In Elite Chess World, A Grandmaster's Flash

Emil Sutovsky, left, an Israeli chess grandmaster, did not disappoint his fans in dispatching Gaby Livshitz at the chess tournament.
Emil Sutovsky, left, an Israeli chess grandmaster, did not disappoint his fans in dispatching Gaby Livshitz at the chess tournament. "It quickly went bad," said Livshitz. (By Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

RISHON LETZION, Israel -- A pawn, then another. A knight, then another.

Emil Sutovsky watched from behind thick-rimmed glasses as his baby-faced opponent seized piece after piece, tapping the digital timer next to the chessboard after each move. A crowd clustered close behind a rope line, breaking into whispers of hushed amazement. Something strange was happening.

This was Sutovsky -- the pale, pear-shaped phenom from Israel's national chess team who just a few years ago became the first Israeli to win the European Individual Championship. Sutovsky -- who an hour earlier swaggered through the lobby of the Rishon Letzion Performing Arts Center, glad-handing a crowd of young male groupies like a star shortstop at spring training. Sutovsky -- the grandmaster.

Was he going to lose?

Um, no.

With several swift moves of his queen, bishops and a rook, each followed by a rapid tap on the timer, Sutovsky dispatched his bewildered young challenger (a former junior champion, it turned out) with a minute and 44 seconds to spare. Hands reached across the board to shake briefly. Nods of acknowledgment followed. Then Sutovsky parted the admiring crowd, sipping a bottle of chilled water tucked into a plastic bag.

"I played a combination he didn't see coming," Sutovsky, 28, said with a superstar's nonchalance.

Sutovsky was one of the nerd-king headliners competing this month at the World Blitz Championship of chess, a frantic, nail-biting twist on the ancient game for the extreme-sport generation.

According to the rules of blitz chess, each player receives four minutes and two seconds at the start of the game, and two additional seconds after completing each move. Games last no more than 10 minutes, and the rapid tap, tap, tapping of hands on the timer gives the contests the feel of a ping-pong match. Many, if not most, blitz chess games end when one player runs out of time.

About 180 players gathered across the polished lobby the other day for the championship's qualifying round, observed over a frenetic two hours. The fraternity -- almost all the contestants and audience members were men -- crowded around marble columns to peer at draw sheets taped up haphazardly. Some turned away with broad smiles, others grim resignation, depending on the name next to theirs.

The tournament, which drew players from a dozen countries, was that rare venue where the smartest kids in class, and those who once were, had a chance to strut like rock stars. Many of Israel's 40 grandmasters turned out to vie for the $16,000 first prize, including Sutovsky, Michael Roiz and Ilya Smirin -- the room's Ronaldinho in sandals and socks, who stalked through the gathering between matches, awed whispers humming in his wake.

Hunched over chessboards were slackers in surf shirts and ultra-Orthodox with long gray beards, scientists and students and soldiers. Che Guevara appeared on the T-shirt of one high-ranking player, "Czech Open 2006" on another. The pungent smell of sweat filled the air.

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