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Chess champion finds everyone targets No. 1

Squirrel Hill grandmaster working to regain control

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like an Old West gunslinger, whose quick draw and marksmanship made him both feared and unrelentingly challenged by those seeking their own fame, Alexander Shabalov is a marked man.

Alexander Shabalov looks over the pieces on a chessboard in the dining room of his home in Squirrel Hill. Shabalov, who plays chess from eight to 10 hours a day, won the 2003 U.S. Chess Championship in Seattle. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

That's what happens when you win the U.S. Chess Championship, as Shabalov did in January in Seattle, claiming sole ownership of the title he tied for in 1993 and 2000.

As the top gun in U.S. chess circles, Shabalov is now the player other players want to beat.

And some have.

"The championship took a little bit of my energy and nerves. I didn't do too well," the 35-year-old Squirrel Hill resident and chess grandmaster said yesterday of his post-championship play in tournaments in Moscow, Virginia Beach, Bermuda and Connecticut.

"I can feel it. Everybody who's playing against me is playing the game of their lives. I had to go the extra mile to beat weaker players."

Shabalov, a native of Latvia who has lived here for 10 years, hopes to right his game for upcoming tournaments such as one over the Memorial Day weekend in Chicago, the World Open in Philadelphia, the National Open in Las Vegas, the U.S. Open in Los Angeles, another in Copenhagen, and the world championship in London at year's end.

But while he's looking ahead to adjusting his game and playing better, members of the Pittsburgh Chess Club paused last night to look back at his championship win. In a ceremony at the Wightman School Community Building in Squirrel Hill, the club presented him with a plaque honoring his accomplishment.

Members then marveled as he went through his last-round game -- 61 moves over nearly six hours -- with up-and-coming rival Varuzhan Akobian, 19, an Armenian who now lives in California.

Online Graphic:
The one to beat



Playing with the white pieces, Shabalov tested Akobian with an aggressive opening. By mid-game, Akobian found himself in time trouble. Shabalov took an advantage that he sealed by sacrificing his queen on the 56th move; Akobian resigned five moves later.

Such aggressive play worked in such an intense, top-caliber tournament, Shabalov noted yesterday. But he's had trouble getting back to more conservative play, which is more suited to what he called "normal tournaments."

"It's really hurting me recently, playing how I was playing in Seattle. I'm taking extra risks that aren't really necessary," he said. "It's a mental thing, a psychological thing. I need to forget I'm the U.S. champion and play like I was playing before, but it's not easy.

"Basically, I need to change my playing style a little bit."

Shabalov started playing chess when he was 7 "but still did everything else like other kids. It wasn't until I was 11 that I realized I could do something in chess and I dropped everything else."

That decision 24 years ago has paid off. For the U.S. championship, he took home $25,000, the largest amount in the tournament's history. He's been in demand for personal appearances and for exhibitions in which he takes on more than one opponent. While in a normal year his tournament winnings average between $50,000 and $60,000, this year they could reach as much as $75,000 or more.

Shabalov lives with his wife, Olga, a cardiologist at UPMC Shadyside and a native of Riga, Latvia, which is also Shabalov's hometown, and their daughters, Anna, 14, and Kathy, 11.

For relaxation he plays tennis and listens to "goth rock" groups such as Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus, but chess is a major factor in his life, even when he's not traveling to a tournament. For example, he and two fellow grandmasters, one from Latvia and the other from Estonia, plan to open the Baltic Chess School in New York City in the fall.

Asked for the qualities that make for a good chess player, Shabalov didn't hesitate and said there is but one:

Concentration, he said, is the key to everything.

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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