Sun, Dec 26, 2004 - Page 7 News List

The Great minds of chess meet in Kansas

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LINDSBORG, KANSAS

Fifteen chess grand masters, including present or former national champions from five European countries, are spending the last days of December in a windswept Kansas town that has suddenly become a world chess center.

"I never thought it would go this far or get this big," said Mikhail Korenman, a Russian emigre who has brought his passion for chess to a most unlikely place.

Like countless other small towns across the Midwest, Lindsborg, which has a population of 3,500, is struggling to survive as rural life becomes more difficult and people move to cities or suburbs. Until a few years ago, it relied on its niche as Little Sweden, a place where tourists could buy Swedish crafts and eat pancakes with lingonberry sauce.

Swedish flags are still visible around town, but now the banners along Main Street say, "Welcome Anatoly Karpov School of Chess."

The school, which Korenman runs, opened last year, paid for with donations from local business people and a US$216,000 economic development grant from the Kansas Department of Commerce and Housing. It has already staged several important competitions. This year, both the US junior championship and the Final Four collegiate championship were held here.

Korenman has brought Karpov, a former world champion from Russia who is considered one of the best players of the last century, to Lindsborg three times. Karpov has given the school his official sanction, something he has previously done only for schools in big cities like Damascus and Istanbul.

In September, Karpov played an exhibition match here against Susan Polgar that was the first ever between former male and female world champions.

For that event, which he billed as "Clash of the Titans," Korenman staged a parade through the center of town, complete with floats and a marching band. Both players spent hours signing autographs and posing for pictures, he proudly recalled.

"If a kid here is interested in football, what he really wants is to see the Kansas City Chiefs or maybe Denver Broncos in real life," Korenman reasoned.

"The chance to meet and talk to a world champion in chess is also something special. It has an effect on these kids, believe me," he added.

Korenman's enthusiasm, imagination and web of contacts have been crucial to the burgeoning appeal of chess here, but this is also a town that was ready to accept what he had to offer. Lindsborg's Swedish heritage has given it a cosmopolitan identity. It stages several festivals every year, and people here are used to welcoming outsiders.

Korenman arrived in 1999 to teach chemistry at Bethany College here. His interest in chess has overtaken his interest in chemistry, and he recently quit the college faculty to devote his full time to it.

This month Korenman is staging three tournaments in succession, with the last ending on Dec. 30. A grand master who is playing, Anna Zatonskih, 26, a former women's champion in her native Ukraine who is now one of the top-ranked American women players, said Lindsborg had "a great reputation" among chess players.

"It's amazing what has happened here," Zatonskih said. "You can understand this kind of enthusiasm in New York, because there are 20 grand masters living there. But even in New York, there isn't this kind of huge attention to us and what we do."

Some local people are amazed, too.

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