Benny Pirogovsky turns a brass king piece around in his hand as he stands by an outdoor chess table shaded by a tree. After hours spent driving through the American Midwest, the teenager is finally about to see his idol.
The lanky 16-year-old Russian who lives in Chicago was just a kindergartner when Garry Kasparov, 15-time world chess champion, announced his retirement 12 years ago.
But the fluffy mustached adolescent, dressed in a white t-shirt and blue basketball shorts, knows all about his idol, having studied hundreds of videos as part of his quest to emulate him.
When he learned that “the Beast of Baku” was making a comeback, he asked his mother Evelin to take him to St. Louis, Missouri, where Kasparov has been competing since Monday with a new generation of stars, some half his age, at the Rapid and Blitz tournament.
Hundreds of fans from all over the world, young and old, have flocked this weekend to the city, considered America’s chess capital, to see the man who took on IBM’s Deep Blue and ruthlessly crushed all human adversaries during the 1980s and 1990s.
For many it was their first time seeing the 54-year-old, renowned for his death stare and aggressive style of play, in the flesh.
Beyond the chessboard
“It’s a once in a lifetime chance to see him in person,” says Pirogovsky.
“I hope to see some legendary game, something amazing. Hopefully I can learn from it, and get better myself,” he continues, adding that, win or lose, “he’s definitely still the best.”
On the opposite sidewalk, Carla Heredia is jumping on the squares of a giant chessboard painted on the ground. The 26-year-old, whose dyed blonde streaks peek out from under a black hat, says she’s traveled all the way from Ecuador “because as a chess player, it’s an amazing opportunity to see Kasparov.”
A Grand Master herself, Heredia’s ticket and stay in St. Louis was paid for by the restaurant where she works.
“I admire him not only for his beautiful tactical games but also for his important personality for human rights,” she says, referring to Kasparov’s political activism and his long opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Chess players have to go beyond the chessboard. Kasparov does that and it’s something I value,” she adds.
The affluent neighborhood where the tournament is taking place has been thronged by Indian, Chinese and American tourists over the past three days, clutching Kasparov masks and film cameras – which are back in fashion thanks to the organizers’ ban on electronic devices.
The area is also teeming with chess fanatics.
“I watched all of his games, I studied him,” says Raymond Paul, a 60-year-old chess teacher from the neighboring state of Kansas.
“I’m here to represent my state and bring back some information, some experience,” he adds.
But Michael Hushfeldt, a 70-year-old who has been a member of the Chess Club of Saint Louis since it was created, says he doesn’t understand why it’s such a big deal.
Kasparov, he says, “came back to lecture, to visit. We see him here, dozens of times.” Nor does he believe the old master when he says this tournament will be his last.
“He comes back all the time,” said Hushfeldt.
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