Seirawan, Yasser (b. 1960)

  • By Oliver Beck
  • Posted 5/30/2024
  • Essay 22795
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In 1972 at the age of 12, Yasser Seirawan walked into the Last Exit on Brooklyn, a coffeehouse in Seattle’s University District where the local chess luminaries gathered. He had been told that he might learn more about chess there, and he was determined to finally beat a neighbor who had taught him the game. Just 10 years later, Grandmaster Seirawan would become the first American in 27 years to defeat a reigning world chess champion in tournament competition. During his meteoric rise to the highest levels of chess, the handsome, athletic, and charismatic "Yaz" brought an unprecedented sense of glamor and style to the game. Along the way he wrote popular chess books and published one of the world’s top chess magazines. He remains among the chess elite. He is perhaps best known as one of the most insightful and engaging chess commentators on the internet, and continues to write and lecture on the game and its history.

Born in Syria, Raised in Seattle

Yasser Seirawan was born on March 24, 1960 in Damascus to a Syrian father, Muyasser Seirawan, and an English mother, Margaret Elvin. They had met and married in Nottingham, England, when Muyasser was working toward advanced degrees in artificial intelligence and computer programming. They had moved to Syria at the completion of his studies to fulfill his obligation of military service as repayment for student loans he had received from the Syrian State. In 1964, amidst great political upheaval and civil disorder, they took Yasser and his older sister, Runda, and surreptitiously fled the country, returning to Nottingham. Shortly thereafter, Yasser’s brother, Nabeel, was born, and in 1967 Muyasser was hired by Boeing. The family moved to Seattle, where Yasser was enrolled in Queen Anne Elementary School.

Yasser’s father enjoyed chess and tried to teach his young son how to play during these early years, but surprisingly Yasser demonstrated little interest in the game. Most chess prodigies become fascinated and extremely proficient at a very early age. The legendary José Raúl Capablanca (1888-1942), among the greatest players in the history of the game, learned how to play shortly after his fourth birthday merely by watching his father and another man play a game. In England, Yasser’s game of choice had been marbles. Each day he would come home from school with his pockets filled with the marbles he had won from classmates. In Seattle he reveled in sports. He was an athletic child, a fast runner, and an excellent swimmer.

Within a year of their arrival in Seattle, Yasser’s parents separated and quickly divorced. The children lived with their mother, Margaret, and in 1970 she married Richard Valance, a man quite different from their strict and uncompromising father. Valance was 6-foot-5, bald, with a flaming red beard. He hailed from Detroit but had moved to Thailand and become a Buddhist monk, returning to America only when his abbot informed him that his destiny awaited him there. Before long, the family piled into a station wagon and began traveling down the West Coast, Valance working as a handyman and masseur along the way. After short stays in Palm Springs, California, and Corpus Christi, Texas, they headed east, ending up in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Margaret, having become engrossed in spirituality and mysticism through her marriage to Valance, wanted to study there at the Edgar Cayce Association for Enlightenment center.

For Yasser, the erratic and unpredictable life on the road had been surprisingly easy. He was an excellent student, always striving to be the best in class, and never fell behind in school. The frequent change of schools had also been made easier with his ability to excel at sports, and he quickly became popular wherever the family ended up. In Virginia Beach, Yasser began to bask in the unrestricted freedom given him by Valance. The sunny beach became his world. He loved swimming and soon learned to surf, growing his hair long and wearing surfer trunks every day. He played tennis and racquetball, and took up karate. He augmented the money he made delivering newspapers by hustling quarters playing pinball and pool.

A Friend Upstairs

In 1972, after Margaret had completed her studies, she and Valance ended their marriage, and Yasser’s life would abruptly change. Valance had wished to continue to wander in search of his destiny while Margaret was ready to settle down. She decided to return to Seattle, and, realizing that the days of sun and surf were ending, Yasser was heartbroken. Back in dreary Seattle, his brother and sister went to live with their father, and Yasser and his mother moved into an apartment in the Sand Point neighborhood.

It was during this time that the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich were taking place and Yasser had become a fan of the swimmer Mark Spitz, who would go on to win seven gold medals at those games. Because their possessions, including their television, had not yet arrived from Virginia Beach, Yasser befriended an upstairs neighbor, a paraplegic named David Chapman, who had a nice television on which to watch the Olympics. Chapman also had a closet full of board games that the two of them would play between broadcasts from Munich, and he taught Yasser how to play chess.

