Army of One | Feature | Chicago Reader

Army of One 

Combining the discipline of the Russian chess tradition and the free-wheeling improvisation of American jazz, Dmitry Gurevich has made himself a grand master of the world's most enduring game.

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By Ted Kleine

Dmitry Gurevich looks tortured in front of a chessboard. He stares at the pieces with a sour, pained expression, rubbing his face with the palm of his hand. He cages his head in his fingers, as though he's trying to build a cell to isolate himself from the world. During a tournament, his fans peer at his board from behind the rope that separates the masters from the less-gifted players crowded at long banquet tables. Gurevich never makes eye contact with them. He sees nothing but his chess pieces.

A onetime Moscow chess prodigy who now lives in a garden apartment near UIC, Gurevich has the sallow look of someone who smokes and drinks too much coffee. He does neither--attribute his appearance to sleeplessness and stress. When he's competing, he stays up all night in his hotel room, studying the games of the grand masters he'll be facing. The laptop computer that travels with him everywhere contains a million and a half matches dating back to the age of Napoleon. In the daylight hours, he forces himself through a pair of four-hour games, breaking the tension with short walks around the room, speaking only in mumbles, becoming, basically, an Emersonian eye, a mental abstraction whose sole physical manifestation is the movement of kings, queens, rooks, bishops, knights, and pawns.

"He expresses himself on a chessboard," says Albert Chow, the Chicago Sun-Times chess columnist who was the city's best player until Gurevich brought his grand-master game here 15 years ago. "Away from the chessboard, he's very quiet. He's kind of shy. He's pretty serious most of the time. I think he gets bored easily. He seems to be thinking about chess all the time."

Chow has lost to Gurevich over a dozen times, most recently at last month's Mid-America Class Championships in the Ramada Hotel O'Hare. At first Chow dreaded him, because the grand master was winning all the tournaments in town. But lately he's learned to think of the defeats as free lessons. Gurevich, he realizes, has an insuperable advantage over any American: he was born in the USSR, which turned out grand masters the way inner-city playgrounds turn out NBA all-stars.

"He pushes himself really hard," Chow says. "He has a really strong will to win. That's part of the Russian training. They were expected to try their best. They grew up under a communist system of chess. They had to win to get privileges. By the time they face us, we're amateurs. I can't sacrifice my life for chess the way they do. It's very hard to have any outside interests and maintain normal relationships with people if you want to play with these grand masters."

From the losing side of the board, Gurevich may seem like a chess computer that's found a human host. Yet he believes his game is "a form of an art" and says his improvisational style of play has been influenced by great jazz artists like Coleman Hawkins and Billie Holiday. He exults over "beautiful moves" that change the momentum of a game. A continental camping out in the midwest, Gurevich considers travel, fine Scotch, and Ingmar Bergman movies as indispensable to the Good Life as chess. He cultivates friendships with professors and musicians, and he's writing a chess tract modeled on the work of his literary idol, the 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne.

Gurevich is shy and introspective, but he's also so emotional that the slightest upset can destroy his chess concentration. He lost three straight tournament games after reading the tales of prison-camp executions in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. Asa Hoffmann, a chess hustler portrayed in the book Searching for Bobby Fischer, claimed he once beat Gurevich by taunting him about an old girlfriend--"a classic psych job," Hoffmann boasted. (Gurevich dismisses this claim. Laughing, he also disputes the book's description of him as a "short, handsome" man. He's neither, he insists, though some of his old cover portraits in Chess Life magazine are flattering to his curly hair and olive skin.)

Gurevich is the ninth-ranked player in the United States of America. His position would be even higher if he hadn't lost his cool during the U.S. Championship in Seattle last September. Though he'd entered the tournament seeded 11th out of 12 grand masters, Gurevich's chess was sparkling, and he found himself in a position to defeat Yasser Seirawan, a higher-rated player he'd never beaten. (Chess players earn ratings based on their quality of play. The summit is Garry Kasparov, at 2792. Gurevich is 2647.) A win over Seirawan would have made Gurevich the U.S. champion, a title once held by Bobby Fischer, one of his boyhood idols. Giddy at the prospect of victory, he made a fatal error on the 35th move. Instead of using his knight to put Seirawan's king in check, he played it safe, taking one of Seirawan's pawns with a bishop.

