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While pouring a fourth packet of sugar into his coffee, nine-year-old chess prodigy Jeff Sarwer spied Gary Kasparov across the convention center floor, in Saint John, New Brunswick. Kasparov, the Soviet world champion, stepped briskly through the hall, dispensing greetings with the dash one would expect of so considerable a personage. "You can't refuse to talk to me," Sarwer shouted. He was as cocky as a bantam rooster, and at 4'5" not much bigger. "I'm a world champ, too."
Sarwer, as it turns out, won the boys' 10-and-under world chess title two years ago in Puerto Rico. He came to New Brunswick from Ottawa, where he lives, to compete for one of six wild-card berths in the 32-player field at last month's first World Blitz Championship. Opponents battled the clock as well as each other for a first prize of $50,000, one of the largest ever offered at a chess tournament.
Sarwer brought with him a good brain, a sharp eye, a tenacious thoroughness and plenty of bravado. He could tell you the capital and describe the flag of any country named. "You're quite a player," he told Kasparov. "Of course, you've never played speed chess with me." Kasparov smiled blandly. When you're top gun, there's always somebody who wants to prove he's faster.
You have to be quick on the draw to play blitz. You think with your fingertips. Instead of two motionless figures endlessly pondering a board, blitz offers a brand of chess that's swift and frantic. The five-hour limit on nonblitz tournament games is compressed into a breakneck 10 minutes (five per player).
Purists may carp, but many chess experts think the game needs this sort of drama if it's ever going to snare a larger audience. "A public brought up on instant action will find speed chess easier to grasp," says Andrew Page, Kasparov's British manager. "Blitz doesn't have this frightening image of being something only a genius can play."
Indeed, as the pace gets more and more hectic, play can degenerate into a mad free-for-all. "Anything may happen," says American grand master Larry Evans. "You might see complete breakdowns! Heart attacks! Chess really becomes a blood sport."
The competitors who assembled in Saint John had a lot in common with the city. Both had a certain frowsy quality and a gritty, hustler's endurance. "Chess players are an impoverished lot," said Evans. Unable to spring for accommodations in big cities, many prefer to play in quieter venues like Subotica, Yugoslavia, or Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, or... Saint John, New Brunswick. Two dozen players stayed at a hostel run by the Salvation Army. "Some of the permanent lodgers on my floor are homeless or bad drinkers," said Ovidiu Foisor, a Romanian international master. "Some take pills or are troubled in the head."
"No, not crazy," corrected Foisor. "The only real crazies there are chess players."
Perhaps the strangest boardfellow of all was Mikhail Tal, the unassuming and faintly professorial "Magician of Riga." Known for his dissipation and misspent youth, the 51-year-old Latvian chain-smoked and chain-drank his way through the tournament. While others followed the play-by-play on TV monitors, Tal was taking on any patzer who wanted some action.