Unlike his first encounter with chess, 12-year-old Yasser now began to develop a keen interest in the game, but he did not demonstrate the immediate inexplicable talent typical of most chess prodigies. Chapman, not a particularly strong player, beat him relentlessly. Yasser lost hundreds of consecutive games without much improvement, but he nonetheless persisted, driven largely by the same competitiveness that had provided him with pockets full of marbles in his childhood, pinball and pool winnings in Virginia Beach, and had always contributed significantly to his scholastic and athletic success. His enthusiasm was not based solely on his desire to beat Chapman, however. In 1972, interest in chess surged in the United Sates when Bobby Fischer played the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. Fischer, the eccentric and erratic American genius, was on the verge of taking the title away from the Soviets who had for so long dominated the game, and the match had made chess front-page news. Seirawan, caught up in this excitement and desperately hoping to improve, asked Chapman where he had learned to play chess. Chapman told him about a coffeehouse in the University District called the Last Exit on Brooklyn.

The Last Exit on Brooklyn

Opened in 1967 on Brooklyn Avenue, the Last Exit was then one of the few places in Seattle where one could find espresso. Its clientele included students, professors, artists, intellectuals, and most of the best chess players in the Northwest. The owner, Irv Cisski, believed that although they did not generate much revenue, chess players, like poetry readings, contributed greatly to the flavor and character of his establishment, and he welcomed them. It was not uncommon to see 10 tables occupied by people engaged in the game, often playing five-minute speed chess, frantically moving pieces and pounding chess clocks. The Last Exit was at the center of Northwest chess.

It was not long after Seirawan walked through the door and began watching chess games that he was invited to play. Again he was beaten mercilessly, now more severely than he ever had at the hands of Chapman. He remained intrigued, however, particularly after seeing how the older local masters had become so engrossed in the game. During the late summer of 1972 Seirawan consistently rode his bike to the Last Exit. The chess regulars there gradually took the charming, outgoing, and exceptionally curious 12-year-old under their wing, and Yasser soon became "Yaz" or "The Kid." He enjoyed the camaraderie he found there, and relished his social acceptance by a group of chess players consisting mostly of adults. The Last Exit became his second home.

Seirawan was now surrounded and mentored by many of the best players in the Pacific Northwest, including such notable masters as six-time Washington State Chess Champion James McCormick and the eccentric Viktors Pupols, known affectionately as "Uncle Vik." Seirawan watched as they analyzed the latest Fischer-Spassky games when they appeared in the newspaper. He learned how chess moves were recorded, and he searched the Seattle Public Library for books to help him improve. He quickly grasped the underlying principles of the game and learned to navigate his way through the various established chess openings, impressing his older friends with his ability to absorb and retain knowledge. He seemed never to forget anything, and his desire to improve and win never waned. He finally played a game with his old rival Chapman which ended not with a loss, but with a draw, a major triumph for young Yasser.

In November 1972, his new friends encouraged him to enter a local weekend tournament. Seirawan played three games on Saturday and lost each one. On Sunday he played two games and won them both. At the end of the tournament he was awarded a trophy for being the best player under the age of 14, which he took home and proudly showed his mother. Only much later would he learn that he had been the only participant under the age of 14 and would have received the trophy regardless of his performance. Later that month, Yasser won another trophy, this time for winning first place in the Central Washington Junior Open.

Rapid Ascent

Now a student at Meany Middle School, Seirawan maintained excellent grades and was allowed by his mother to dedicate all the time he wished to the study of chess. He began to gain proficiency at an extraordinary pace. Having competed in tournament games, he was now given a rating by the United States Chess Federation, and just eight months after learning how to play, he had risen to the level of a Class A player. He was now considered among the top 25 players in the state and unquestionably the strongest junior player. He had played and beaten some of the state's best, including reigning Washington State Champion Mike Franett. By June 1973 he had entered 10 tournaments, winning four. After he narrowly missed tying for first in the King County Open Chess Tournament, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a story on the confident chess phenom, and his reputation began to grow beyond the walls of the Last Exit.