"I got too excited, immediately," Gurevich says. "If I played against anyone else, I would have won. But he had beaten me before, so I start making mistakes. I am afraid not to win the game."

To use a baseball metaphor, Seirawan owned Gurevich. He took advantage of the error to stage a rally. Thirty-eight moves later, Gurevich resigned. "A very tough loss for Dmitry and what a piece of luck for Yasser!" Chess Life commented when it reprinted the game. That night, Gurevich could not sleep, because the game kept replaying itself in his head. Of course, he had figured out the winning combination, but it was too late. For the rest of the tournament, his play was cautious and lackluster--he finished fourth.

"This was a chance for me to get highest point in my chess career," he says. "I have no chance to become world champion. To be U.S. champion, it's a very serious thing. I had a chance to become U.S. champion, and I blew it."

When he returned to Chicago, Gurevich turned on his laptop and wrote "Desolate Star," a Montaigne-style essay. "This story is an honest attempt to find out the reasons for failure," it began. After replaying the game for several pages, Gurevich concluded by telling the story of Rouget de Lisle, his favorite figure from Stefan Zweig's book Star Moments of Mankind. De Lisle was a French soldier who led an utterly mediocre life except for one night. On the evening of April 24, 1792, he wrote "La Marsellaise," which became the French national anthem.

"I choose Rouget de Lisle because he embodies the idea that, while few of us have lives marked by a series of great achievements, all of us may have a star moment," Gurevich wrote. "But such opportunities do not come often. Had Rouget de Lisle gone to bed early, we would never have heard of him and France would have a different anthem. I work on a much smaller stage than the one on which Rouget de Lisle found himself, but in our worlds, all of us hope that when a chance comes we will take advantage of it. Chess is, of course, very different from music. Chess is a competition, a struggle, and new opportunities can present themselves again. My challenge is one of trying to overcome my own fears and understand why in Seattle I fell short and how I can capture the moment when I next have the chance."

Gurevich's chess career has been far from mediocre. At 26, he was a grand master. He once beat Garry Kasparov at speed chess, and he has served as a training partner to Victor Korchnoi, one of Russia's greatest champions. His "ferocity" on the board has been praised by New York Times chess columnist Robert Byrne. In 1996, when Gurevich won the U.S. Masters Open, the Chess Life correspondent called his undefeated run "one of the most dominant performances in American chess since the days of Bobby Fischer." Quoting Shakespeare, the writer declared that Gurevich bestrode the narrow world of chess "like a colossus." But he is still searching for his star moment.

There is such a thing as chess humor. There is also chess music. The two meet in the song "The American Team" by Ed Bogas, aka King Bishop and the Squares. Gurevich owns the CD.

"Listen to this," he insists, slotting the disc into the boom box on the floor of his sunny apartment. Far more voluble and good-humored at home than at a tournament, Gurevich grins as the disc begins spinning.

To the backing of a Russian folk song, a man with a Slavic accent croons, "Now the world's no longer ruled / By the Soviet School / The Americans are doing quite well / Just listen to the names / That bring America fame / Americans to the core--you can tell / We've got Akshumarova, Boris Men, D. Gurevich, Perelshtein / Gabriel Schwartzman, Alex Yermolinsky..."

The point is that many of the great American chess players are Russians, just as, in the 1960s, most of NASA's great rocket scientists were Germans--they ruled an intellectual field that Americans hadn't had the discipline to master. There hasn't been a world champion from outside the former Soviet Union since Brooklyn-bred Bobby Fischer, whose chess obsession was so intense it would have thrived in any culture. Fischer was the embodiment of the Greek saying "There is no genius without madness." After refusing to defend his title in 1975, he spent the subsequent years living in a Pasadena motel collecting anti-Semitic literature. In America you have to be an oddball to succeed at chess. In Russia...let's just say that Garry Kasparov has made millions doing soft drink ads, and he rides around in a chauffeured car.

