Students Face Ultimate Chess Challenge

From Reuters

The American teenager nervously pumped his legs under the table and the small Israeli boy was afraid, but the young Norwegian stayed cool as they sat toe-to-toe with world No. 1 chess player Garry Kasparov.

They were among an all-star cast of boys and girls whose teams won the first World School Chess Championship played over the Internet, ending in Manhattan this week in traditional “over-the-board” contests and a bonus simultaneous exhibition game against the Russian grandmaster.

“I felt afraid, nervous and everything. It was very hard to play against him,” said 12-year-old Eitan Shahak, whose Elkana School in a village in Israel won the elementary school section of the 4-month-long event on


The Israeli children defeated Dixie Bee School of Terre Haute, Ind., 7 1/2 to 4 1/2 in the two-match final after their six-member teams had conquered half a dozen other schools online between March and June. One point is awarded for a win and a half point for a draw.

Kasparov, 37, who delved into e-business in March with the 600-school tournament in three age groups, won all eight simultaneous games against “all-stars” from Australia, England, Israel, Norway and the United States.

But teenage master Leif Erlend Johannessen of Norway came close to upsetting Kasparov, considered by many experts to be the strongest player in the history of chess.

“He’s on his way up,” said his coach, grandmaster Simen Agrestein of Norges Toppidrettgymnas (College for Top Athletes), a school near Oslo that educates the country’s most promising athletes and includes chess as a subject.

“He played excellent chess and he could have forced a win. He wasn’t disturbed by playing Kasparov; he handled it very well,” Agrestein said of his student.

The next day, Johannessen’s teammate Harald Borchgrevink, displaying the same coolness, earned a draw against Kasparov in another simultaneous exhibition involving 28 young players.

On Wednesday, the Norwegians completed a convincing two-match 11 1/2 to 1/2 victory over Anglican Church Grammar School of Australia in the high school section.

Hunter College School of New York, longtime U.S. scholastic chess power, comfortably bested Nottingham School of England in the junior high section by 10 points to 2 over two matches.

Filled with bravado while playing Kasparov, the New York City school’s top player, national master Samson Benen, offered the world champion a draw. During the game, Benen nervously jiggled his legs under the playing table and smiled up at Kasparov, but he ultimately was forced to resign on the 43rd move after two hours at the board.

“It’s almost tyrannical,” Benen, 15, said in assessing Kasparov’s play. “The horrible thing is that you can anticipate his moves and you can sort of see them coming, but when they come they come with such force there’s nothing you can do.”

As the contest shifted from computer screens in classrooms around the globe to traditional wooden boards in New York, most of the young players said they preferred battling their opponents in person.

Kasparov, a relentless promoter of the game he has dominated since first becoming world champion in 1985 at the tender age of 22, said one of the principal aims of the Web site was to encourage play at an early age.

Studies have shown children benefit from learning chess at school. Nonprofit group Chess-in-the-Schools commissioned a study in New York in 1991 that showed a year-to-year gain of 5.37 percentile points against the national average in math and reading among a chess-playing group in one inner-city school district.

“Chess is part of the curriculum at Hunter,” coach Sunil Weeramantry of the winning junior high team said. “It’s better for the children because it’s taken seriously and they are not seen as some oddball chess player or anything like that.”

Kasparov asked his fellow-celebrity friends, German tennis star Boris Becker and British singer-songwriter Sting--both chess fans--to help promote his new venture.

Becker played Kasparov online in March in a game that was also broadcast live on Cable News Network. Sting and his band played simultaneous exhibition games Thursday against Kasparov in Times Square and the pop star helped present trophies to the new Internet school champion teams.