On June 25, 1973, 13-year-old Yasser began a six-game match against Robert Karch, the Seattle City Chess Champion who was 43 years old and had been playing chess for 25 years. The match was held at the American Chess Facility in north Seattle. The purse was $400, with each side putting up a $200 stake. Seirawan's stake was put up by Andy Garcia, a Seattle real estate man and chess enthusiast who frequented the Last Exit and who would act as Seirawan's first manager. Garcia had recognized his skill and potential, and was particularly impressed by his incredible memory and his ability to visualize the board and the movement of the pieces in his mind. The match received considerable attention in the local press, and interest was heightened when Seirawan, in a pre-match Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, described himself as something of a hustler and dismissed Karch as a "pushover" ("'Wonder' vs. Chess Expert ..."). Karch, on the other hand, described his brash young opponent as impulsive, impatient, and over-confident. Seirawan, who arrived for one of the games shirtless on a hot summer day, won the first two games and went on to take the match, winning four games while losing two. After paying Garcia back the $200 stake, he used his winnings to buy a 10-speed bicycle.

By the time he entered Garfield High School in 1974, Seirawan had become something of a local celebrity, but, tanned and athletic with long hair and a penchant for tank tops, he looked and acted nothing like a stereotypical chess nerd. He played racquet ball and tennis, and became a member of the swim team. His athletic ability and his confident, engaging personality had always contributed to his popularity at school, but now he was also admired for his chess renown. He soon began to organize Garfield’s first chess team, lobbying the principal, recruiting faculty members for sponsorship, and teaching and coaching players. The team included Yasser, three African-Americans, one Asian, and one white player at a time when most chess teams consisted exclusively of white kids from suburban high schools. The Garfield team was not just unique because of its diversity, but also stood out for its strength. The first year they won the city title, the Northwest regional championship, and came in second at the state championships. The second year they won everything, and again the year after that. Garfield, known for its success in football and basketball, now displayed chess trophies in its trophy case. The team was supported by enthusiastic chants at pep rallies and its members received letterman’s jackets.

Outside of school, Seirawan's chess activity continued full force and his rating continued to climb. In 1975 he attended the U.S. Open chess tournament in Lincoln, Nebraska, a tournament attracting hundreds of players. Sponsored by Garcia, he had attended his first U.S. Open in Chicago in 1973, winning the class B prize and receiving mention in the national press as a player of great promise. At Lincoln, Seirawan fulfilled that prediction, ending up near the top in a field of 370 players. Described in Chess Life & Review (November 1975) as "the sensation of the tournament" ("U.S. Open at Lincoln"), the 15-year-old with only an Expert rating defeated Arthur Bisguier, a strong grandmaster and former U.S. Chess Champion, in a hard-fought 53-move game. The game was annotated and discussed in that magazine by Pal Benko, a grandmaster and eventual co-winner of the event, who also annotated his own game with Seirawan. Benko was not only struck by the youth’s mature play, but also by his "luxuriant curly hair, his colorful clothes and his jewelry" ("In the Arena"). Seirawan's performance in this tournament earned him a master rating.

Master of the Hustle

From marbles to pinball and pool, Seirawan had always enjoyed hustling. When he was 13 he admitted in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article that at the Last Exit he would "usually end up with a couple of extra dollars at the end of the day" ("'Wonder' vs. Chess Expert ..."). After graduating from Garfield, he traveled to New York and spent some time playing chess in Times Square and at chess clubs, often playing blitz games requiring almost instantaneous moves. The long-haired kid dressed in tank tops and shorts was not widely recognized as a highly-skilled Master, and he ended each day with pockets full of cash amounting to hundreds of dollars. Back in Seattle, he continued tournament play and won the Washington State Chess Championship in 1976 and 1977.

By 1979, just seven years after having learned the game, Seirawan's chess skill had risen to the point that he began to be recognized internationally as a top player. In 1977 and 1978, he had played in the famous Lone Pine tournament with good results. The event was held each year in the small California town of Lone Pine, the home of its sponsor, millionaire chess enthusiast Louis D. Statham. The considerable prize fund attracted some of the best players in the world, and when Seirawan returned in 1979 the field included 27 grandmasters and 22 international masters from 18 countries, with 73 participants overall. This time Seirawan stood out, tying for 11th place and defeating two of the strongest grandmasters in the world, Tony Miles of Great Britain and the previous year’s winner, Bent Larsen of Denmark. His game against Larsen was awarded a brilliancy prize, and at the conclusion of the event Seirawan had earned the title of international master.