Chess was brought to Russia in the 17th century by Czar Alexei Mihailovich, who insisted that his nobles learn the game to show they were cultivated. Today's elite--the doctors, professors, and scientists--consider its mastery a mark of intellectual distinction. Over five million Russians have a formal chess rating. The game's near-infinite combinations, complex as life itself, apparently satisfied an aspect of the national character that wants to attain the "high," or abstract, truth. When Gurevich was born, in 1956, chess had another function: it was a way to prove the USSR's cultural superiority to the materialistic boobs in America. Russians followed chess as maniacally as Americans followed baseball. The evening news showed highlights of important matches, the newspapers were filled with chess pages and chess puzzles, the national chess magazine 64 sold millions of copies each week.

"They were putting everything which was possible to the Russian priority," says Gurevich, whose speech has not lost Russia's brooding accent or its tendency to drop articles, definite and indefinite. "For example, [the communists claimed] the radio was born in Russia, the telegraph, aviation. There were a lot of jokes about it, that Russia is motherland of elephants. We wanted to have priority in everything. In skiing, skating, whatever it was."

Gurevich came from an educated Jewish family--his father was a professor, his mother an accountant--and all his relatives played chess. He became enchanted with the game one day when he was six years old, recovering from a tonsillectomy. All over his ward, children were passing their convalescence by playing chess. Gurevich was fascinated by the movement of the pieces, especially the powerful queen. This may have had some psychological significance, since he lived alone with his mother. (It is said that the typical grand master is a neurotic Russian Jewish male from a broken home.) When he returned to the apartment from the hospital, Gurevich asked her for a chess set. His mother was thrilled, "because to be a chess master would be a famous person. It would be a person full established, with a salary. Well respected. There were 30 grand masters played chess in Russia then. They were known by everybody."

The government was always trying to nurture chess talent, and its biggest incubator was Moscow's Central Chess Club. Gurevich was admitted after showing the teachers some moves he'd learned playing in the park. He went once a week for a lecture, once a week for a game. In the summers he was sent to a chess camp in the country, where he studied "many hours a day." At age 13 he won the Moscow Junior Championship.

Ironically, chess made Gurevich want to become an American. In 1972, when Gurevich was in high school, Boris Spassky, the Soviets' world champion, defended his title against Bobby Fischer. It was the most-hyped match of all time, the chess equivalent of the "Thrilla in Manila." Up in Iceland, at the zenith of the cold war, the avatar of communism and the anarchic crank of the free world went at it in single combat with armies of wooden men. Gurevich and his classmates went nuts over Fischer, a man so contemptuous of order and convention that he seemed to embody the concept of svoboda--freedom. Fischer almost didn't show up for the match, boarding the plane only after receiving a personal plea from Henry Kissinger. And once he was in Iceland, he arrived late for every game.

"Fischer was a very romantic kind of figure because he win all his matches 6-0, and he was a foreigner, he was coming up and disappearing," Gurevich says. "It was very antisocial behavior in the Soviet Union. People like him very much because he was a very antiestablishment person. In Russia, people wouldn't be allowed to do things like that. If Fischer was born in Russia, he wouldn't be allowed to become world champion. They would put him away. That's what fascinated us, that it was possible to behave like that and survive."

The Fischer-Spassky match was so big it even caused a chess boom in the United States. In Russia, it was on television for hours a day. Workers blew off their jobs to debate chess. Out in the park, Gurevich almost got into a fight when he challenged a fellow chess player about one of Fischer's bishop moves. When Fischer finally won, the government papers ran the news as a tiny, inconsequential item. Gurevich and his friends chortled over the article, gleeful that the communists had gotten a black eye.

In the USSR, scorning communism made Gurevich an outsider. Being a Jew placed him further on the margins. He couldn't study math at Moscow University, because the school had a quota for Jews. There was one advantage to the communists' anti-Semitism: they were letting Jews leave. So Gurevich and his mother did, on April 11, 1980.

When Gurevich departed from Moscow, he was, he estimates, the 300th best player in the country. Soviet chess was so structured that he'd only been allowed to compete in local tournaments. He'd never had a chance to test himself against grand masters and learn from their play. As soon as he arrived in New York City, he entered a chess tournament, where he was pitted against a GM. Gurevich beat him, and he started thinking about becoming a professional chess player. You could do anything in America, right?

