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On Chess: Chess godfather Yasser Seirawan unretires, but just for a month

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 12, 2012 - If Yasser Seirawan were coaching a different sport, he would certainly be a press conference favorite. Witty, eloquent and blessed with a charming smile, he is the other side of the coin to the stoic, grouchy former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa — like Dick Vermeil without the tears. But in the wide world of chess, a televised interview is unfortunately rare.

Seirawan, the 52-year-old four-time U.S. Chess Champion, has authored a popular series of chess books, acted as a conflict mediator and served as an all-around advocate for the sport. He also has been serving as the acting resident Grandmaster at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis since Sept. 3, following former GM-in-Residence Ben Finegold’s resignation in mid-August. Seirawan serves as an instructor for the club’s members, as well as head coach for the Lindenwood University Chess Team, which is underway with its first season. According to Seirawan, the position is temporary — he expects to return to his home in Netherlands in October, with a full-time replacement in place at the club.

Chess enthusiasts do have reason to hold their breath -- Seirawan seems to subscribe to the Jordan-Favre school of retirement, in which retiring is a repeatable action, with forays back into the professional world of sports. Regardless, Seirawan’s arrival in St. Louis is something to cheer for — he brings with him a history of chess’ rise into American popular culture and fall from grace, with a high hopes for the future of the sport.

In a recent interview, working from a makeshift office on the second floor of the SLCCSC’s Central West End building, he revealed his opinions on the holistic benefits of chess, disrupting the serenity of retired life and how “god invented the internet for chess players.” (The interview has been edited for length.)

Beacon: What originally drew you to chess?

Seirawan: In 1972 I got swept in a special kind of fever — it was the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky World Championship match that was front page news for the better part of seven months, as Fischer defeated the evil Soviet world champion and our own American became an international grandmaster.

I got swept up in that excitement and I started to play chess. Now in those days the epicenter of chess in America was New York City. Well, Seattle [Seirawan’s childhood hometown] is about as far away from New York City as you can possibly get [laughs]. This was not the days of the internet, and getting information and getting bulletins and even having tournament opportunities were few and far between. I was very fortunate because I got caught up, and many others got caught up, in the whole Bobby Fischer virus.

We became chess players and we would knock heads with each other, we would play blitz. We were very fortunate in Seattle to have a coffee shop, not a real chess club like here in St. Louis but simply a coffee shop in which we would all meet and play with one another.

Basically, I was rotten. I was just a terrible, terrible chess player. I lost so many games I can’t even begin to tell you. Victory: that was something way off the charts [laughs]. But slowly I rose through the class ranks as an amateur. And then in 1975 I had a real breakthrough and I became what we call in the world of chess an expert. And that was three years after playing. So being an expert really gave me that extra incentive to really become a master and so on.

So you’re covering as resident Grandmaster for a 30-day period?

Seirawan: They want me to take a permanent position, but my wife and I -- my wife is Dutch -- have been living in Amsterdam since 2006. We have a very easy life, a very comfortable, enjoyable life in Amsterdam. Coming to St. Louis in a permanent position I know is going to involve work. [Laughs] Work!

I look at the staff members here, and all the things they’re doing, and I know they’re working very hard and moving chess forward at such a fast pitched pace. I would be challenged to keep up with them.

What were some things that made that quick turnaround from Ben [Finegold] taking his early retirement to you showing up here possible?

Seirawan: The timing couldn’t have been worse. We were doing a tour of the Pacific Northwest, visiting friends and family. And sometime during this extensive vacation where we were sailing, boating and sea-dooing, you know, jet skiing in the mountain air looking at pods of orcas and barbecues and all of the wonderful things that you could do with friends and family were taking place and I got this e-mail from Joy: “Emergency! Please come to ST. Louis” and I was like “What?!”

You leave the United States and go all the way to Europe only to repack your bags: shorts and sandals are replaced by suits and ties and jackets, coming here to St. Louis because it really was an emergency situation. The club is contracted with so many educational institutions to provide Grandmaster instruction, specifically Lindenwood University. So they really needed somebody desperately to do that.

