[Paleopsych] NYT: In One Kansas Town, the End of the Year Game Is Chess

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Fri Jan 28 16:16:19 UTC 2005

In One Kansas Town, the End of the Year Game Is Chess
NYT December 25, 2004

LINDSBORG, Kan., Dec. 21 - Fifteen chess grandmasters,
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 émigré 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 Mr. Korenman runs, opened last year, paid
for with donations from local business people and a
$216,000 economic development grant from the Kansas
Department of Commerce and Housing. It has already staged
several important competitions. This year, both the United
States junior championship and the Final Four collegiate
championship were held here.

Mr. Korenman has brought Mr. Karpov, a former world
champion from Russia who is considered one of the best
players of the last century, to Lindsborg three times. Mr.
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, Mr. Karpov played an exhibition match here
against Susan Polgar, the first ever between former male
and female world champions. For that event, which he billed
as "Clash of the Titans," Mr. 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," Mr. Korenman said. "The chance to
meet and talk to a world champion in chess is also
something special. It has an effect on these kids, believe

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Korenman is staging three tournaments in
succession, with the last ending on Dec. 30. A grandmaster
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," Ms. Zatonskih said.
"You can understand this kind of enthusiasm in New York,
because there are 20 grandmasters 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.

"Here's a guy who lands here with his wife and starts this
chess thing," said Jim Richardson, a local photographer.
"We're all going, 'Right, sure.' Next thing you know,
Anatoly Karpov is in town."

"The Midwest still does have this inferiority complex," Mr.
Richardson said. "We really do think that things happen
somewhere else. Now they're happening here. A world
champion is coming down the street, and we're part of the
bigger world."

This year the United States Chess Federation named
Lindsborg as its "chess city of the year," a title that in
past years it has given to large cities like New York,
Seattle and Miami. It also chose Mr. Korenman, who is 44,
as its "chess organizer of the year."

Mr. Korenman began staging tournaments soon after he
arrived in Lindsborg, and at one of them he met a player
who knew Mr. Karpov. That gave him the connection that
turned this town into an elite chess center.

The tournaments have an important economic impact. Kathy
Malm, executive director of the Lindsborg Chamber of
Commerce, estimated that about 1,000 people will attend the
three this month.

Becky Anderson, owner of the Swedish Country Inn, where
several grandmasters are staying this month, said chess was
good for business and also good for the town's young

"The best impact I see is the number of people from abroad,
especially from the former Soviet Union, that chess has
brought here," Ms. Anderson said. "When you're as far from
the coasts as we are, that's wonderful. I employ a lot of
high school and college kids at the inn, and it's a great
experience for them to meet people, often very young, who
have distinguished themselves so much."

More than 100 local schoolchildren take regular chess
lessons from Mr. Korenman, who is a serious player, though
not a grandmaster. On one recent afternoon, he hovered
above half a dozen of them as they clustered around a
table. Several mothers sat nearby and watched.

"How can black protect, and not let white take this little
pawn?" Mr. Korenman asked with a distinct Slavic accent,
which seemed to add to his authority the way a Viennese
accent suits a psychoanalyst.

There was a long silence as the boys and girls
concentrated. Suddenly, 9-year-old Christian Hansen broke
it. "I know!" he cried out. "I see it! Rook to G-6."

"Excellent," Mr. Korenman replied with a satisfied smile.

There was a brief interruption as a visitor brought Mr.
Korenman up to date on plans to bring a Brazilian exchange
student to the high school - a chess champion, needless to
say. Then it was back to the children.

"Now white has to come up with an idea," he told them.
"Let's try not to make a move without an idea. You want to
create something. What can you create?"

Mr. Korenman built on the work of Wes Fisk, a Lindsborg
chess fan who started a club in 1997. Their work has
already shown results in local schools.

"If you go to our trophy cabinet at the middle school,
you'll see four trophies, two for basketball and two for
chess," said Bill Nelson, a former assistant principal of
the local high school. "Has it caught on in every family?
No, it hasn't. But there does seem to be an academic
advantage for many of those who play. It helps kids learn
how to think."

The success of chess here has also changed some views of
how small towns can improve their economies.

"It's taught us something about growth," Mayor Ron Rolander
said. "We can't compete with towns that are offering tax
breaks and utilities and everything else to attract some
company to come here and bring us jobs. What we should try
to do instead is look around, find people who are already
here who have interesting ideas and support them."

Among the happiest tournament participants was Azeez
Sanusi, a 19-year-old Nigerian who came from Louisiana,
where he attends college, to compete. He said he had played
chess "since I was me."

"In the last couple of days, I got to play two
grandmasters," Mr. Sanusi said with an air of wonder. "I
lost, of course, but how often do you get to do that? Only
in Lindsborg."


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