"I said I want to be a professional chess player, and people ask me, 'Are you going to play cards also?' I didn't realize that grand master was nothing in America. Nobody would be impressed, so for me it was sort of a shock."

Gurevich and his mother were scraping by on a stipend from a Jewish relief organization. When he went to apply for food stamps, he was too embarrassed to reveal his career intentions, so he got a job in a book warehouse. In the Soviet Union, where almost everyone earned the same subsistence salary, the attitude of the average worker was "the government pretends to pay us, and we pretend to work." That didn't get Gurevich very far in the warehouse: he was fired after six days for reading a Russian book he discovered on the shelves. As he left the only job he would ever have in America, he thought to himself, "Wow, this is hard for me. I better play chess."

New York is the only chess metropolis in America. Soviet expats with names like Zilber and Dzindzichashvili slam pieces down on the speed chess tables in Washington Square Park, or stay up until three in the morning at the chess cafes, playing, debating positions. Gurevich found better competition there than he had in Moscow. Three years after his arrival, he beat several grand masters to win the Ruslan Tournament, held in a Russian restaurant. He collected a $2,000 purse, but more importantly his play was striking enough to earn him the grand master title from the Federation internationale des echecs (FIDE), the organization that governs world-class chess. On all the planet, there were only 500 grand masters. That's fewer than the number of major-league baseball players, but becoming a grand master is a far more enduring distinction: the title is for life. Gurevich felt as though he had been admitted to Parnassus.

"My mother was the most happy," Gurevich says. "She says this phrase which I like. She said, 'I got a new friend. He's a grand master.' In Russia, to be a grand master was the highest thing. I could never imagine I myself would be one. And there I was, not quite 27 even."

Life under communism taught Gurevich one attitude indispensable to a chess pro: an indifference--a hostility, almost--to money and possessions. Even today he dresses in old, stretched-out sweaters and lives like an anchorite in his spare apartment, which is filled with Russian books and jazz CDs. He's never learned to drive, so there is no car to complicate his life. He gives lessons at $80 an hour, but he'll only take on students who interest him intellectually: professors, musicians, young prodigies. He is happy to read books, study films (after winning $9,000 in the 1995 World Open, he bought a VCR and started renting three movies a day, staying up all night to watch them), and play chess.

"He can't do the basic things like cooking and driving a car," says a friend. "He loves music and movies. He doesn't expect or want much."

Gurevich does expect and want things from life. They're the things he was denied as a boy in the Soviet Union: freedom and travel. Chess has granted him both. As soon as he became a grand master, tournament organizers started paying to fly his brain all over the world--to Bermuda, to France. Now you can look down at the floor of his apartment and see an old airline ticket to Las Vegas, where he played last year. In January he was preparing to fly to Geneva for a tournament, and then to Israel, where he would compete for the national team.

"In Russia I was not allowed to travel, so the idea of traveling was very important," he says. "The idea of actual freedom. I had maps of all the world. I knew where everything was located. I knew villages in Iceland, so for me the opportunity to go to Paris was the equivalent of happy life."

The daily penury that American grand masters endure is relieved by a few weeks of pomp and celebrity each year. Most of the time you're an urban hobo huddled in a bed-sitter. But once in a while you get treated like a sheik: installed in a room that a Dynasty character might rent, invited to meet the local prime minister. To achieve such splendor, you have to be indifferent to money and focus your life on chess. Even when Gurevich travels to an exotic city, he spends much of his time in his room studying games.

"In 1983, I first went to Bermuda, which is a place where you can be a rich person to go there," he says. "Stayed in one of the best hotels. I had the lifestyle of a rich person. I didn't have much money for myself. It was funny. I would go to France, play two weeks, and make $400, but everything would be free. Make a few hundred dollars, come back to America. It was enough to live."

