The former pinball hustler of Virginia Beach was hardly a newcomer to the con himself. Right out of high school, he traveled to New York to make a killing. Dressed in safari shorts with 12 pockets and a tank top decorated with spider webs, he swooped down on Times Square—the Seattle Kid disguised as a surfer. Seirawan was by then a very good blitz, or speed, chess player—a game in which the time allowed for moves is minuscule and the competitor who thinks the best and quickest wins.
Between the street hustlers he took for $5 a pop and the sharks he took for $10 a game in the now-defunct New York Chess and Checkers Club, he left Times Square that first day with his 12 pockets bulging—$800 in all, counting side bets. Playing blitz chess for money may appear a prostitution of the chess player's skills, like a pianist's performing Bach in ragtime, but many great players pride themselves on their blitzing skills. "It sharpens your knowledge of tactics," Seirawan says. "Combinations, pins, mating attacks and traps." Blitz games quicken a player's powers of perception and his ability to quickly analyze the fields of force and positions on the board.
In 1979, Seirawan won the World Junior Championship in Norway, beating the best under-21 players from 56 countries, and automatically became an international master, which gave him an entree to grandmaster tournaments. It was the most important victory in his career to that point. "From there on, everything else was gravy," Seirawan says. "Now I was invited to premier tournaments because I had this title and it's prestigious for organizers to say that they had the world junior champ in their tournament."
It helped get him to Wijk aan Zee, Holland the following January, where he gained his greatest triumph to that date. The place crawled with grandmasters. Seirawan won his first game, and in his second faced none other than Korchnoi. Less than two years before, Korchnoi had failed by a single point, 6-5, to beat Karpov for the world title, in Baguio City, the Philippines. It had been less than three years since Seirawan had been playing first board for Garfield High.
Seirawan often begins telling a story by saying, "Dig this scenario...." So dig this one. Korchnoi shows up late for the game. Sitting down, he says to Seirawan, "Excuse me, I'm late, I'm sorry." Seirawan says it's O.K., but he's a bit awed. "This was like the rookie coming into the NFL," he recalls. "People were licking their chops when they saw me coming. I was 19." Then they begin play.
"Luck, luck, luck," Seirawan now says of that match. "You can be lucky. I'm unknown to the guy. So he decides to play a second-rate defense to improve his offensive chances. Heh! This defense is the one and only thing I know like the back of my hand. He falls right into it. Like into all my preparation, all my traps! I knew it from a lot of blitz games. I spring an opening novelty; I sacrifice two pawns; I whip out a kingside attack and make a space." Voilà!
Korchnoi resigned on the 39th move. A bit stunned, he offered his hand. "Congratulations," he said. "Good game." No doubt the last thing Korchnoi wanted to do was sit and gab with this child from Seattle. Seirawan suspected that Korchnoi really wanted to go back to his room and chew up his sofa. But Seirawan offered him some popcorn anyway. "Gee, Viktor, you want to go over the game?" How could Korchnoi refuse? They repaired to an analysis room and went over it, move by move.
Korchnoi grew curious. "What would you have done if I'd taken your knight here?" he asked.
"You know, Viktor, I expected that," said Seirawan. They played variations, and each time Seirawan exposed the weakness in Korchnoi's idea. Seirawan was lucky. However Korchnoi figured it, Seirawan knew the moves. The grandmaster had fallen into Seirawan's pet line.
The tournament at Wijk aan Zee became Seirawan's advertisement for himself. He beat not only Korchnoi, but also the grandmasters Jan Timman and Lev Alburt. Throughout the competition, Seirawan found Korchnoi approaching him and asking him about the positions in other games. "What do you think of the Timman game?" Korchnoi asked him once. Seirawan looked at the board. "Boy, it sure looks like he could move his knight to king-bishop six." To which Korchnoi replied, "Hmm, that's what I was thinking."