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The escape from Damascus, in his mother's arms, came later. First there was the tractor that plowed through the wall of the room where the boy was playing. The driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. The boy's mother heard the crashing. She just had time to sweep him up and toss him out of harm's way. He was only two at the time, and he lay in the dusty rubble, howling.
That was only the start. Whenever the squeeze was on, Yasser Seirawan found an escape, whether by someone else's hands or his own—from Syria to England to the U.S.; from the loneliness of gray Seattle days to the camaraderie of chess; from borderline poverty to European hotels with brass doorknobs; in one short leap from childhood to an adult world of university coffeehouses; from high school to life on the road as a chess junkie and hustler; and from the obscurity of an aspiring chess champion to the measure of fame accorded only those at the very top of the game.
Today, at 21, Seirawan (pronounced SEHR-ah-wan) is one of the fastest-rising young chess players in the U.S., ranking fifth in the nation. His first-place tie in the U.S. Championship last summer qualified him for the interzonal matches leading to the 1984 world championship. Seirawan has already had a taste of that sort of competition. He is, in fact, still recovering from a frustrating 7½-week stint in Merano, Italy, where he was one of three seconds to Soviet defector Viktor Korchnoi in Korchnoi's second unsuccessful attempt to wrest the world championship from Anatoly Karpov of the Soviet Union. On Nov. 20, after only 18 games, Karpov completed a 6-2 rout of the challenger, continuing the Soviet domination of the game that has existed without interruption—save for Bobby Fischer's victory over Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1972—for almost 45 years.
To the extent that chess can serve as a metaphor, Seirawan is a knight, the only piece on the board that avoids danger or attacks by sailing over and around a threat or an obstacle. That's Seirawan, for sure, the one flying up and out of harm's way in Damascus and points west. And he certainly doesn't fit the chess stereotype. He goes by the name of Yaz, and he is as trim and athletic as an all-star outfielder. In fact, with his curly hair he looks less like the grandmaster he is than the beachboy he once envisioned he would be.
"If I'd never left Virginia Beach, I'd be a surfer today," Seirawan says. "I think I would've become a professional surfer. No kidding. I'd be in Australia right now. And a womanizer. Absolutely a womanizer. And a pinball hustler. I don't consider myself talented in every aspect of life, but things have come to me in a reasonably simple and easy way."
Muyasser (Max) Seirawan, the son of a well-to-do Syrian cloth merchant, had been betrothed at birth by his father to the first-born daughter of his father's best friend. But in love as in chess, plans well laid often get mislaid. While studying mathematics at the University of Nottingham in England, Max, as he was known, met and married an Englishwoman and took her home to Syria. Yasser, their first son, was born on March 24, 1960, in Damascus. The episode involving the runaway tractor was nothing compared to what Yasser went through—though he was unaware of it—in early 1963, when civil war convulsed his homeland.
"A revolution was going on," Yasser's mother, Margaret, says. "No stability whatsoever. Governments were over-turned while you slept at night. Another government was formed while you were having breakfast. A bunch of babies they were. What they needed was a good spanking! We got out of there, all right." But barely. Max was a brilliant computer programmer—he "spoke" 24 computer languages—and was viewed as a kind of national asset. Had the government of the moment known he was trying to leave, it wouldn't have let him go. Using black-market passports, Max and Margaret, with Yasser in her arms, slipped through Damascus airport security—teen-age kids armed with automatic rifles—by feigning that they spoke only English.
They settled in Nottingham for four years and then moved to Seattle in 1967, where Max went to work for Boeing. By then Yasser was seven and already bridling under his father's authoritarian rule. "He kept a strict home," Yasser says. "Any rebellion was immediately and ruthlessly put down. I became very introverted." A street kid, selfish and self-possessed. "A loner," he says. "Very much my own person."
The marriage didn't last. By the time Max and Margaret separated, they had had three children: Yasser; a daughter, Runda, now 23; and a second son, Daniel, now 17. After Max left, Margaret and the three children hooked up with a 6'5" self-described Tibetan monk who hailed from the planet Earth by way of Detroit. His name was Richard Vallance. "He had a bald head, a flaming red beard and deep, penetrating blue eyes," Seirawan says. "The effect he had on people was unnerving. He just looked right through you." The itinerant Vallance was something like the character David Carradine used to play in the old television series Kung Fu.
"That's exactly how he was," Margaret says, "but without the kung fu. A free spirit. He taught yoga, reincarnation. He had a beautiful soothing voice, a healing voice. A great healer. And he knew herbs to boot! He was a great teacher, Richard Vallance."