Gurevich came to Chicago in the mid-1980s, a time when his life in New York was collapsing. His mother had just died, and he'd had a tumultuous split with a girlfriend. At the U.S. Open in 1984, he met Fred Gruenberg, a chess organizer from Palos Heights. Gruenberg, who was president of the Illinois Chess Association, sensed that Gurevich was not dealing well with life on his own, so he invited the grieving grand master to live in his house rent free. Gurevich agreed to come for a month, and ended up staying for a year and a half. Gruenberg got an interesting lesson in the lifestyle of a great chess player. His guest was an incompetent cook--"the only thing he can do is open a jar of pickles"--and he wasn't interested in learning to drive a car. But he would stroll past a chessboard where Gruenberg was agonizing over a problem and quip, "Can't you see? Bishop takes knight wins immediately." Gurevich got a lot of free food. He gained 20 pounds raiding Gruenberg's refrigerator and eating his wife's cooking. Finally, Gruenberg says, "He got a little too lazy and we threw him out." There was no animosity. Both men knew it was time for Gurevich to resume his chess career.

"Dmitry is probably the kindest, the most genteel of all the grand masters," Gruenberg says.

Another of Gurevich's patrons is Douglas Baird, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. Baird got into chess a few years ago, when he was the school's acting dean. The job forced him to fly all over the country to raise money, which meant he had to kill a lot of time on airplanes. At first he read "bad fiction." Then he decided to develop his mind by solving chess puzzles. Baird got so into the game that he wrote Gurevich a letter begging for lessons. Recognizing a fellow intellectual, Gurevich agreed. Baird now has a 1400 United States Chess Federation rating, and he's become a promoter of chess in Chicago. He gives young people money to take lessons with Gurevich. Last year, when the grand master Alex Shabalov came to town for a tournament, Baird hosted a dinner for him, turning his house into a chess salon for the evening.

During the Mid-America Class Championships, Baird "sponsored" Gurevich, paying for his hotel room, then, after Gurevich's third-place finish in the tournament, taking him out to dinner on Taylor Street. Over pasta Gurevich showed off one of his grand master parlor tricks: blindfold chess. Baird pulled out a magnetic chessboard and set it up so Gurevich couldn't see any of the pieces. He called out his moves, using chess notation to indicate where each piece was headed on the board ("Pawn to e4, knight to c3"). Gurevich made his countermoves without ever looking at the board. He saw it all in his head. Not only did he thrash Baird, but afterward he replayed the game from memory, pointing out his friend's mistakes.

"Chicago's a world-class city, but it's not world class in chess," Baird says. "It's a real gift that Dmitry's willing to live here. To play against grand masters, he has to have his suitcase and go to Midway."

Gurevich has made great contributions to Chicago chess--in addition to giving lessons and playing simultaneous tournaments, last year he lured Alex Goldin, a friend and fellow grand master, to the area. Since Goldin set himself up in Skokie last year, Gurevich has an equal with whom he can play speed chess and debate moves. Despite all that, Gurevich doesn't think he's done much to promote chess in Chicago. He's certainly not a household name here, which is due as much to his retiring nature as to the game's marginal status.

"If I had the talent of a businessman, I could do a lot of things for these years that I live in Chicago, and I never did, so I can't complain, because of the way I looked at things," he says. "At most I was enjoying watching movies and reading books."

The Russians have a saying: "Wolf is fed by his feet." To Gurevich this applies to chess: "You have to keep moving, keep moving, keep working. You have to win, have to be wolf as well."

Throughout Gurevich's career, though, there has been a tension between reaching for greatness and just getting by. Sometimes he seems more motivated by a fear of mediocrity than a thirst for greatness. A long time ago he realized he would never be world champion. When he played in the qualifying tournament for the 1999 FIDE championship, he lost in the first round. He's like a baseball player who makes a few all-star teams but will never be admitted to the Hall of Fame.

In 1987, when he helped Soviet defector Victor Korchnoi prepare for a tournament, Gurevich saw the life of a player at the highest reaches of the game and realized he could never be such an indefatigable chess machine. Korchnoi lost to Anatoly Karpov in the 1978 and '81 World Championship matches, and was still one of the world's greatest players when he and Gurevich trained in Zagreb, Yugoslavia.

"Korchnoi was first of all a chess player to the extent that he didn't have any time and energy for anything else but chess," Gurevich wrote in another chapter from his book-in-progress.

