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Making All the Right Moves
Ray Kennedy
January 12, 1976
Walter Browne is briefly motionless, not the normal state for this go-go grandmaster who feels he can beat anybody at anything—and the Russians at chess
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January 12, 1976

Making All The Right Moves

Walter Browne is briefly motionless, not the normal state for this go-go grandmaster who feels he can beat anybody at anything—and the Russians at chess

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It may not take long. The one salutary effect of the 1972 Bobby boomlet was that membership in the U.S. Chess Federation doubled to 58,000 (compared to 3,500,000 registered players in the U.S.S.R.). And while the ranks have since diminished to 50,000, which Edmondson attributes mainly to "the great disappointment in Fischer's refusal to play," there remains the nucleus of a new generation of exceptionally talented young players. After being shut out for nearly a decade, the U.S. has produced nine players in the past two years who have earned the title of international master. Unable to raise the minimum $50,000 it would take to help train future champions, Edmondson has introduced a Futurity Program to allow the very best of the young whips to gain more experience at home and abroad. Recent results have Edmondson beaming about the U.S. future on the international circuit. In short, he says, "We're loaded."

That was nowhere more apparent than at this year's U.S. championship in Oberlin, Ohio. In addition to Browne, there were five other players in their 20s who not only rated an invitation but registered a seismic shock. They were:

Ken Rogoff, 22, of Rochester, N.Y., a three-time U.S. Junior Champion, who arrived fresh from graduation exercises at Yale confessing, "I've not played a serious game of chess in nearly a year." It did not show. The tournament's youngest entry, he scored its biggest surprise by finishing second to Browne and winning the U.S.'s last available bid to the FIDE Interzonals.

James Tarjan, 23, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., who was inoculated with chess as a child by his Hungarian refugee father, and quit Berkeley in his junior year because "I couldn't shake the game's magical attraction." Rated a strong candidate to become the ninth active grandmaster in the country, he allows that "With a tenth of the energy I could make 10 times the money doing something else." So why doesn't he? "Well, I'm crazy."

John Grefe, 28, of Hoboken, N.J., who prepared for a game by sitting at the board with his shoes off, back straight and eyes staring into the beyond. He is "into meditation and applying the law of Karma to chess" in an attempt to achieve "a visualization of the pieces moving in the mind's eye." Something works. In 1973 he materialized out of nowhere to become co-champion of the U.S.

Kim Commons, 23, of Lancaster, Calif., who looks more like a UCLA forward than a UCLA grad who teaches physics on the side. He gave up pool hustling because "I'm very solicitous of my thumbs." But now he wonders about the rigors of chess, especially since one of his fellow chess gypsies' teeth fell out from malnutrition. Married to one of the nation's 2,000 registered female chess players, he says, "Eventually I'll probably get a real job. I need roots."

John Peters, 24, of North Scituate, Mass., who has won the New England Open but has never had the funds to venture much beyond Boston for competition. A doctor's son, he is sticking with chess because he thinks "there might be a future." The two veteran grandmasters he knocked off in Oberlin can only agree.

In Russi a chess heroes are involved in teaching, but here, says Edmondson, "Our grandmasters are not disposed to help a promising young player because they feel he'll steal the bread out of their mouths." Rogoff agrees, sardonically noting, "They like to teach you, all right, but only by beating you." The result, says Commons, was that the 1975 U.S. championship was "a case of the young Christians going against the old lions."

Rarely, in fact, have the generational battle lines been so sharply drawn: led by Browne, the six martyrs (average age: 24) were, in effect, a team pitted against a like number of lions (average age: 45), a veritable pride of grandmasters who have been the kings of the U.S. chess jungle—always excepting Fischer—for more than a decade.

In a game in which players lose more than 15 pounds or even faint dead away in tournaments, endurance is crucial. Says Rogoff, "Chess may start out as an art, but after nearly a month of hard playing in a tournament it becomes an athletic event."

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