China, United States meet in first chess match

By GENE JOHNSON
The Associated Press
3/14/01 8:28 AM

SEATTLE (AP) -- Ten years ago, it would have been difficult for the Chinese chess team to sit at the same board as the American team.

Now, the Chinese players are not merely at the same board, they're favored to win.

Much improved by the game's increasing popularity and government support in China, the team is in town to go pawn-to-pawn with the best of the United States this week.

It's the first meeting between the teams, and chess enthusiasts from both sides are calling it an open door to better Chinese-American relations. It will be followed by at least three more annual matches, alternating between China and the United States.

"One in five people in the world are Chinese, and yet it's a country the United States has had very awkward relations with for 60 years at least," Yasser Seirawan, the top-rated American, said Tuesday night. "We can get to know each other a lot better."

Followers of the game are interested to see whether the Americans will get to know the Chinese as winners or losers. Three of the visitors have better ratings than Seirawan, and the Chinese also have the women's world champion, 30-year-old Xie Jun.

Gov. Gary Locke, whose parents are Chinese immigrants, is betting on the Americans. He wagered smoked salmon to the Chinese ambassador's Peking duck.

The match was arranged by the Seattle Chess Foundation, which hosted the U.S. championships last fall. It features the top six players from each country, plus two top women and two top juniors, in 10 games daily on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

While some will be watching to see whether the Chinese live up to their higher ratings, the match carries more weight in politics than in chess, players and officials say.

"This is a friendly event, but we're a very proud team, so we want to win, and we want to win very badly," Gregory Kaidanov said. "For them, it's politically probably a very important match. You know how they consider the U.S.A."

For China, the ancient game -- banned during the "Cultural Revolution" in the 1960s and '70s -- has become a point of national pride.

"The Chinese people are very proud of the Chinese team," Wang Yunxiang, China's ambassador in San Francisco, said at opening ceremonies Tuesday night. "They are not very keen about strength sports, but chess is a brain sport."

Jun, the women's champion, has been named one of the 10 best athletes in China -- a commendation typically reserved for table tennis and badminton players, divers and gymnasts, said Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese consulate in San Francisco.

National chess team members are paid well by the government and other organizations, they said, and the government several years ago built headquarters for the team in a Beijing suburb.

"Chess is to China today what chess may have been to the Soviet Union 30 years ago," says local chess tutor and grandmaster Leo Stefurak. "Those chess grandmasters in the Soviet Union were some of the only Soviets allowed to travel around and see the rest of the world. This is another crack, perhaps, in the Communist wall."

Players say the matches will be friendly.

To determine black and white in the opening round, team captains played a decidedly less taxing game, Jenga, in which players try to stack blocks of wood without knocking them over. The American captain, Nick de Firmian, proved the klutz.