"Our studies were going as follows. I was coming to Korchnoi exactly at 10 a.m. (he likes punctuality) and we were studying all day long until evening, with two food breaks. (Korchnoi eats very fast, as if he wants to be through with this necessary but boring business and switch to more significant subjects.) We studied usually until 10 or 10:30 p.m. Every time, the same thing would happen by the end of the study. Korchnoi would get some extra energy from somewhere and start analyzing with a new zest. In contrast, I was getting tired and started overlooking things. Having refuted my moves three or four times in a row, Korchnoi would say the same words: 'You've got tired.' It sounded quite soft but I could not help hearing the allusion: 'You are tired--but I am not.'"

Rather than a chess warrior, like Kasparov or Korchnoi, Gurevich seems to think of himself as a chess bohemian. To him the game is "a form of an art" that is best won with nimble thinking rather than with grinding study or brute calculation. In the 1980s, after he became a grand master, he tried to force himself to a higher level by poring obsessively over chess books. Instead, chess became a chore, and his game stagnated. He began to fear mistakes, and his play became overcautious. Jazz helped liberate him and lift up his game. One of his Russian friends belonged to a band that played Duke Ellington, and he invited Gurevich to listen to some jazz CDs. Almost immediately he saw the analogy between improvisation in music and improvisation in chess. He started to trust his instincts. His game developed a more relaxed style, and he began winning more. Gurevich had found a true emigre's chess, a style that crossed formal Russian training with American spontaneity. Now some of his friends call him "Master of the Middle Game," because he excels during the most fluid parts of a match, rather than in the structured openings and endgames.

"I realized that chess is basically a form of an art, like music, jazz music," he says. "When you're talking about a form of an art, it's completely different from being a kind of sports competition. In sports you have to be training, training, more or less. If you possess certain talent and you have been training right way, you're going to grow up. Arts, maybe not. You're talking about Billie Holiday, for example; her career, her life would be completely opposite. It wasn't anything like that, it was just inspiration, and she was born being genius jazz singer, and nobody can ever surpass you because of that. So later I understood that your attitude, your state of mind is more important than your training, because chess is too complicated."

His greatest triumph, the 1996 U.S. Masters, was, he says, a product of this more "relaxed" way of thinking. The fact that Gurevich's old friends were starting to emigrate from a liberated Russia made him feel even more carefree. Now he had companions for drinking, traveling, talking, and studying.

What distinguishes him from other chess players--certainly from mortal machines like Korchnoi and Fischer--is his practice of chess as a human game. It's not only his renaissance way of life, which balances a top 100 world chess ranking with a love of music, books, and food. It's his defense of the brain as the greatest chess weapon. We're at a moment in the history of chess where man is evenly matched against machine. In 1997 Kasparov lost a match to the IBM-programmed computer Deep Blue II. Computers have already mastered checkers, which is simple enough for a machine to foresee every move. But chess has more possible positions than there are atoms in the universe. It's not a "solvable" game. Even if it were, that would not diminish the achievements of the great grand masters, any more than the car diminishes Khalid Khannouchi's world marathon record. Chess is a vehicle for discovering the outer limits of human intelligence, which gave us the computer and the car in the first place.

"The most important thing about chess is realizing the limit of brute force," or digital calculation, Gurevich says. "Intelligence overcomes brute force. The most important thing for humankind is survival. We are at a certain point where our ability to destroy things is at a very high level. Also we have achieved a lot in destroying the planet. Working from this perspective, the intelligence of people is very important. Chess is just one of the ways of increasing the intelligence of people, because chess gives you very strict questions and requires strict answers. It disciplines your thinking. Development of human ideas, human thinking is development of technology."

It's a way of thinking that values the eternal over the modern. A great chess player must look at his game that way. Chess may not be widely played in the 21st century. Sophocles is not widely read either. But our parents pondered Oedipus Rex, and our children will too. Chess is classical. Gurevich's games have made their way into chess encyclopedias, and they may be studied two centuries from now, just as Rouget de Lisle's anthem is still sung, two centuries after he wrote it. That may be his star moment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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