Pawns of the Game

Love, obsession, madness, and other matters of chess

Good chess players are like that: extroverted, bold, highly intelligent, perhaps more than a little loony. It's almost required in order to excel at a game that's been pondered to extremes since the sixth century. Not much room remains for genius in the chess world. In a finite realm of 64 squares, only so many moves, so many variations can be devised. Yet they keep coming, the top players, trying to peer deeper than others, trying to find that one, pure combination that will take the game to places no one has seen before.

Omar played in his first tournament at the age of 12. He won. "It was the only sport I could be competitive at," he says. "I tried basketball. I tried boxing. I wasn't good enough for them." But he was a natural at chess. "Nobody taught me how to play," Omar says. "I taught myself."

His father, like his future wife, didn't see how anything could come of devoting all his energy to a board game. He wanted Omar to grow up and be an engineer. They fought, and Omar threw himself at his schoolwork to pull in the high grades that would appease his dad. But he never turned his back on chess. "I could read chess books and remember all the moves," he says. "All of them."

He went to college for a year, but it was quickly apparent that his aptitude lay elsewhere. In 1984, after once again crushing all the competition in a local tournament, Omar was named Cebu's outstanding athlete by a Philippine newspaper. Two years later he helped bring the national team to a respectable sixth-place finish at the world chess Olympiad in Dubai.

Then, his father's displeasure ringing in his ears, Omar tried for the first and only time in his life to walk away from the game. He landed a job with a food-processing company, where he passed four uneventful years looking after canned goods. He didn't play once. "I can only concentrate on one thing at a time," Omar explains.

In 1990, a friend called from Manila to request Omar's help in organizing a tournament. Omar arrived at the venue and took in the rows of chess sets, the clocks, the battles waiting to be joined. "I quit my job at the food company and started playing again," he says. "I missed the action."

In 1993, Omar placed second in the Philippine Open and was acclaimed one of the country's top players. It was only natural that the government would spring a couple of years later for his airfare so Omar could defend national honor at the U.S. Open, held that year across the bay in Concord. They never anticipated he'd like the level of competition in America so much that he wouldn't bother returning home.

Omar shrugs and says a little eccentricity is common among talented chess players. "Bobby Fischer was eccentric," he offers by way of explanation. "Fischer is my idol. He was a genius."

Such a genius, in fact, that Fischer played in his first tournament at the age of 10. Four years later he traveled to S.F. and won the U.S. Junior Championship, and a year afterward he became the youngest ever grandmaster and U.S. champion. The rest is pretty well known -- the 1972 world championship against Boris Spassky in Iceland, the years of reclusiveness, the return to semipublic life (and interest in anti-Semitic causes), the violation of an embargo on traveling to the former Yugoslavia, which means he'd face criminal charges should he ever now return home from his expatriation.

It's a short hop from genius to madness. For some, like Omar, the insanity is kept at bay by the continuing pursuit of excellence. For others, the only recourse is to flee.

Jay Whitehead was 15 when he looked across the chessboard and saw the person he would never be.

It was 1977, and Jay, one of the world's top-ranked players his age, was chewing up the competition in the under-17 chess Olympiad in France. But the 14-year-old boy he faced now was different. He was from the Soviet Union, for one thing, and everyone knew that the Soviets were the leading force in international chess. Fischer had said the Soviets fixed matches among themselves so as to allow the strongest players to glide easily to the finals, and grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi confirmed that game-rigging was common among top Soviet players. But there was something else: a quiet fierceness in the boy's eyes and manner. "Just from sitting across from him, you could tell there was something extraordinary about this person," Jay recalls. The young Soviet, barely out of puberty, was Gary Kasparov, who now reigns as world champion.

"The game was boredom personified," Jay says. "He played a dull opening, and I strived to equalize. There must have been some apprehension. I was afraid to duke it out with him. Maybe he was also a little afraid of me."

The game ended in a draw, but it was enough for Jay to score 8.5 out of 11 points in the tournament and finish second; young Kasparov's eight points brought him in third. Where the two boys differed, though, was that Kasparov returned home and resumed the intense study that would make him one of the most knowledgeable and well-rounded chess players in history. Jay, on the other hand, would study a bit, but not with any great zeal to push his game to new limits.

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