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Yasser, That's My Baby
William Nack
December 21, 1981
So Viktor Korchnoi indicated in picking Yasser Seirawan of the U.S. as his second. Now Yasser wants to be second to none
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December 21, 1981

Yasser, That's My Baby

So Viktor Korchnoi indicated in picking Yasser Seirawan of the U.S. as his second. Now Yasser wants to be second to none

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He launched the chess team his freshman year, and in the classroom assigned to it, he played game after game to demonstrate chess to kids who'd never played it before. "Every day I played games," he says. "Bang-bang-bang. Kids came and went. Suddenly, about a month before the season started, these guys were playing the game. They were going home and playing chess with each other, and arranging meetings and showing up at tournaments I was in."

What most struck the staff at Garfield was the effort he put into teaching others. His time was doled out like popcorn. "He was a terrific coach," says John Kunselman, a faculty adviser to the team. "He had an amazing capacity to play chess in his mind. It was an overwhelming experience to know him—like encountering a Mozart. His patience in teaching other people astounded me. He was never isolated, always gregarious. He helped bring other people along."

In his freshman year, Seirawan says, Garfield's six frontline boards—the first team—were played by "three black guys, a Chinese guy, a white guy and a Syrian. Of course, we were a novelty." Certainly they must have been the only high school chess team in history whose members gave each other the Flip Wilson handshake: "Slap-slap, bang-bang, bang-bang, hit-hit," Seirawan says. "The other chess teams came on very sedately, dressed up, pens at the ready. The brotherhood came in dressed in jeans, giving it the Flip Wilson shake. 'Anybody got a pencil?' We were a monster team. Grrumph! We chewed up everybody."

Garfield won the metro championship in Seirawan's freshman year and finished second in the state championship, after having beaten the eventual champions in the regionals. In his sophomore year—by this time, Seirawan was the Washington state chess champion—they won all three titles. That year, Seirawan finagled letterman's jackets for the members of the chess team. They swept the titles again his junior year. When the team was scheduled to compete out of state, students raised the money to send it by holding car washings and candy drives. The team was honored at pep rallies.

"Let's hear it for the chess team," the bullhorn would blare. "They're going to the metro championship this week!" The students would howl, the drums would roll, and here would come the cheerleaders doing splits and leading a cheer that Kunselman still recalls: "Check that king! Check that king! Mate! Mate! Mate!"

It was some experience. "It was unusual for an urban school to go to a chess tournament," says Roscoe Bass, the principal at Garfield when Seirawan was a freshman. "I thought it was nice, the diversity."

Seirawan graduated after his junior year, having taken extra courses to get out early. By then he knew what he wanted to do with his life, and college wasn't in his plans. High school had become a confinement, keeping him too long in Seattle. There were tournaments to play and places to go. So he left the chess team he had created, took the class princess, Marlene Williams, to the junior prom and was off to queen his pawn.

Seirawan was rated a senior master when he left Garfield, and he had already made a small impression in chess circles. In the 1975 U.S. Open at Lincoln, Neb., he had beaten his first grandmaster, Arthur Bisguier, to applause. "I almost fell off the stage," he says. When he got home, all excited, and told his mother how well he had done, she said, "How much did you win?"

"Ah, thirty-three dollars and thirty-three cents," he said.

"Are you sure you're not going to college?" Margaret asked. Of course not. He had become a chess master. He was learning the wrinkles as he went, the ways of the psych, of chess. In an early round at Lincoln he sat down to play a fellow who displayed a disconcertingly toothy smile. "In the middle game, his game goes sour, and the smile becomes a grin," Seirawan says. "Then he gets into time trouble, and he begins to gnash his teeth. Then we're both in time trouble. Finally, at a really critical moment in the game, he reaches up and takes out his teeth and sticks them in a glass of water. I'd never seen teeth like that in my life!" There they were, sitting in the glass and smiling. "My clock is ticking, time is running out and I can't get those teeth out of my sight. Oh, man.... But I got him!"

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