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Spanish tourney hosts best in chess

©Associated Press
March 8, 2003

LINARES, Spain -- On one side, the kid, dressed in black but baby-faced and fidgety. On the other, his opponent: the icy, scowling chess eminence Garry Kasparov.

Against all odds, Teimour Radjabov, 15, beat Kasparov, the world's top-ranked player, although the teen did benefit from a Kasparov blunder as the champ looked poised to win.

That duel of David and Goliath, culminating in Kasparov's failure to shake Radjabov's hand afterward, was a highlight of the Linares Chess Tournament, sometimes called the Wimbledon of chess.

The venue is an unlikely one: this noisy, dusty town of 63,000 in the Spain's olive-growing region.

But once a year it plays host to a world-class meeting of minds as a handful of highly focused people, almost always young men, gather for some quiet warfare.

The tournament was founded in 1978 by local supermarket tycoon and chess buff Luis Rentero. By the mid 1980s it had started to lure serious talent and it has managed to uphold that standard.

While the World Chess Federation is pushing for new rules to speed up games, Linares sticks to a system in which they can last seven hours. An average game takes about four.

Names like Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov adorn the tournament's hall of fame, and this is Kasparov's 12th appearance. He has won seven times, but is struggling this year in a field of seven as the two-week competition nears its conclusion Sunday.

The double round-robin unfolds in a hotel reception hall, with three games played simultaneously on an elevated stage.

The players are a show unto themselves, frowning, wincing, playing with their hair or tweaking their noses. While waiting for an opponent to move, they often get up and pace like caged animals or go watch somebody else's game.

World No. 3, Viswanathan Anand of India, sips tea. Kasparov, a short, broad-chested man who is easily the antsiest of the bunch, gulps coffee. His face and body are a twitching kaleidoscope of energy and emotion. In a poker game he'd probably lose his shirt.

The audience is small, maybe 100 people, but organizers say the tournament's Web page gets 40,000 hits a day.

Spectators watch in reverent silence. A skillful move draws no oohs or ahs, although you do hear an occasional whisper. Chairs creak and throats clear. A smattering of children dot the room, some clutching miniature chess sets, like mitts at a baseball game.

Anand beat Radjabov in the 12th round on Friday. The result moved Anand into a tie for the lead with Classical World Champion Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, who had the bye on Friday.

Radjabov travels with his father, Boris, though this time his mother, Leila, also came along because the tournament was so important.

Radjabov, who started learning the game at 3, is now ranked 68th in the world and rising fast. He says he admires history's conquerors, like Napoleon, also a chess player, and Alexander the Great.

When Radjabov beat Kasparov on Feb. 23 it was the latter's first loss since 1996 while playing white pieces. These move first, giving the player an advantage like a serve in tennis.

Leila Radjabov, speaking halting English, groped for a word to describe her elation, then settled for "unbelievable." When her son and Kasparov met for a rematch Monday, they played to a draw. Again, not bad for the kid.

Kasparov has dominated the game for two decades with an aggressive style that shuns settling for a draw. Spanish chess commentators call him "the beast from Baku." But at 39, some say he's starting to lose his edge.

Nobody wants to talk about money. Organizers say Linares is more about prestige than cash. The prizes are symbolic and amount to a fraction of the players' appearance fees.

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