Chess players match moves with a grand master - and lose
by Andy Lindstrom
Garald Bumgardner thought he had a chance. Robert Turner, sucking on a pipeful of Borkum Riff, felt strong. After 15 swift rounds, Jim Larson's board showed promise. "I'm a hell of a lot better off than I thought I'd be," Larson said, making a shorthand notation in his Larry Christiansen gift scorecard. "Our positions are five pieces each and holding. I'm just waiting to see what he's going to spring on me next." Larson is a slender, intense man with eyeglasses. He looks like a chess player, which is the game he was playing Monday night at the Nelson Center in Lincoln Park. Larson's opponent was Larry Christiansen. Bumgardner, Turner, and 20 other local chess buffs also were squared off against Christiansen. The game is called simultaneous chess, a show of steel-trap mental gymnastics only computers and grand masters can do with any skill. Christiansen is not a computer. And, in his grey slacks, open-neck shirt and blue blazer with the "Church's Fried Chicken" logo, neither did he look like a 22-year-old grand master who has matched moves with some of the greatest chess players in the world. But a grand master of chess he is. And, before the night was over, Christiansen added 22 Springfield victims to his list of conquests.
"He's brilliant," said Wendell Lutes of Peoria, whose draw with Christiansen proved to be the only match the grand master did not win. Christiansen, from chess stronghold Riverside, Calif., looks like an average college fraternity man (which, because of chess, he no longer is) who likes to play tennis, jog and swim on the varsity team (which, at the University of California-Riverside, he once did). Monday night Christiansen was in Springfield to play a simultaneous set of matches against 24 players of uneven ability. "I may lose as many as five games," he said before the exhibition began. "It can take anywhere from one and one-half to four hours to finish. After a while, I start seeing things - hallucinating - and anyone who beats me gets a free chicken dinner." Church's Fried Chicken, a Texas version of the Colonel Sanders species, sponsors Christiansen as he tours the country. In return, Christiansen plays all comers, six nights a week, a different town every night, until he returns to Texas in mid-October. "I learned the rules of chess at the age of 10," he told the audience, all but two of whom were on hand strictly for a shot at the master. It was like 23 boxers signed up for a round each with Muhammad Ali. "There are about 20 grand masters in the United States, most since the Bobby Fischer boom a few years back. At present, my rank is No. 12."
A grand master, Christiansen said, is like a black belt in karate or an All-Star selection in team sports. Some grand masters are better than others, but each is a superstar to the tight little band of chess aficionadoes who gather in mock warfare over their plastic or wooden pieces. "Fischer can give a simul to 30 grand masters and beat them," Christiansen said. "He can still tear apart the two Russians playing for the world championship. He's still the best." In cutthroat competition like a simul (short for simultaneous exhibition), a grand master is also like the fastest gun in town, taking the challenge from every chess hall hotshot in the territory. "It usually takes about five moves to find out what an opponent can do," Christiansen said as oil cloth and wood boards were being carefully set up along a horseshoe-shaped rim of tables. "I'll see a lot of Fischer openings and Sicilian defenses. You know, the typical stuff they can memorize. One time I had a checkmate in three moves, a fool's mate. I think eight moves was the second best." Silently, almost reverently, the challengers waited for Christiansen's opening move. Each had paid $5 for the chance to be annihilated. None was denied the sight of his own blood. "The rules are simple," Christiansen said.
Surprisingly tall and pleasant, despite the eccentric reputation chess grand masters have inherited from Fischer and his antics against Boris Spassky, Christiansen explained that all moves were to be made when he was at the board, that each player could pass a turn three times and that no weird chess pieces would be allowed. "No Gothics, no gourmets, and definitely no tinker toy sets," he said, and the challengers smiled nervously. As he spoke, Christiansen's hands began to fidget and his eyes seemed to narrow their focus. Then, taking less than five seconds to a board, he moved quickly down the three rows of tables and the games were on. Thirteen-year-old Robert Mc Quown matched Christiansen's pawn's opening with a similar pawn in the queen's file. Josette Donnelly, the only woman to challenge, moved her king's pawn and opted for a Sicilian defense. Christiansen raced around the room, whirlwind decisions carried out with swift, clipped shoves of the pieces. The games started at 7 p.m. in a room overlooking the frigidly empty Nelson Center ice rink. The quickstep of Christiansen's shoes was the only sound. By the fifth move, one of Mc Quown's bishops was a casualty and Donnelly's knight was gone. Charles Van Buskirk, smiling tight-mouthed over his board, snapped up a knight with his pawn. "So far, right out of the book," Van Buskirk said. "Let's see what comes next." Larry Grammer snatched at a package of California raisins as Christiansen raced by, plucking a knight from Grammer's defense. "He's very strong," Grammer acknowledged, chweing on an almond. "He's doing things I'm not expecting." Robert Kohn, a slim, young man with thick glasses, shook his head in disbelief as a pawn was swept off the board. "I forgot about him," Kohn moaned, staring at Christiansen's attacking bishop. The object in chess is to capture an opponent's king without losing your own king. A secondary object is to strip the opponent's pieces away until the king can no longer be defended. When the king is in position to be takeb, he is "in check". When the check is completed, it is "checkmate," and the game is over. If neither king can be taken, the game is declared a draw. Eight rounds swiftly passed, with Christiansen keeping up his pace of about five seconds per move. "I can't play this fast," one player murmured. "He's back on me before I can think of a next move." And then, in the ninth round, less than 15 minutes into the exhibtion, the first fatality was recorded. "I tried to be fancy," whispered Gary Zustiak. "Wow, nine moves. He got in a fork between my knights. I knew I'd lose one, so I figured I might as well take one of his pieces while I'm going. And then, wham, his queen checks my king." Before Zustiak could pack his set away, Christiansen was roaring through the 11th round. "I've lost," cried Kohn in disbelief. And then, sighing, "Oh, well. I might as well keep going until he mates me." Christiansen was already turning the next corner, snatching a queen, slipping a knight off the table, silently putting a king into check.
