U.S. re­cruit­ing for­eign chess play­ers

Back­ers pay top com­peti­tors to join team to try to win pres­ti­gious Olympiad

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Dy­lan Loeb McClain The New York Times

The United States team that will com­pete in the World Team Chess Cham­pi­onship next month in Ar­me­nia stands no real chance of win­ning. It is not send­ing its three best play­ers, and even if it were, it does not have enough tal­ent to com­pete with the stacked teams from Rus­sia and China.

But one does not have to be born in a coun­try to rep­re­sent it in in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion, and so an of­fi­cial pro­gram and a clan­des­tine ef­fort are un­der­way to re­cruit top play­ers from other coun­tries to switch their al­le­giance to the United States. Such trans­fers have hap­pened in the past, but never in an or­ga­nized man­ner.

If the new ef­forts are suc­cess­ful, the U.S. team could be rad­i­cally al­tered by the time the Chess Olympiad, the most pres­ti­gious team com­pe­ti­tion in chess, is held next year in Azer­bai­jan. By then, the U.S. could even be the fa­vorite to win the gold medal, some­thing it has not done in decades.

The most im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to re­mak­ing the team may be an en­deavor that has the whiff of a Cold War-era plot: a pri­vate over­ture to a top for­eign

grand­mas­ter, tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in pay­ments to se­cure his el­i­gi­bil­ity, and a rich Amer­i­can bene­fac­tor in­tent on over­tak­ing the Rus­sians and the Chi­nese in the game he loves.

Sim­i­lar cam­paigns to ob­tain the na­tional al­le­giance of top prospects are not un­com­mon in the Olympic move­ment and in­ter­na­tional soc­cer, but they are vir­tu­ally un­prece­dented in the more cere­bral world of top-level chess.

The se­cret ef­fort in­volves try­ing to per­suade Fabi­ano Caru­ana, the No. 2 player in the world, to switch to play­ing for the U.S. from Italy.

Last Septem­ber, while play­ing in an elite tour­na­ment in St. Louis, Caru­ana said he was ap­proached and of­fered a large sum to switch fed­er­a­tions. Caru­ana, who was born in Miami and has dual U.S. and Ital­ian cit­i­zen­ship, said he had turned down the of­fer, for now.

Caru­ana would not say who ap­proached him, but the of­fer came af­ter he won the Sin­que­field Cup, oblit­er­at­ing an im­pres­sive field that in­cluded the world cham­pion, Mag­nus Carlsen of Nor­way.

The tour­na­ment is named for Rex Sin­que­field, a re­tired fi­nancier ac­tive in Mis­souri pol­i­tics who has be­come the pri­mary bene­fac­tor of chess in the United States.

Sin­que­field pro­vided the $315,000 prize fund for the event, as he also does for the U.S. Cham­pi­onship, which for seven con­sec­u­tive years has been held at the Chess Club and Scholas­tic Cen­ter of St. Louis, which he fi­nanced and built.

In an in­ter­view, Sin­que­field said, “I can’t add any­thing,” to Caru­ana’s state­ment that he had been re­cruited.

Sin­que­field is un­com­fort­able talk­ing about the role he has played sup­port­ing chess fi­nan­cially, though he ac­knowl­edged that his in­vest­ments have ben­e­fited the chess com­mu­nity in St. Louis and across the coun­try. But, he said, it was not part of some grand scheme.

“I am the ad­mir­ing ben­e­fi­ciary of what is hap­pen­ing,” he said.

If it would help the U.S. team, Sin­que­field said, he would not be op­posed to re­cruit­ing for­eign play­ers, men­tion­ing as an ex­am­ple that if he overheard Carlsen say that he wanted to switch fed­er­a­tions he would not hes­i­tate to try to per­suade him to pick the United States.

Switch­ing fed­er­a­tions, par­tic­u­larly for an elite player, is not sim­ple.

A grand­mas­ter, for ex­am­ple, and the fed­er­a­tion he would like to play for must ap­ply to the World Chess Fed­er­a­tion, the game’s gov­ern­ing body, for per­mis­sion, then pay a fee of up to 5,000 eu­ros ($5,400) if the player is to be al­lowed to rep­re­sent his new coun­try im­me­di­ately.

