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Volume 41, Number 2March/April 1990

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The Right Moves

Written by William Tracy
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

It was the Arabs who carried chess from India and Persia to the West in the seventh century. Today, Yasser Seirawan, a young Arab-American international grand master, evokes that heritage when he talks about his dream of capturing the world championship of chess - held, for all but three of the last 50 years, by players from Russia.

Born in Damascus in 1960, Yasser Seirawan came to America when his Syrian father won an engineering job with Boeing in Seattle. After his parents divorced, Seirawan and his mother roamed the United States before eventually settling in Virginia Beach, where young Yasser reveled in sun and surfing. Had the family not moved back to the overcast skies of Seattle, he might never have discovered chess. But there, one rainy day when Yasser was 12, a neighbor introduced him to the game which would change - would become - his life.

The following year, at age 13, Yasser won the Washington junior championship and started along the road to national ranking. On the way, he founded and coached his high-school chess team, complete with letterman's jackets and pep rallies. "We were a novelty," he told Sports Illustrated in 1981: "Three black guys, a white guy, a Chinese and a Syrian."

From high-school prodigy - "like encountering a Mozart," one teacher said of him - Seirawan moved up fast. In 1979 he won the world junior championship. In 1980 he defeated the formidable Victor Korchnoi, who was preparing to face Anatoly Karpov for the world title. Korchnoi invited Seirawan to train with him in Switzerland. Yasser was 19.

Seirawan himself defeated Karpov in a 1982 London tournament. He twice tied for the American open championship and, in 1987, won the title out-right. In the United States championships, limited to the 16 top-ranked contenders, he tied for first in 1981 and was sole winner in 1986. That year, as reigning US chess champion, Seirawan made his first trip back to the Middle East since childhood. He played in the 27th Chess Olympiad in Dubai, stopping en route in Saudi Arabia to visit his father.

"Syrian-born, but quintessentially Yank," Los Angeles Times writer Dick Roraback described Yasser Seirawan in 1987. No American since Bobby Fischer in 1972 has won the world championship, but it is a title Seirawan aspires to. "Soviet masters are supported with trainers, coaches, and all kinds of perks; we Western grand masters have to fend for ourselves. We have to make a living," Seirawan told Aramco World. "You can't forget, when you're off competing, that the rent meter is ticking away at home." In Seattle, Yasser and his brother Daniel publish Inside Cliess, a magazine whose international circulation has reached 6,500.

Last November Seirawan went into the 1989 US championships in Long Beach ranked second, with 2713 points. When it was over he had won his third title - this time in a three-way tie with former champion Roman Dzindzichashvili and 16th-ranked Stuart Rachels, the youngest player in the competition at age 20.

Yasser Seirawan is 30, but he's still making the right moves. This spring he will be a member of a 10-man US team facing the Soviet Union, England and the Scandinavians at the Chess Summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. At home, he's working to help make chess a part of Seattle's 1990 Goodwill Games. "Chess has given me a lot in life," Seirawan says. "I'm happy to share that with others."

William Tracy is acting assistant editor of Aramco World

This article appeared on pages 6-7 of the March/April 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1990 images.