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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Brilliant Move Kasparov Never Tried

If you want to make a generalization about the difference between American and Russian chess players, there's one that's more or less unassailable. Most Americans can only talk a good game; Russians can play one.


This was something I was forced to face recently, when I played a shameful role in a Russian-American chess challenge at my old school, the St. Petersburg Technical University.


This year the school was burdened by a visiting American professor, a physics teacher who was notorious for straying from lecture material to tell long stories about himself or smoke cigarettes. He was loud, arrogant and apparently underqualified for his job - making him, in his own words, a "typical American".


When he heard that one of his students had once drawn Garry Kasparov in an exhibition, he immediately challenged him to a match and invited hordes of spectators. The only problem was, he knew nothing about chess.


In the week before the match he tried to read chess books and learn certain openings, but he quickly gave up on that idea and decided, with my help, to win American-style -by cheating.


On the day of the match, he arrived in the student's room with a tiny radio transmitter stuck with tape to a spot below his neck. It stuck out a little from under his bright yellow Hawaiian shirt, making him look, from the back, like a vacationing Frankenstein. But the student, a myopic, serious Russian, didn't see the lump, and the game began smoothly.


Playing white, the Russian began by moving his king's pawn two spaces out. Remembering the move, I slipped out and ran down the hall to another room, where a powerful computer program was waiting to play black. We keyed in the Russian's move and radioed the computer's response to the professor, using a series of clicks he could feel on his neck. Three clicks, a pause, seven clicks; three clicks, a pause, five clicks. On the chess board, which is diagrammed, he understood this as C-7 to C-5. He moved his queen's bishop's pawn two spaces.


"The Sicilian Defense", the Russian said, raising an eyebrow.


"I prefer it", said the professor, unwrapping a huge cigar and quickly filling the room with smoke.


For a while the game progressed perfectly; the American even had a pawn advantage after about 20 moves. But then the tape began to loosen, and at about the 25th move it finally fell, lodging in his belt. He was doomed. His advantage quickly evaporated, and he resigned in disgrace after giving up his last pawn.


An American to the end, he was not graceful in defeat. "I would have won if we'd used American tape", he said.