington, a decadelong upswing that echoes a national trend.

But the state's interest is more rabid than most: The number of Washington youngsters at May's junior chess championships in Dallas ranked behind only Texas and traditional powerhouse New York.

Think about it, Seirawan says. The city already is associated with coffee, grunge, online booksellers and all things high-tech. "We've already proven ourselves," he says. "The question is, to what degree will it continue? I think the best is yet to come. Our little corner of the world could become the coolest part of the planet."

The crucial ingredient? A game whose history goes back 1,400 years.

Needed: a brilliant move

With origins in India and Iran, chess boomed in the U.S. after 1972's world title match in Reykjavik, Iceland, between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky.

But in recent years, society's fast pace has threatened to drown the slow-moving game.

Adult play has dropped off, clubs are calling it quits, and tournament sponsors are harder to find than able challengers to Moscow's Garry Kasparov, the current world champ.

The lower profile has spelled trouble for the USCF, the country's 61-year-old sanctioning chess body and U.S. representative on the international scene. This year, it lost its prime sponsor, a California-based computer-games company called Interplay.

It needed a brilliant move to turn things around, and while there are cities with more chess tradition, no one made one as bold as that of the Seattle Chess Foundation.

Seirawan and Anderson, whose young daughters occasionally challenge the three-time U.S. champion with limited success, had already been mulling the idea of a downtown chess center for children.

When Seirawan told his friend he wouldn't be playing in the national finals because they'd been canceled, Anderson responded: We can't let that happen.

Along with Oki, whose sons also play the game, they negotiated to host the title event for 10 years.

"We had the enthusiasm," says Seirawan, who has lived in Seattle since Boeing hired his father as a software engineer in 1967. "I said, `I love chess. I love Seattle. The two belong together. Let's make it happen.' "

The group has given the national scene a much-needed permanent venue while envisioning academic scholarships and a world-class tournament facility offering classes, lectures and a strong technology base. Seirawan sees such a center opening within a few years.

This year's event, in other words, is no one-knight stand. Anderson and Oki will foot the cost of the $250,000 tournament and so far have lined up 16 local underwriters who will each give $100,000 over the next four years to help with future projects.

"They're shooting for very high goals," says George DeFeis, executive director of the USCF, based in New Windsor, N.Y. "Hopefully, this will lay the groundwork."

Despite the haste with which it was coordinated (four months, compared to the usual year or more), nearly all of the nation's top players accepted invitations to the event, set for Seattle's Town Hall.

"They saw it as a bona fide U.S. championship," DeFeis says. "A lot of that is their respect for Yasser. That he was involved gave it the proper chess credential."

A certain flair

Seirawan, the author of 13 books on the game, was a semifinalist at last year's U.S. tournament, losing to eventual champ Boris Gulko. He is president of Chess.Net, an online chess service, and has used the forum of his online magazine to chide Kasparov for avoiding worthy foes or to denounce the political squabbling of international chess.

He also dresses with uncommon grandmaster flash and was once named Cosmopolitan's "Bachelor of the Month." Now married, his wife, Yvette Nagel, is a former Dutch junior women's champion.

"There's a certain flair to Yasser," DeFeis says.

But it's more than style that's bringing players to the table. Consider that last year's title play was held in a Holiday Inn in Salt Lake City. The Seattle Chess Foundation is setting new standards by springing for each player's transportation and hotel stay and putting up bigger purses for women's competition.

"Last place for women in this tournament will be $2,000," says Seattle's Elena Donaldson, a former Soviet women's grandmaster who has won three titles each in world and U.S. competition. "When I played, that's what I won for first place."

Seirawan, Anderson and Oki have exacted a price for the pampering - the 22 participants agreed to face off simultaneously against 20 students each in a benefit at Mercer Arena and to do two days of outreach around the country. Some will also visit patients at Seattle's Children's Hospital.

The Seattle foundation's prime mission is to promote chess among youngsters, and Anderson and Oki are fans of the notion that chess instills cognitive skills that promote academic improvement. They cite studies done in connection with New York City's Chess-in-the-Schools program that link higher reading and problem-solving abilities with children who play the game.

