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Late one chilly Autumn evening, a cluster of men at the venerable Marshall Chess Club in the Village are playing speed chess, trying not to seem anxious, looking for any excuse not to play Irina Krush. A 17-year-old self-described 'chess nut' and internationally recognized master, Krush is expected to play that night against a dozen players in a simultaneous exhibition. 'I would sign up to play her," says club manager Larry Tamarkin, "but I don't want to embarrass myself any more than I have to."
The collective fear of Krush is not altogether unfounded. She admits that her talent for the game can put people off. "It's gotten so that when I meet people now, I don't even tell them what I do," Krush explains. "More than 50 percent of my life is playing chess. So to leave that out when I meet someone, well, that's a big part of me to leave out."
Just a year ago Krush became the youngest female international master. In 1999, she and three other young players faced off against three-time world chess champion Gary Kasparov in a match followed by thousands around the world. Though the official title of the Internet tournament was "Kasparov v. The World," the match was quickly dubbed "Kasparov v. Krush," because she so dominated the play. In 1998, at the age of 14, she became the youngest woman ever to win the U.S. Women's Chess Championship.
Krush's talent for clobbering her opponents while maintaining youthful grace draws plenty of fans at big tournaments. "Everybody starts whispering, 'That's Irina Krush!' You see these old men come up to her with their chessboards, asking her to sign them. It's like walking into a basketball game with Michael Jordan," says Eliot Weiss, Krush's former high school chess coach. Like MJ, Krush says she's not in it just to win it; it's all for the love of the game. "I like a game where I can fight," she explains. "I don't like to win cheap."
If winning doesn't come cheap it certainly comes easy to Krush, who first began playing when she was five. Since then she's had a lot of firsts, and now she's just two tournaments away from becoming the youngest U.S. female grandmaster everan achievement that would place her firmly in the center of an elite cadre of fewer than 600 worldwide, 50 of whom are in the U.S. Ranking fourth in the world's top-rated girls and 35th among the top women, Krush is in a position to secure a place in chess history. Making grandmaster at her age would put her in the same league as Bobby Fischer, the legendarily eccentric American champion of Cold War lore.
Unlike Fischer, she is no prima donna. Krush's room is, like her, at once sweetly childish and beguilingly adult. Cutesy decals of pastel-colored chess pieces clash with a massive oak desk that looks as if it belongs in the solicitor general's office and is stacked with a laptop and half a dozen chess books. During an interview, sheat first theatrically, then absentmindedlyprops herself up against an enormous stuffed Saint Bernard that a crushed-out boy gave her. "I guess he thought he might be able to get somewhere with me if he gave it to me," she shrugs. As much as she admits to a weakness for stuffed animals, she is not easily impressed. A frilly white wicker daybed populated by teddy bears of varying size runs along the same wall of shelves that hold Krush's 50-plus chess trophies.
With her coterie of awestruck fans, and her killer instincts, it is sometimes hard to remember that Krush is also just a teenager. She wears her curly brown shoulder-length hair pulled back and dresses casually in flare jeans and terrycloth tank tops. Krush's only visible pretense is her refusal to wear her extra-strength wire-rimmed glasses to a match.
Although she dismisses suggestions that her play is overly aggressive, she has earned a reputation for brinkmanship. Last year, at a state high school tournament, she found herself in an especially tight spot when she lost two key pieces early in the game. With her opponent pressing in and time running out, Krush executed a flurry of moves and landed a checkmate with just two seconds left. Coach Weiss recalls, "I was having a heart attack by the end of the game. But no matter what, she always comes back."
Krush's success is even more significant because professional chess is one of the sports in which women are still marginal. The United States Chess Federation, the sport's leading governing body, claims a membership of some 90,000 rated players, barely 7 percent of whom are female. Robert Byrne, longtime chess columnist at The New York Times, calls Krush "the strongest woman ever in American chess."
What would it be like for a man to lose to a woman in this traditionally male mini-arena of ego? Bobby Fischer once remarked in a Playboy interview that he would play any woman blindfolded, play without knights, and still beat her hands-down. How will the male psyche survive a loss to a ponytailed 17-year-old who nonchalantly munches potato chips between moves?
If anyone is in a position to answer the question, it is Bruce Pandolfini, who has taught some of the country's top young players, including Josh Waitzkin, the seven-year-old genius portrayed in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. "When I first began playing and a woman would play at a tournament, the pressure was very intense," says Pandolfini. "It's become a lot more egalitarian now. Chess players respect chess players who play well, rather than thinking about whether or not someone's a man or a woman."
Krush credits her father, Boris, with encouraging her to overcome the gender divide. The laissez-faire American approach to training was never an option under his roof. Boris turned straight to the Soviet playbook, where state-sponsored "athletic training" regimes forced chess players to work up a sweat daily. An expert player who frequented Odessa's cutthroat chess clubs before emigrating to the States with his wife and child in 1989, he taught her to win.
Irina spoke no English when she was a shy little girl arriving in Brooklyn in the dead of winter and spent her first days here playing chess at her father's side. Five years later, when Boris brought her to Pandolfini, it was apparent she was a prodigy. "The way you can tell if a chess player is talented is by following her eyes. Irina's eyes were moving all over the place. Usually children tend to stare at the board," Pandolfini says. "I knew right then that she had the potential to go very far."
Krush still speaks with a subtle Slavic lilt and lives with her parents, who work as certified public accountants from their home near the Little Odessa section of Brooklyn. Although Boris was deeply involved in his daughter's training until she turned 12, he and his wife, Luba, exhibit little of the neurosis that so often plagues the parents of gifted children. "They really want her to have a normal life," says Weiss, "but her life is anything but normal."
Despite three-week solo tournament trips to England, Armenia, India, and elsewhere, Krush says she doesn't feel different from any other teen. She talks on the phone, shops at the mall, spends hours in chat rooms. But because she travels so much, she stopped attending school regularly in her freshman year, and as a result, most of her friendships are chess related. Her best friend, Olga, is Ukrainian grandmaster Igor Novikov's daughter.
Krush says she gave up on trying to fit in when it became clear she outstripped her peers intellectually. "I used to have this list of things not to do. It was like, 'I will not wear pink,' " says Krush. She was, predictably, a bookworm, self-conscious about her immigrant status. "I stopped trying to be cool when I was 12 and just decided that I could be myself."
Endlessly analytical, Krush studies chess six hours a day, memorizing dozens of variations like "the Ruy Lopez," "the Dragon," "the Slav Exchange," and "the Nimzo-Indian." Before tournaments, she meets daily with her new coach, Leonid Yudasin, a Russian grandmaster. For the most part, though, Krush plans her assaults alone within the confines of her pastel citadel. "It's a very solitary life. I think I make pretty decent choices about which variations I study. I prepare by myself for the games. It's actually pretty fun to zero in on your opponent and pick out his weaknesses."
Still, she is superstitious about winning. She puts her hair back with a lime green or bright orange scrunchy depending on which she wore at her last major win. When she was in St. Petersburg, Russia, playing in an international under-21 tournament, she ritualistically arrived at a nearby restaurant to order a reassuringly bland plate of meat and potatoes, two hours to the second before each game began.
To get in shape for upcoming winter tournaments in England and Bermuda, Krush is taking a year off between high school and college, although she worries that it might be a mistake. "There are people who play the game their whole lives and don't go to school," says Krush. "Then when they get older they're not so remarkable and they can't do anything well but play chess." But it is too early for Krush to have any such regrets. "You know how people are always saying they need to have some sort of rock for their lives? For me chess is that rock."