Chess fever hits Lindsborg
Male, female champions to square off for first time in little Kansas town

L INDSBORG, Kan. — A cafe on the main street here serves savory Swedish meatballs and Swedish pancakes soft as clouds, lingonberries on the side.

You'd expect that in a town that calls itself “Little Sweden.”

But the liquor store has started stocking Russian vodka for the Russian chess grandmasters who've begun popping into town for a game or two.

Last summer a chess school opened downtown in a building next to the barber shop, another move that recently led to Lindsborg becoming Chess City of the Year, so named by the United States Chess Federation.

The sign above the door of the school reads “World Champion Anatoly Karpov International School of Chess.”

That's Karpov, as in one of the greatest players in the history of chess. He owns and runs chess schools all over the world, but only one in the United States, here in Lindsborg. The Chess Organizer of the Year lives here, too, in this town of 3,200 that sits in the middle of Kansas, thousands of miles from L.A. and New York and Europe, the more traditional chess arenas.

And, Sept. 18 and 19, Karpov will be in Lindsborg to play against another former world chess champion, Susan Polgar of New York City.

It's man versus woman, and it's the first official match between a men's world champion and women's world champion.

The Clash of the Titans, as it's billed.

A big-deal chess match. A new chess school. Russian grandmasters strolling the town's tidy streets. National chess tournaments and summer camps that attract hundreds of students and their parents to town — the Final Four of college chess was here in April.

The chess fever spreading through town astounds not only the town's mayor and chamber of commerce director, parents and kids, but also the woman who sells the Swedish pancakes.

“In Lindsborg,” she marvels.

All the right moves

Two years ago in New York City, Anatoly Karpov sat down at a chess board across from his archrival, Garry Kasparov. He hadn't won a game against Kasparov in 12 years. The entire chess world watched the legends duke it out.

In a stunning comeback, Karpov won.

When reporters asked how he had prepared, Karpov told them he'd gone to Kansas. The story goes that the media roared with laughter. They thought the Russian champion was joking.

But the joke was on them.

For 10 days before the match, Karpov stayed in a plain, two-story white frame house across from Lindsborg's Bethany College. He holed up with his sparring partner, a grandmaster from Chile.

The two sat in the house for hours in silence, playing chess and studying moves, stopping only to eat and to sleep and to meet with the schoolchildren in town for a tournament.

Lindsborg resident Mikhail Korenman — the 2004 Chess Organizer of the Year — brought Karpov to town.

Korenman, 42, grew up in Russia where, like so many children, he learned to play chess as a boy. He likes to talk about his uncle, an expert player who once beat world champion Boris Spassky. In 1976, when Korenman was a teenager and a regional chess champ, his father took him to a sports arena in the Ukraine to see his hero, Karpov.

Even from 150 rows away, Korenman could feel Karpov's genius. He thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Ten years ago the Korenmans moved to Manhattan, Kan., where Korenman, a chemistry teacher, and his wife, Tamara, took graduate classes. In 1999 he brought his wife and their two daughters to Lindsborg, where he'd been hired to teach at Bethany College. In the harmonic convergence that has put Lindsborg on the chess map, he met Irwin “Wes” Fisk, a fellow chess buff.

Fisk and his wife retired to Lindsborg in 1997 from California. The former securities fraud investigator had played chess since high school and stayed on top of the sport by writing for Chess Life magazine.

“Matter of fact, I really thought when I moved here, well, that's the end of that,” he says.

It wasn't. When he moved to Lindsborg “there were a couple of kids playing chess,” says Fisk, who still writes for the chess publication. So he started a club and within a couple of years the club had grown to 60 or so members.

Then Misha, as friends call Korenman, arrived in town. “And we immediately hit it off,” says Fisk. “I was interested in just playing chess. He really wanted to go out and promote it and go big time. So that was fine.”

At a chess tournament in Wichita, Korenman saw two other Russian names on the competitors' list. One was Yuri Shulman, one of a tide of grandmasters immigrating to the United States after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Meeting Shulman inspired Korenman to ask his fellow countryman this: Would you come to Lindsborg and help run a chess camp? Shulman came, and so did 20 children that first year.

Walking along the streets of Lindsborg, Korenman and Shulman dreamed. Let's throw a chess tournament here. It's quiet, perfect for chess. The townspeople are hospitable, accustomed to dealing with visitors.

But where to get the money?

Korenman walked up and down Main Street, that's where, collecting $20 here, $30 there from merchants. The Rotary Club donated a couple of thousand dollars, too.

For his part, Shulman brought other grandmaster friends to the town's first tournament in 2001.

“Here we had all these international chess masters, and we have people bringing casseroles to the church hall,” says Kathy Malm, executive director of Lindsborg's Chamber of Commerce. “That's one of the things Anatoly has commented on that he likes about Lindsborg, that there are people here who don't even play chess supporting what we're doing.”

After the tournament, Korenman and his family vacationed in Colorado, where he visited Alexander Onischuk, one of the grandmasters who had come to Lindsborg.

Flipping through a photo album, Korenman came across a picture of Onischuk with Anatoly Karpov. Before Korenman realized it, “Alex picks up the phone and calls Karpov in Moscow. He was preparing for the Kasparov match.”

Ask him to come to Lindsborg to prepare, Korenman suggested. “When my wife came back from shopping, I couldn't shut my mouth,” Korenman says.

That's largely how chess has grown to such importance in Lindsborg: Friends doing favors for friends.

Korenman's grandmaster friends bring their grandmaster friends to compete in tournaments here; the 2003 Lindsborg Open featured 10 international chess giants.

It's a Russian saying come true, says Korenman.

Don't have a hundred rubles. Have a hundred friends.

Check, mate

A few days ago, Korenman enrolled students for the new year at the chess school. The children who showed up were mostly boys, though Anneliese Reinert, 8, came with her mom and 5-year-old brother, Nicholas.

Returning students, brothers Aaron and Paul Masterson of Lindsborg, had to shoehorn their chess lessons into schedules already stuffed with cross country and basketball and tennis and Boy Scouts.

When Karpov came to town in December of 2002 to prepare for the Kasparov match, he mentioned at a news conference that he operated chess schools around the world. Later at lunch, Korenman made his opening move: Bring a school to Lindsborg, he suggested.

With Karpov's blessing, the school opened in May 2003 in a downtown building that had been used as a warehouse. Today it's a long, bright, white-walled space with chess boards set up on top of neatly spaced tables, always at the ready.

In the back, Korenman and his wife run the Chess Cafe, where Tamara prepares borscht and dumplings and stroganoff on the weekends to raise money for the school. Korenman runs the school, teaches classes, and also directs Bethany College's international programs.

“I'm very thankful of Michael's efforts there in Kansas,” says four-time women's world champion Susan Polgar, who spoke by phone from her studio in New York. “I think it's really fantastic that people who used to love the game in their country now promote it here.”

Polgar is quite the chess promoter, which is why she agreed to play in a match intended to be more promotional than confrontational.

Her message to girls, still outnumbered in the sport: “Don't be afraid of the boys.”

Town leaders hope the Clash of the Titans match will not only be good for the sport, but for them as well, as they have begun a campaign to get the U.S. Chess Federation to move its New York offices, and its 25 employees, to Lindsborg.

Yes, it's shooting for the moon. They know it. But even if it doesn't happen, they'll still have the school, says chamber leader Malm.

And Misha.

And Swedish pancakes.