There are lots of them: While adult participation has been stagnant, the USCF's scholastic membership has rocketed from 6,000 a decade ago to about 40,000 today.

Like `soccer was 20 years ago'

Seirawan has a head start when it comes to teaching youngsters. At age 12, he was so advanced that he taught a class for fellow students at Capitol Hill's Meany Middle School.

When he and many of his classmates/students went on to Garfield High, a dynasty was in the making. Garfield leadership knew it; so did he. Seirawan persuaded the school to outfit the team with letterman's jackets, then led the squad to state, regional and national titles.

Back then, he says, it was something if 200 kids turned out for state title play; these days, state tournaments routinely draw more than 700.

In the Seattle area alone, the 11-year-old Chess Mates program - recipient of a recent $10,000 gift from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - already has placed instructors like grandmaster Leo Stefurak in more than 40 schools, reaching more than 1,200 students.

"It's kind of a phenomenon, the way soccer was 20 years ago," says Lori Osseward, chess-club coordinator at Seattle's McClure Middle and West Woodland Elementary schools.

At West Woodland, 65 of the school's 300 or so students sprawl out in the library playing chess, including special-education and foreign-language-speaking pupils; Osseward can't help but think the level of chess participation contributed to the school's recent rise in math scores.

"A lot of kids who would never spend more than five minutes doing anything can sit at a chessboard for hours," she says. "It's like a foreign language - they pick it up very quickly. And they practice every day, like a musical instrument."

Russia dominates the game

But as with soccer, the game's worldwide popularity still dwarfs its U.S. standing. Seirawan, the top American player, ranks only 36th internationally in a field dominated by Russians, whose schools have taught the game for decades. When he led the U.S. chess squad to a silver medal in the 1998 world team championships, no one was asked to smile for a Wheaties box or invited to the White House.

Frustrated with the lack of support for chess in the U.S. and enlightened by tournament globe-trotting in Holland and Spain, Seirawan pondered moving to Europe in the mid-1980s.

"Here I was in a country that didn't respect the sport of chess, that treated it as something played by bearded, myopic old men," he says.

Ultimately, he stayed home and founded Inside Chess. The magazine enjoyed a respectable 12-year run before folding in December, like dozens of chess publications before it.

But the magazine never really died; it was simply reborn on the Internet. Inside Chess had 3,500 subscribers as of its last printing; the online version, Seirawan says, has about 65,000 readers.

He has done the math. The USCF has 87,000 registered members, and 3 million chess sets are sold every year in the U.S. What does this mean? "A lot of nonregistered people are buying chess sets," he says.

It is the Internet, he and others believe, that holds the ultimate winning variation in terms of popularity, that will link these two distant worlds - the serious chess nuts and those without the time or inclination to join clubs or federations.

Just as television is perfect for football, Seirawan says, the Internet is a godsend for chess players. With the click of a mouse, you move a piece on a two-dimensional board; an opponent can respond from anywhere around the globe.

The USCF now offers online-play capability, as do dozens of other Web sites such as Seirawan's Chess.Net, in hopes of recapturing its adult audience.

Before, says Seirawan, "you could go into a park in Los Angeles and people would never know who Yasser Seirawan is. . . . Suddenly, you can have two grandmasters slugging away with 500 people watching online. Now you can go to Yahoo or America Online and see 10,000 people playing who've never joined a chess club. The Internet is acting as this marvelous glue between the two worlds."

All of which lends a certain synchronicity to the fact that an ancient game is about to be coddled in a cradle of modern technology.

"We're in the heart of Internet country," Seirawan says. "It's only natural."

Marc Ramirez's phone message number is 206-464-8102. His e-mail address is mramirez@seattletimes.com.

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Chess championships

The U.S. Chess Championships will take place at Seattle's Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Avenue (at Seneca). Twenty-two of the country's best players will compete over two weeks for $100,000 in prize money, with live commentary by International Master Jeremy Silman. Admission is free.

Round-robin play starts Monday and continues through Friday, Oct. 6. Games commence daily at 1:30 p.m., with the exception of Monday, when they begin at 10 a.m., and Oct. 6, when an 11 a.m. start is planned.

Tournament results and more information can be found at the Seattle Chess Foundation's Web site, www.seattlechessfoundation. org.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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