Only Turner's board looked strong, with no pieces taken on either side. "You've got to keep a positive attitude," he said. "With a little luck, who knows?" Jim Reynolds' postive attitude was sinking fast. "Are you kidding?" he said. "He's moving in for the kill now. I don't know where to move next." "I think it's mate next move, Mc Quown sighed in resignation. "He's evil, just vicious," complained Donnelly, looking at the shambles her board had become. "He's going to beat the heck out of me." Black pieces - pawns, rooks, knights, bishops and queens - were beginning to litter the tables like the aftermath of a medieval jousting tournament. Even when the tradeoffs looked about even, stoic grins and beetling brows signified the true state of disrepair. Donelly was checked in the 19th move. Van Buskirk lost the battle for position in the 20th round. As the clock passed 7:30 p.m., Mc Quown held out his hand to admit checkmate. "What did I learn tonight? Never to play him again," Mc Quown said, trying to work out where his strategy had failed. "He hardly moves at all, and you've got three pieces in jeopardy," Craig Foster noted. "I'm resigning next move. He's boxed me in so I'll never get out. By the 22nd move, only one dozen players were left. "I'm hungry for a draw," said Bumgardner, an officer of the Springfield chess club. "He's got me now," admitted Stan Warman, presiding over 18 pieces knocked out in a war of attrition that failed. "I might get my knight back, but then it's curtains." Christiansen, still working his hands in pent-up energy, began to squeeze out his final adversaries. "He's pressing hard," said Grammer, still defiant. "But now, I'm going to press myself."
Christiansen stopped, almost in mid-flight, as Grammer shoved a rook half way across the board into an open file. "Very cute," Christiansen acknowledged, rubbing his chin. They were his first words since the exhibition began. Grammer smiled, and then his smile faded. Christiansen slid his queen across the board, wiping out Grammer's second rook and any chance for victory. "I was hoping he'd take my queen," Grammer said, ruefully. "Then I would have won. Now, though..." Grammer's shrug said it all. "If I was a gentleman, I'd resign," Donnelly said. "But gentlemen don't play chess." "I'm zapped," said Warman in the 25th round. "He's got me now." Losers moved in, peering down at the remaining boards in hope of a winning solution. Grammer's raisins ran out and Gil Hodges saw his king checked with a knight's erratic leap. Cigarettes mounted in metal ashtrays, Christiansen shook more hands and signed more gift scorebooks and by the 33rd round Lutes earned his draw. "I'm trying to make a blockade, but I don't think it's going to work," Turner said. "I played the kingside attack he cautioned against in his lecture. It works against weaker players. It didn't work against him."
By 8:30 p.m., Larson was down to three pawns and a bishop. "I'm basically in need of two moves in a row," he said. Bumgardner fell in the 44th round. "I thought you had me earlier," Christiansen conceded, demonstrating with lightning hands a series of moves Bumgardner might have used for victory. Ten minutes later, the Sicilian defense of David Shelly was broken in the 51st round. And it was over. Christiansen wrote out little checks for free chicken dinners to Lutes for the draw, and to a handful of others for good tries. "I had all sorts of chances," Bumgardner moaned. "But he always wormed his way out." "Bumgardner and Van Buskirk played quite well," Christiansen conceded in the almost-empty room. "But I was in better form than usual and it would have taken quite a bit to beat me tonight. By the way, does anyone know where Lafayette, Indiana, is? I'll be playing 50 boards there tomorrow night."
This article is copyright 1978 by the State Journal Register. Reprinted with permission.