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Thursday, January 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham / Times Associate Editor

Seattle chess event puts focus on game's future as an Olympic sport

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Chess in the Olympic Games?

"Chess is more of a sport than ice skating or dancing, where the judges give points," said an Australian chess official. "Chess has competition, rules and a decisive winner. Players who keep physically fit do better."

They had a chess exhibition at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and nobody fell asleep. Other than banning sports that use motors, the International Olympic Committee can include about anything it wants, and has, namely synchronized swimming and ballroom dancing.

Right now, chess can't even decide if it wants to be in the Olympics because of the drug testing many would surely fail, their need — not to mention that of their fans — for caffeine so desperate.

But chess is changing, and nowhere more so than Seattle.

Kids at Lakeside High get letters for making the chess team, as if they'd played football or run track.

The U.S. Chess Championships, under way at Seattle Center and ending Sunday, are for the first time in their 113-year history letting women play against men.

In other years, and in other places, the U.S. Championships featured the faces of the same 10 or 12 men, withering, tortured faces. In fact, U.S. came to stand for "Usual Suspects."

Hana Itkis is a 13-year-old girl from New Jersey who qualified for the championships. She is the youngest player in the U.S. Championships since Bobby Fischer won at age 14 in 1957.

She's playing against men.

"There is something wonderful about the atmosphere (in Seattle)," said John Henderson, who writes about chess for the national newspaper of Scotland.

"What we have is chess being run by people who are not a part of the chess establishment.

"They are thinking about things in ways they've never been thought about before."

They've doubled the prize money for the U.S. Championships to $200,000, they've expanded the tournament to 56 players.

In fact, the Seattle Chess Foundation revived the U.S. Championships after the nation's chess federation could no longer fund them. Seattle held the championship last year and will keep them here until 2010 under a current contract.

"To me, the aim of the Seattle Chess Foundation is not to find the next Bobby Fischer, but to popularize the game and promote the educational advantages the sport can have upon children," Henderson said.

"Clearly it is a different approach."

The chess expertise was here in the form of grandmaster Yasser Seirawan, who in 1985 became the first American to contend for the world title since Fischer's retirement in 1975.

Seirawan teamed with Seattle businessmen Scott Oki and Erik Anderson, both of whom were infatuated with the effect of chess on the learning and problem-solving skills of children.

"For chess, Seattle is a breath of fresh air," said Henderson, who lives in Edinburgh.

Despite the sport's popularity in Europe, Henderson's column for "The Scotsman" appears on the paper's obituary page, along with coverage of bridge.

The national athletic body in the United Kingdom has recognized baton twirling and arm wrestling, but not chess, even though it is played by 3 million Brits.

"I think the sport is on course to get into the Olympics," said Henderson.

"Speculation has centered on China in 2008, mainly because of the importance of chess in that country."

Henderson thinks it will be included at some point in the Winter Olympics, simply because there are already too many sports in the Summer Olympics.

"People say there needs to be some demonstrated physical skill," said Henderson, "but what is the physical skill involved in shooting a rifle? As far as the sweat factor, international players have been known to lose two pounds during a match."

With or without the Olympics, the reality is that chess is an enduring, enlightening game that can help develop the analytical thinking in children as well as adults.

While the matches are played in deathly silence, the interest in the results are high. The Seattle Chess Foundation Web site, on which matches can be followed in progress, has taken 12 million hits during the tournament.

Perhaps Henderson's best endorsement of the game comes in his acquired passion for baseball and the Mariners.

"Lou Piniella is the chess master, and his players the pieces," said Henderson.

"He is thinking two or three moves ahead. Like chess."

But with noise, and where coffee is legal.

Blaine Newnham can be reached at 206-464-2364 or bnewnham@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

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