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Followers of tough-guy sports like boxing and football say a tie is like kissing your sister. To the average chess fan, that sounds like a pretty hot date. Still, the chessheads that assembled at the U.S. Chess Center on M Street to mull over Game 7 of the World Championship series between reigning champ Garry Kasparov and Viswanathan Anand aren’t going to settle for a stalemate. They want blood on the floor, victor and vanquisher—they want checkmate.
The best-of-20 match began Sept. 11, with the live action taking place on the observation deck atop the World Trade Center. Washington can make a strong claim as the second-strongest chess city in the U.S. (behind New York), but the Washington Post, for whatever reason, dropped editorial coverage of the event after the first game. (The New Republic might allege that Post editors made the decision to stop reporting on chess after learning that white always gets the first move.) Thanks to the U.S. Chess Center, local fans have a way around the news blackout: On game nights, the center presents low-tech re-creations of the proceedings, complete with play-by-play analysis from the area’s top players.
Center director Dave Mehler said that more than 40 people paid $5 a head to review the match’s opening game, but conceded that attendance has been dwindling ever since, and blamed the lack of interest on the Post‘s lack of interest. Kasparov/Anand isn’t nearly as provocative a matchup as Fischer/Spassky, which might do more to explain the apathy. In either case, a paying crowd of only nine showed up to hear Arlington master Macon Shibut’s redo of Game 7 last Thursday.
The games in New York start in the early afternoon of every weekday but Wednesday. The re-creations get going in the center’s basement at 7 p.m., so it’s likely Kasparov and Anand have left the World Trade Center roof well before the local experts start telling those assembled what moves they made. Though all attendees proclaimed ignorance of what went on in New York earlier in the day, Game 7 ended early enough for Shibut to go online with other chess experts in preparation for his MCing chores.
To shed light on the earlier matchup, Shibut announced moves in chess-speak (“rook C-4,” etc.) in spurts of three or four, simultaneously moving big plastic chess pieces on a big plastic chessboard at the front of the room. (The Chess Center has a 46-inch big-screen television and the technology to recreate the game through video means, Mehler says, but the low-tech method makes for better viewing.) Like any good play-by-play man, Shibut opines as he goes, characterizing particular moves as brilliant, reckless, or somewhere in between.
“What I’m trying to do is combine a telling of what’s going on with a psychological slant,” he explains.
All the noise and color commentary don’t come from the front of the room, however. A considerable amount of kibitzing goes on in the gallery, most of it loud enough for all in attendance to hear. A meek Anand offensive midway into Game 7 sparked the night’s most heated round of audience participation:
“What about rook takes knight?”
“Or bishop C-7?”
“Try bishop B-4.”
Shibut reset the plastic board to display the suggested moves one by one, and generally the suggester realized the error of his ways before the expert or others in the crowd did. Good proposals, though few and far between, stimulated raised eyebrows, knowing nods, and contemplation.
Shibut says he understands why club players feel bold enough to question the moves of the masters up in New York.
“This is just like any other spectator sport in that the best players make it look deceptively easy,” he says. “Like at a baseball game, when I see the outfielder gracefully move to catch a fly ball, I think that can’t be that hard to do, though rationally I know that’s not so. And when the people here look at some of the moves by Kasparov or Anand, they have that same feeling of “Oh, I can do that!’ I’m thinking, “No, you can’t. These are the best players in the world!’ ”
The MC was generally content to let the crowd members regulate each other’s conduct, but he didn’t suffer all foolishness in silence. At one point during the Game 7 replay, Shibut put one of the louder armchair grandmasters in his place by relating a well-worn chess expert’s putdown: “This is not the New Jersey Amateur Team Championship!”
His tongue was far less bridled when it came to criticizing the play of Anand and Kasparov. He disparaged both players throughout the re-creation for their unwillingness to mix it up, particularly Anand, who played white that game. (The advantage of going first is akin to having a serve game in tennis.) Finally, after mulling over Game 7’s halfhearted advances and quick retreats for an hour and 45 minutes, Shibut divulged how the match had ended: “Believe it or not, the players accepted a draw here,” he announced.
Given the lack of virility that prevailed throughout the game—and the fact that all six prior contests in the championship series had also ended in stalemates—the denouement seemed anything but shocking. But the Game 7 crowd didn’t cotton to all this sister kissing. For a few moments, the mood in the U.S. Chess Center was like that in Las Vegas after Peter McNeeley’s manager threw in the towel to end his feeble challenge of Mike Tyson. Like most fight fans, these people had paid good money and they weren’t going to tolerate wimpishness. Shrieks of disgust and disappointment filled the room after Shibut broke the news. The crowd began filing out shortly after the shock wore off. Shibut simply shrugged, as if he’d let them down by bearing the bad news.
The U.S. Chess Center will hold the daily replay sessions, which begin at 7 p.m., for as long as the championship match continues. Prior to Tuesday’s game, Anand led 5-4. The first player to get 10-and-a-half points wins.