Chess 'summit' begins in Seattle

by Marc Ramirez
Seattle Times staff reporter
HARLEY SOLTES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Chinese chess grandmaster Zhang Zhong focuses all his energy on his chess game against Alexander Shabalov in the first round of the inaugural U.S.-China Chess Summit at the Harbor Club. Zhang is among more than a dozen Chinese players to come to Seattle for the match.

In China, Xie Jun is considered one of the country's top 10 athletes. Her sport? A contest involving 32 game pieces on a 64-square board.

"She is the heroine of China," said Chen Zu De, president of the Chinese Chess Association. "Everybody knows her."

Yesterday, the 30-year-old world women's chess champion and a dozen others representing China's best chess players took on their American counterparts in the inaugural U.S.-China Chess Summit, the first time teams from both nations have faced each other.

The four-round, five-day event is hosted by the Seattle Chess Foundation, which organized last fall to save the faltering U.S. chess championships by making Seattle the event's home for 10 years.

Chess enthusiasm among Washington state youths is at an all-time high, a 10-year upswing that echoes a national trend. However, adult play in the United States has gone flat, and many chess clubs have folded their boards and called it quits.

China, meanwhile, is emerging as a chess power. Its women's squad took the gold at the last two Chess Olympiads, and, nationwide, enthusiasm for the game has exploded over the past 10 years. The number of players is estimated to have grown from 30,000 to more than 3 million.

That's the kind of spirit hoped for by Seattle Chess Foundation founders Yasser Seirawan, a Seattle-bred grandmaster, venture capitalist Erik Anderson and Microsoft graduate Scott Oki. Their four-year exchange agreement - U.S. players will travel to China next year - is part of a mission to make Seattle the U.S. chess capital and raise the game's prestige around this country.

Yesterday's matches were held at the Harbor Club on the 17th floor of downtown Seattle's Norton Building. Players faced off at tables overlooking the city skyline, the silence broken only by the punch of a game clock or the occasional shuffle of a spectator's shoes across the carpet.

Heads rested thoughtfully in hands. Ice clinked in glasses. Irina Krush, who won her first U.S. women's championship at age 14 several years ago, pondered a long time before sliding her queen to the middle of the board in her first-round match against Xu Yuhua.

Outside, in an adjoining room, TV monitors kept observers posted on the latest moves, while nearby, international master Jeremy Silman conducted a running commentary for a handful of fans.

The match of the day, he said, appeared to be that between China's Qin Kanying and American Camilla Baginskaite, who played white and went at her opponent with a pawn-heavy attack.

"Everything's going according to Hoyle," he said, as Baginskaite, who tied with Elina Groberman for the U.S. women's championship last fall, continued. "It's kind of forcing black's hand. Black really has to make a decision now."

Baginskaite took the game.

The summit, which continues through Sunday evening, also features 15-year-old Bu Xiangzhi, the world's youngest chess grandmaster. Tonight, Gov. Gary Locke will host a dinner for the Chinese team.

While it might not rival the pingpong diplomacy of the Nixon era, Anderson said, the summit can play a role in breaking the ice between the United States and China, which have often been at odds but now are exploring political and trade partnerships.

"This is a nice first step," he said.

Groberman, the 18-year-old U.S. co-champ and women's team alternate at the summit, agreed.

"It's not every day that chess gets so much support," the Moldova-born immigrant said. Despite two exams awaiting her when she returns to classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she didn't have to think long about attending the summit.

"It's really hard to pass up this opportunity," she said. "This is a historic moment."

Marc Ramirez can be reached at 206-464-8102 or at mramirez@seattletimes.com.