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While pouring a fourth packet of sugar into his coffee, nine-year-old chess prodigy Jeff Sarwer spied Gary Kasparov across the convention center floor, in Saint John, New Brunswick. Kasparov, the Soviet world champion, stepped briskly through the hall, dispensing greetings with the dash one would expect of so considerable a personage. "You can't refuse to talk to me," Sarwer shouted. He was as cocky as a bantam rooster, and at 4'5" not much bigger. "I'm a world champ, too."

Sarwer, as it turns out, won the boys' 10-and-under world chess title two years ago in Puerto Rico. He came to New Brunswick from Ottawa, where he lives, to compete for one of six wild-card berths in the 32-player field at last month's first World Blitz Championship. Opponents battled the clock as well as each other for a first prize of $50,000, one of the largest ever offered at a chess tournament.

Sarwer brought with him a good brain, a sharp eye, a tenacious thoroughness and plenty of bravado. He could tell you the capital and describe the flag of any country named. "You're quite a player," he told Kasparov. "Of course, you've never played speed chess with me." Kasparov smiled blandly. When you're top gun, there's always somebody who wants to prove he's faster.

You have to be quick on the draw to play blitz. You think with your fingertips. Instead of two motionless figures endlessly pondering a board, blitz offers a brand of chess that's swift and frantic. The five-hour limit on nonblitz tournament games is compressed into a breakneck 10 minutes (five per player).

Purists may carp, but many chess experts think the game needs this sort of drama if it's ever going to snare a larger audience. "A public brought up on instant action will find speed chess easier to grasp," says Andrew Page, Kasparov's British manager. "Blitz doesn't have this frightening image of being something only a genius can play."

Indeed, as the pace gets more and more hectic, play can degenerate into a mad free-for-all. "Anything may happen," says American grand master Larry Evans. "You might see complete breakdowns! Heart attacks! Chess really becomes a blood sport."

The competitors who assembled in Saint John had a lot in common with the city. Both had a certain frowsy quality and a gritty, hustler's endurance. "Chess players are an impoverished lot," said Evans. Unable to spring for accommodations in big cities, many prefer to play in quieter venues like Subotica, Yugoslavia, or Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, or... Saint John, New Brunswick. Two dozen players stayed at a hostel run by the Salvation Army. "Some of the permanent lodgers on my floor are homeless or bad drinkers," said Ovidiu Foisor, a Romanian international master. "Some take pills or are troubled in the head."

Crazy people?

"No, not crazy," corrected Foisor. "The only real crazies there are chess players."

Perhaps the strangest boardfellow of all was Mikhail Tal, the unassuming and faintly professorial "Magician of Riga." Known for his dissipation and misspent youth, the 51-year-old Latvian chain-smoked and chain-drank his way through the tournament. While others followed the play-by-play on TV monitors, Tal was taking on any patzer who wanted some action.

"When I began to play, there were no computers—not so much information," he said. "It was more imagination. I never liked too much analytical work. I like more to play with fantasies."

Tal fulfilled his greatest fantasy in 1960 by beating Mikhail Botvinnik, Kasparov's mentor, for the world crown. Tal's swift, seemingly idiotic gambits undermined Botvinnik's scientific precision. But Tal developed kidney disease, lost the rematch and never quite regained prominence. Tal remains one of the game's most feared tacticians and was seeded third in Saint John, but he wasn't given much of a chance to win because grand masters are supposed to pass their prime at around 35.

Tournament organizers had hoped that Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov—the countryman he dethroned in 1985 and defeated in their latest showdown last fall in Seville, Spain—would meet in the final. Their struggle for chess supremacy has spanned 120 games and four title matches over 600 eerily concentrated, unyielding hours.

But the showdown was not to be. Karpov didn't get past the second round, and Kasparov barely did. Karpov is a cautious technician who likes to slowly entrap opponents in a fine mesh of hazards. Instead, he got trapped himself, losing 2½ to 1½ to 15th-seeded Alexander Chernin of the Soviet Union. "Normally you get five, 10 minutes to relax between moves," Karpov said. "Here you must concentrate all the time. The strain is much greater."

Was time a factor?

"Not time—conditions," Karpov said, referring to the jet lag he still suffered following his trip from the U.S.S.R.

On an adjacent board, Kasparov looked just as listless against Maxim Dlugy, a 22-year-old Soviet èmigrè who lives in Leonia, N.J. Kasparov lost the first game, won the next two and then lost the fourth game to send the match into overtime. Although Kasparov wound up beating Dlugy in the second game of sudden death, he showed that he was vulnerable.

He unspooled completely in a 2½-to-1½ quarterfinal loss to Kiril Georgiev of Bulgaria. Pounding his time clock, covering his face with his fists, shaking his feet under his chair, Kasparov seemed to be having an anxiety attack through much of the match. In a remarkable lapse in Game 2, he squandered his time studying Georgiev's moves and then he miscalculated badly, blundering into a stalemate.

"It was the most hideous mistake I've ever seen by a world champion," said David Goodman, a British international master. "In a slower game such an error would have been inconceivable."

When a TV reporter asked Kasparov why he lost, he said, "I played badly!" Then he stalked off to his hotel room.

Tal, on the other hand, remained unflustered as he romped through the first two rounds. "Blitz is easy," he said with a shrug. "It's nothing." Still, few took him seriously until he routed the dangerous Artur Yusopov, a Soviet grand master, 3-0 in the quarters. Even then, another Soviet grand master was quick to explain Yusopov's loss: "He is not a morning player."

And Tal?

"Misha doesn't even know that it's morning."

After tossing back a double scotch, Tal defeated Chernin in the semis to set up a best-of-six final with Rafael Vaganian of the U.S.S.R. During Vaganian's semifinal match against Georgiev, officials had resorted to instant replay to determine whether Vaganian had punched his clock after making an illegal move that would have cost him Game 2. He hadn't and thus had been permitted to correct his mistake. He eventually beat Georgiev in the fourth game of sudden death.

Tal unsettled the weary Vaganian with outrè moves and daredevil sacrifices that led to unfathomable complications. Ahead 3-0, Tal bailed out of a lost position with an ingenious swindle. Lacking enough time to put Tal away, Vaganian offered the draw that clinched Tal's victory. "Without art, this would have been difficult," said Tal. "Without luck, impossible."

Sarwer, who failed to qualify for a wild card, took it all in stride. "I'll be playing Kasparov for the real world title when I'm 18 in 1997," he said matter-of-factly. "That is, assuming Kasparov is still champion."



Tal, the eventual blitz winner, beat Chernin after world champ Kasparov (below) lost.



Sarwer is all set to play Kasparov—or somebody—for the world championship in 1997.