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Sudden Death

[whitespace] Vinay Bhat
Christopher Gardner

An eighth-grade national speed-chess champ checkmates a fully grown neophyte

By Justin Berton

The match wasn't as riveting as Deep Blue vs. Garry Kasparov, but depending on who you talked to, the competition was just as fierce.

Vinay Bhat, the 13-year-old Miller Junior High School eighth-grader, and I, the chess-illiterate representative, had a one-game, winner-take-all showdown at his home March 12.

As we sat down to his wooden chessboard in his living room, the similarities between the two competitors were clear as day.

We both have dark hair.

Our differences were equally apparent.

Vinay Bhat is currently the highest-ranked player in the U.S. under the age of 16.

Last month he placed first at the State Scholastic Chess Championship held at the Santa Clara Convention Center.

When I was Vinay's age, it took my older sister two weeks to convince me the horse doesn't destroy everything in its L-shaped path.

Last year Vinay traveled to France and tied for second place in his age bracket at the World Rapid Chess tournament.

Once, on a flight to Arizona, I played chess with a friend.

Vinay, at age 10, became the youngest player to earn the status of chess master in the U.S., according to the Guinness Book of Records.

I'm old enough to drink Guinness.

I asked him if he maps out intricate openings for his matches, mentally visualizing hundreds of options in his mind.

"It depends. Every game is totally different," he said.

Oh.

For my part, I thought I would introduce the West Coast Offense to the world of chess. I started the game as the efficient 49ers often do, by going with a quick slant to a streaking receiver.

But my bishop never got the chance to glide into the open field and do a touchdown dance on his defense. Rather, Vinay's defense stopped me cold, threw me down and ran me over.

I didn't have to be Radar O'Reilly to sense what was coming next.

In a series of embarrassingly apologetic yet hardly remorseful moves, Vinay used his lowly pawn to penetrate my back line and hold my king in check with the help of a watchful bishop.

"What would you do if you were me?" I asked.

"Resign," he advised.

"No way," I countered.

It's clear Vinay and his parents, Vijaya and Subru, aren't much worried about being left with a world full of challengers.

His mother, Vijaya, who said she takes precautions not to act like "some of the parents at tournaments," added, "Nobody is pushing him, he just wants to do well for himself."

He doesn't have a chess coach and plays the game only once a week. He learns by reading books on chess and studying moves from high-level matches.

He follows the Giants and the 49ers, has a sizable baseball card collection and plays tennis. He's at an age where he's read Fahrenheit 451 ("I like Bradbury!") but has yet to flip through Catcher in the Rye ("I heard it's a good book.").

He enjoys chess, but as with the many other things he does, he considers it a hobby.

When I asked him how many games he's won, he shrugged. When I asked him how many world-class chess masters he's lost to, he shrugged and laughed.

Vinay doesn't like playing chess on computers because "it's not a real game. You're just staring at a screen. That's kind of boring."

He thinks Kasparov was under too much pressure to beat Deep Blue. "If you have that much pressure, it makes it kind of hard," he said, admitting to me that at no time during our match did he feel pressure.

Four minutes after we sat down, I refused his advice to "resign" and sent my king running. I didn't get far, though.

I laid my king down to his checkmate.

Before I left, I asked Vinay what I need to do to improve my game. He recounted my fatal errors and suggested I learn the value of the pieces.

"The knight," Vinay said to me sincerely, "is worth more than the pawn."

I walked away thankful for the advice and realized another one of our similarities: our attitude when it comes to losing to world-class chess masters.

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From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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