After Defection, Chess Whiz Kid Wants to Be King

Times Staff Writer

It would have been a nerve-wracking moment for most anyone. As FBI agents paced in a Manhattan hotel lobby, Gata Kamsky, 14, was on the brink of defecting to the United States. But the unflappable Russian chess prodigy was not about to flee so fast.

A star participant in the New York Open chess tournament, Kamsky had one more game to play. The federal agents poised to whisk him and his father off in a limousine would have to wait.

"I'm sure the FBI people were stunned," says Allen Kaufman, a U.S. chess official who helped arrange Kamsky's defection two months ago. "But what could they do? They waited until the boy's game was over, which took three or four hours, and then everybody left."

'Chess ... Is My Life'

One week later, during a packed Greenwich Village press conference, the shy, gangly teen-ager with glasses perched on his nose introduced himself to the West. For someone whose arrival has touched off a furor in the chess world, he seemed curiously unemotional.

"Chess, always, it is my life," Kamsky said. "It is all that is for me. I am every day thinking of chess only. All day, all night. Chess."

Ever since the brilliant but unpredictable Bobby Fischer abdicated his world chess title at the peak of his fame in 1975, Americans have been yearning for a successor. So far, the Great Hope has yet to emerge. But there are some who think that Gata Kamsky--one of the most talented young players ever to defect from the Soviet Union--may fit the bill.

By the time he was 12, Kamsky had won the Soviet Youth Championship twice. He also had won the youth title in his native Leningrad and a smattering of other Russian tournaments. International chess observers have praised his mature style of play and some predict that he might be ready to compete for the world title in 1994. Although most players reach a peak in their late 20s, some are gifted enough to enter championship play at 18 or 19, experts say.

"We have a brilliant young man here, one who reminds me of Bobby Fischer when he was that young," says Lev Alburt, a former U.S. champion who is close to the family. "The minute he set foot on U.S. soil, he became the highest-ranked 14-year-old player in this country."

Alburt and other well-wishers have helped the Kamskys settle into a Brighton Beach apartment during recent weeks, and the family also has received financial aid from American chess groups. For the most part, they have been welcomed with open arms.

But others are critical of the Kamskys. Soviet chess officials sniff that the boy's skills are overrated, and charge that his father wants to turn Gata into a "robot for dollars."

There also have been angry rumblings from some prominent American players, who resent the publicity that Kamsky has received. Joel Benjamin, a former U.S. champion, says the hoopla surrounding the boy is "sick," because it distracts attention from home-grown players.

John Fedorowicz, who won this year's New York Open tournament, was more blunt: "He (Kamsky) is a good player, and he's 14 years old. But he's not American."

Told of such criticism, Rustam Kamsky shrugs his shoulders. Given the way his son was treated by Soviet officials, he says, the family had no choice but to seek asylum in the West.

Ranks of the Elite

Less than three years ago, Gata's future in his homeland looked bright. Soviets place a high premium on chess excellence, and it seemed that Kamsky might join the ranks of elite Soviet players who receive generous housing subsidies and compete for thousands of dollars in international prizes. Some, like Gary Kasparov, the current world champion, have become rich from commercial endorsements.

Rustam Kamsky, who has raised Gata since divorcing his first wife 13 years ago, says he wanted nothing less for his son. But it was not to be. Soviet authorities, who strictly regulate chess competition, did not give the boy enough opportunities to play in tournaments, according to his father. The reason, he insisted, is that the Kamskys are Crimean Tatars, a persecuted Russian nationality that long has been out of favor with government officials.

Young chess players need tournament experience to sharpen their skills, and Rustam feared that his boy's career would be destroyed. The decision to defect was inevitable, he says, but the family also paid an emotional price. Left behind was Bella Kamskaya, Rustam's second wife. He has asked Soviet officials to let her join him in America.

"We are thankful for freedom, even though there has been pain for us," he says emotionally. "We are here to win a world championship."

Ever since the Kamskys arrived in America, they have focused solely on chess. If the controversy over their defection has affected them, they don't show it. If a revolution broke out in the streets of Brighton Beach, they wouldn't know it.

Helped by contributions from the local Tatar community, the emigres spend virtually every waking hour in a cheerless, one-bedroom apartment that has a few pieces of furniture and nothing on the walls. They sleep in a small, darkened room, which is transformed into a study during the day.

At an age when most boys are beginning to worry about girls, Gata's adolescence seems to be on hold. Dressed in baggy sweat shirts and dark pants, he rises at 6 each morning to begin 14 hours of work. With only brief interruptions, he reads and re-reads chess manuals, plays simulated matches on a game board and pores over a computer data base of past tournament games.

Rustam's job is to ensure his son adheres to this strict regimen, and to keep him fed. Although Gata looked tired during a recent visit, he was enthusiastic about his daily schedule and showed no signs of rebelling against his father's discipline.

"No television, no sunshine, only chess," Rustam says. "If he doesn't go outside, I don't go outside. If he works hard, I must work hard."