And now that I’ve arrived, and more or less I still have several more days of orientation, and I am getting a greater pulse of the club and what they’re trying to do, I can see some real desperate needs of things that have to be done to really push the club to the world stage…

What’s happened in St. Louis has attracted the attention of people in 160 countries; they’re looking at what’s happening here. One of the things that I think is such a powerful movement here in St. Louis is the educational outreach that is being done and affecting the lives of thousands of kids, right? So the idea of creating the proper curriculum, the set of teaching textbooks that would take a child from having no knowledge of the game to being quite good, to recognizing the planning, the reasoning, the logic that goes into making a series of moves, and why that plan is better than another plan, weighing and saying “This is the best move …”

Chess is a sport, but also an art, that can teach you a lot of things. The most important thing that I think impacts a child is critical thinking. See, I can give you a series of facts, that will make you knowledgeable — that will not necessarily make you clever or wise. But being able to critically assess those facts, and then turn that knowledge into a concrete plan of action; that’s critical thinking.

Chess is such a powerful tool in that it forces people to think.

So you see the outreach as two-pronged, in that it adds to the support of chess and the popularity of chess, but it also…

Seirawan: Right! It also helps in producing better citizens.

I’ve heard people mention the STEM subjects [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics], but you’re taking it to this Liberal Arts level of employing critical thinking?

Seirawan: Oh, definitely. Again, as you say, I went through the STEM institutional programs in the United States, and I learned a lot about history. But what I learned doesn’t necessarily teach you to be critically thinking about history.

So I learned there was the Roman Empire. I’m getting all of these facts, but I was never forced to critically think like “What did they do wrong? Why did it collapse? What would’ve happened if the Roman Empire hadn’t collapsed?” If we were being ruled today from Rome, how weird would that have been, would we have had the Medieval dark ages?

You didn’t have this critical thinking when I was going to school, it was like “Here kid, here’s the text books, read it, comprehend it, we’re going to test you on it. OK. You got an A. Well done!” Chess isn’t like that.

You also have edited the chess periodical, Inside Chess.

Seirawan: I was the owner, publisher, editor of Inside Chess magazine, and that went from 1988 to 2000. I wanted to make a magazine, a biweekly, that would bring back copious amounts of material, chess games from around the world, that was really aimed at the elite in the world of chess, the professional and semi-professional chess players out there, especially in the United States. I sold it in 2000, and I did it for a deliberate reason.

When I started the magazine, it was very, very hard to get a lot of chess information. By 2000, before that of course, the internet simply exploded. When I first went to Europe as a young teen in the 1970s, my bridge to America was the International Herald Tribune.

You could read in the Trib what was happening in the NFL, what was happening in America, things like that. I’m really ashamed to say I haven’t bought a Trib in 10 years, because I get so much of my information today from the internet…

The game that was played less than two hours ago is online, you can see it in real time from Istanbul, Turkey, and you can even create a forum with people saying “Gosh, I think Hikaru [Nakamura] could have won it easier, he could’ve done this … ” When you see that kind of information in dynamic real time, you say “A magazine? It’s two weeks out of date.”

What do you see for the future of chess, specifically in America — is it going to remain something that’s refined to a smaller group of competitive chess players, or is it something that seems to be blossoming?

Seirawan: I’m with the latter. For the better part of the last 60 years, America’s social life has been dominated by the TV.

Today, and maybe for the first time in the last 60, 70 years, the actual number of minutes and hours that Americans are watching TV has fallen, and what has it been replaced by? The internet.

The very sad truth for us chess Grandmasters is that television and chess has not been a good marriage — it has not even been a good relationship [laughs]. Because chess was not on TV, chess has been invisible, full stop and end of story. The only time it ever becomes visible is when we have something like a Bobby Fischer or Hikaru Nakamura or some fantastically marvelous chess Grandmaster doing marvelous things.

Conversely, the internet is a perfect medium for chess. [Nakamura and Kramnic] just played a five-hour game. You try to stick that five hours on TV, and the producers will have nightmares. The director, the cameramen will be sleeping. It’s terrible! You put that game on a screen on an [browser] and then go happily typing, doing whatever you want, and then go pull it up “Op! They made a few moves, how’re they doing, oh Yasser says Hikaru’s winning…”

So the internet is a perfect medium for chess. It records the games, you can see the people’s faces, there are webcams, there are people commentating in real time, there are chess instructionals, puzzles, sites you can go for free information, for calendar clearinghouses, when’s the next tournament in St. Louis? Just do a Google search.

With TV, we had no chance. With the internet, not only do we have a chance: God created the internet for chess players.

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