If the player has not been a res­i­dent of his new coun­try for two years, an ad­di­tional com­pen­sa­tion fee to the player’s old fed­er­a­tion is re­quired — as much as 50,000 eu­ros for a player of Caru­ana’s cal­iber.

Con­se­quently, trans­fers of elite play­ers are rare.

In the last 15 years, there have been only two in­volv­ing play­ers ranked in the world’s top 20: Sergey Kar­jakin, a Ukrainian-born player ranked No. 12 who now plays for Rus­sia, and Wes­ley So, the world No. 8, who switched last year to the United States from the Philip­pines.

So’s de­ci­sion was an un­ex­pected boon for the U.S. team. In an in­ter­view, he said that he had not been re­cruited but had made the de­ci­sion for per­sonal and pro­fes­sional rea­sons. He also said he was not un­mind­ful of how his de­ci­sion might be re­ceived.

“In my opin­ion, Rex Sin­que­field would pre­fer if I play for the United States,” So said.

He added that it was his dream to play in the Sin­que­field Cup.

So and Hikaru Naka­mura, Amer­ica’s top player, would give the U.S. a for­mi­da­ble 1-2 punch. Naka­mura has won two elite tour­na­ments this year — the Gi­bral­tar Chess Fes­ti­val and the Zurich Chess Chal­lenge — and his world rank­ing is a ca­reer-best No. 3.

But teams in the big­gest in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions need five play­ers (four reg­u­lars and one re­serve), and af­ter Naka­mura and So, there is a drop-off among U.S. tal­ent, at least when com­pared with the Rus­sian and Chi­nese teams, which can field en­tire rosters of play­ers ranked in the top 40 in the world. The cur­rent No. 3 in the United States is Gata Kam­sky, who is No. 61 in the world.

It is partly with that mind that the U.S. Chess Fed­er­a­tion re­cently cre­ated a player op­por­tu­nity com­mit­tee and a char­i­ta­ble fund to help re­cruit and pay the fees of for­eign play­ers in­ter­ested in mov­ing to the United States, and why adding Caru­ana to the Amer­i­can sta­ble would be a coup.

Reached by email, Gian­pietro Pagnon­celli, the pres­i­dent of the Ital­ian Chess Fed­er­a­tion, wrote, “If Fabi­ano is re­ally in­ter­ested in switch­ing fed­er­a­tions, I can only feel sorry about that.” But he also cleared the path, say­ing that the Ital­ian fed­er­a­tion would not op­pose such a de­ci­sion.

Randy Bauer, a mem­ber of the ex­ec­u­tive board of the U.S. fed­er­a­tion, said the com­mit­tee and the fund were part of an ef­fort to pro­mote the game by rais­ing its pro­file in the United States. “Cer­tainly, if we have a team that wins a gold medal against Rus­sia and China, that will help,” Bauer said. “The United States loves win­ners.”

The fed­er­a­tion may not have far to look to find re­cruits. Like So, many of them al­ready live in the U.S. and play for one of the elite col­lege chess pro­grams, which have ex­panded and be­come more com­pet­i­tive in re­cent years.

Jim Stallings, the long­time direc­tor of the chess pro­gram at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Dal­las, said that while the U.S. is pro­duc­ing more home­grown grand­mas­ters than it once did, there are still not enough of them.

“By virtue of the fact that there are not that many strong play­ers in the United States,” he said, “we have to go out and re­cruit for­eign play­ers.”

Some of those col­lege re­cruits have sub­se­quently switched their al­le­giance, in­clud­ing Ale­jan­dro Ramirez (for­merly of Costa Rica), Timur Ga­reev (Uzbek­istan) and Fidel Cor­rales Jimenez (Cuba). Yaroslav Zhere­bukh, a grand­mas­ter orig­i­nally from Ukraine who is a sopho­more at Texas Tech, has just fin­ished trans­fer­ring, ac­cord­ing to Al Lawrence, the direc­tor of the pro­gram there.

But no mat­ter who else the United States re­cruited, it would not have the im­pact of land­ing Caru­ana. That will not hap­pen this year, Caru­ana said, but “it is open for the fu­ture.”

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