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Chess master's next move will be writing about it

Saturday, January 03, 2004

By Jan Ackerman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Alexander Shabalov kept the U.S. chess world in checkmate much of last year.

The Latvian-born champion who lives in Squirrel Hill started 2003 by winning the U.S. Chess Championship and ended it with wins or first-place ties in six major tournaments under his belt. He just got back from the Continental Chess Association's North American Open in Las Vegas, where he won first prize and close to $9,000.

  

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"It has been a very good year," Shabalov said yesterday from his home.

By December, newspapers were referring to him as the "American Player of the Year" and he was featured in several international chess magazines. Shabalov said he won about $80,000 in prize money in 2003.

With his game in place, Shabalov plans to take a break in the spring and try to write about some of his experiences on the road.

"I want to write something entertaining about modern tournament life, the life of a tournament player. I think I have a lot of funny stories. I got so many offers," Shabalov said.

Who knows where it could lead? Could Alexander Shabalov build a reputation that makes him a household name in chess, like Bobby Fischer did so many years ago?

When Shabalov sits down at the computer to write, he is certain that he won't be working on an autobiography -- not at age 36.

"It's a bit early for that," he said.

Shabalov, who has been playing chess since he was 7, was trained according to the precepts of the Soviet School of Chess.

He discovered the game by watching his father play with his friends in his homeland.

He became a professional chess player in 1988 and a grandmaster in 1991.

With the Soviet Union beginning to crumble, Shabalov and his wife left Riga, Latvia, in 1992 and settled in Pittsburgh, where his wife's sister was already living. His wife, Olga, is a cardiologist at UPMC Shadyside Hospital. They have two daughters, Anna, 15, and Kathy, 11.

Shabalov immediately found that champion chess players didn't have the celebrity status here that they had in Europe, but over the years he has come to appreciate some of the things the United States does have to offer.

"The prize money is much better than in Europe if you are willing to play and willing to risk a lot," he said. "And I like to take risks."

In January 2003, Shabalov won the U.S. championship in Seattle, picking up a $25,000 prize, the biggest in the tournament's history.

With that win, he became the player that other players want to beat. That pressure made him a bit nervous.

"Immediately after I won the championship ... I got turbulent for a month and I couldn't win anything. Then I found a way to cope with it," he said.

In late spring, he won the Memorial Day Tournament in Chicago. He tied for first place in both the National Open in Las Vegas in June and the World Open in Philadelphia in July. He won the U.S. Open Tournament in Los Angeles in August and now, the Continental Open.

By the end of the year, Shabalov's face and story were showing up in international chess magazines.

In December, he was featured on the cover of "New In Chess," a Dutch publication with an international readership.

In that article, Shabalov said he quickly discovered that in America, winning is much more important than not losing.

"In American opens you have the first three, four prizes and the rest is peanuts. You have to play very aggressively."

He also talked about his desire to live in a free state and about how fortuitous it was that he was born in Latvia.

"I think that if I had been born in the United States, I'd never have been a chess player," he told the magazine. "Like so many promising young American players, I'd probably have gone to a good school and done something different than chess."

He also told the magazine that Pittsburgh is not a great place for a professional chess player to live.

"Right now we've been living in Pittsburgh for 11 years and it is probably going to be more. I'm not too happy about it, but my wife is," he told the magazine.

"For a professional chess player, a big city like Chicago or Los Angeles, and particularly New York, is much, much better," he said.

That's because Pittsburgh doesn't offer him the opportunity to teach chess classes, even if he wanted to, Shabalov said yesterday.

"In a big city like New York or Chicago, you have that choice," he said.


Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.

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