Since he completed the American equivalent of high school in Russia, Gata has not enrolled in public school and has no plans to do so. The boy adds that he isn't even thinking about going to college, because chess will take up all of his time as an adult.

"I don't see him do much besides practice and train," says Abdul Hakim, the building superintendent. "All day, the chess, and that is it. Very hard, very hard."

Paul Kolker, another friend, adds that the Kamskys rarely go out to restaurants in Brighton Beach, which has more Russian-speaking residents than any other American neighborhood. So far, they seem disinterested in U.S. culture and make little effort to keep up with the news.

"Time is very important to them, because they lost two years of playing time in Russia," Kolker says. "Now, they are trying to make up for the lost time. For them, the world outside does not mean too much."

Another World

When the Kamskys do venture out of their apartment, it is usually to improve Gata's chess game. Most experts believe exercise is important for young players, and so Rustam takes his son out for quick strolls or karate practice in a nearby park. After two months, however, the boy has seen little of the world beyond his bedroom window.

Is he curious about Brighton Beach and the Coney Island amusement park nearby? "I do not know this," Gata says. "For me, chess is my world. And to be a strong player, I must study all the time. What you ask me, I don't see it. I never see this."

Does he ever get lonely? "I have friends in my home (Russia). But not now. I haven't time for it."

On occasion, Gata's impassive face breaks into a smile. When a visitor challenges him to an impromptu chess game, he plays along good-naturedly, demolishing his novice opponent in minutes. For once, he seems animated, explaining why one move is better than another.

Kamsky fell in love with chess the first time he saw it being played in a Leningrad park. It was a beautiful spring day, with children swimming and playing Ping-Pong, but the 8-year-old boy was fascinated by the slow-moving board game where players were deep in thought.

"I see a strange game," he says, his eyes brightening. "The people, all the people are playing and thinking. At first, I didn't understand. But then I liked it."

Intrigued by the Game

More than anything, Kamsky says, he was intrigued by a game in which one player tried to read his opponent's mind, while masking his own intentions. "It is very interesting to me to think about my chess partner. What is he thinking? And for me to know, to see him, this is very good."

Gata's father quickly taught him the game, and the rest is history. Although Soviet officials deny they discriminated against the boy, U.S. chess experts say it is an old story.

"In the Soviet Union, there are some groups of people who are the champions, but there are also others who are treated as second-class citizens, no matter what their abilities," says Allen Kaufman, executive director of the American Chess Foundation. "Maybe they have the wrong ethnic origins, maybe they have the wrong religion."

Asked about his troubles back home, Rustam Kamsky brushes a shock of brown hair off his forehead and begins speaking so quickly that a translator has difficulty keeping up with him.

The family was a victim of the "Moscow Mafia, the chess Mafia," he says, his face getting red. "It was the fault of Anatoly Karpov (the former world champion). He was a favorite of those in power. And he wanted no one coming close to him. Not even my son."

Kamsky starts pacing back and forth, then points angrily to Gata.

"To beat the king, you must unseat the king," he says. "They have taken years from our life. Now, we will take them back."

Is the next Bobby Fischer alive and well in Brighton Beach? Chess experts say it is too early to tell, but few of them doubt that Gata Kamsky has a brilliant future.

"Reputations can get a bit overblown, and people should be cautious about judging anyone prematurely," says Boris Baczynsky, editor of Chess World magazine. "But Kamsky has showed us a lot in a short time."

Soon after he defected, Kamsky finished second in New York's prestigious Marshall Chess Championship. The highlight of the match came when he beat Kamran Chirazi, an accomplished California player, in a game that lasted more than 100 moves.

"The kid was extraordinary," Baczynsky says. "He showed a real maturity of style, especially in his end-game strategy, when there are only a few pieces left on the board. You usually don't see that in players his age. You need more experience at that point, to judge your opponent's next move, and that's where younger players usually falter."

At the New York Open, against a field of 91 talented players, Kamsky tied for 24th with several others, including Yasser Seirawan, the No. 1 ranked player in the United States. James Sherwin, president of the American Chess Foundation, says his performance was "simply outstanding . . . a great display for someone so young."

Other Chess Prodigies

However, Kamsky is not the only brilliant youngster on the horizon.

In a closely watched match at the New York Open, for example, Gata lost to Judith Polgar, a 12-year-old whiz kid from Hungary. There are many other teen-age players in the United States and Europe who also might rise to the top of the chess world, experts say.

Kamsky hopes to compete against them in the next few months, beginning with a Memorial Day tournament in Albany, and later competitions in Las Vegas and Philadelphia. If enough money can be raised by sponsors, he also plans to attend several European matches this year.

For now, there is work, work and more work. Friends say the boy's chances of competing for the championship will depend on discipline, skill and more than a little luck. If he fails to reach a peak sometime in the next five years, the odds are he may not reach his goal.

"I must win and win and win," Kamsky says, setting up yet another chess game in his bedroom. "This is my dream."

Is he happy in his new home? The boy looks momentarily puzzled.

"Happy?" he says. "Why not?"

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