In June 1979, he won his second U.S. Junior Championship (under 21 years old) and received an all-expenses-paid trip to Skien, Norway, in July, where he won the World Junior Championship. Although his successes had brought him considerable recognition in the United States, this title brought him to the attention of international tournament organizers and resulted in an invitation to the elite tournament at the Hoogoven Chess Festival at Wijk aan Zee, Holland in January 1980. Among the 14 participants was Victor Korchnoi, the No. 2 player in the world, who had come close to taking the World Chess Championship from Anatoly Karpov of the Soviet Union in a match just two years earlier. Also participating was Dutch Grandmaster Jan Timman, one of the world’s best players, who had also been a leading contender for the world title. Seirawan beat them both, The New York Times calling his victory over Korchnoi a "brilliant upset" ("Upset Victory for Seirawan ..."). He went on to tie for first place, a tremendous and unexpected result that also brought him the coveted title of Grandmaster. At the time, he was the fourth youngest player ever to gain that title.

A Shocking Offer

Immediately after Seirawan's stunning success at Wijk aan Zee, Korchnoi took him aside and gave him an incredible offer. Korchnoi, who had defected from the Soviet Union in 1976 and was now living in Switzerland, was preparing his campaign to again challenge Anatoly Karpov for the world championship. to be held in Merano, Italy in 1981. He asked Seirawan if he would be interested in becoming his second, essentially his trainer and coach, who could aid him in analysis and research and help him work through the qualifying matches leading up to the title match and, if he did become the challenger, with the championship match against Karpov itself. It was a considerable undertaking at a time when chess players did not have access to powerful chess computers, but an enormous opportunity for the 20-year-old. Shocked by the offer, Seirawan began to wonder how much he would have to pay Korchnoi for the chance to take on such an important position, but immediately accepted when Korchnoi explained that he would pay Seirawan a sizable salary and all of his expenses. For the next year and a half, Seirawan worked almost daily with Korchnoi in Switzerland, analyzing the latest theoretical advances in top-level chess, helping him prepare for particular openings and variations favored by specific opponents, and playing countless training games with him. In the end, after some hard-fought matches, Korchnoi did successfully win the right for a rematch with Karpov, but was ultimately defeated by the champion. Seirawan emerged from this experience as one of the strongest players in the world

He had now becomes famous in the chess world, but throughout the early 1980s his popularity was not based solely on his chess ability. The long-haired kid in surfer gear had grown into a strikingly handsome, stylishly dressed young man with a curly black hair and a mustache. He was athletic and outgoing, charming and charismatic, the antithesis of a stereotypical chess genius. A caption below a 1982 photograph of him in British Chess Magazine suggested that he looked like a young Errol Flynn. The December 21, 1981, issue of Sports Illustrated ran an article about him entitled "Yasser, That’s My Baby," which outlined the amazing rise and glamorous life of the young chess star. It featured photographs of the nattily-dressed grandmaster, including one of him playing tennis in Merano during the Karpov-Korchnoi match. In September 1983, Cosmopolitan Magazine named him Bachelor of the Month. He told the magazine that his loves included "snorkeling, tennis, dancing till dawn" as well as "women with lustrous hair and twinkling honest eyes – a direct gaze is all."

Defeating Karpov

In 1982, just 10 years after David Chapman taught him how to play the game, Seirawan faced Anatoly Karpov at the prestigious Phillips and Drew Kings Chess Tournament in London. He had come close to beating the reigning World Champion two months earlier at a tournament in Mar del Plata, Argentina, but was forced to settle for a disappointing draw. This time, however, the outcome would be different. With his 13th move, Karpov surprisingly sacrificed a knight in a prepared variation, which caused a stir in the audience. Although caught off guard and under tremendous pressure, Seirawan was able to weather the storm by consistently finding the most accurate moves, eventually achieving a winning position. On the 31st move Karpov resigned, stopping the clock and offering his hand to his young opponent. With this victory, Seirawan had become the first American in 27 years to defeat a reigning World Champion in tournament competition.

Although Seirawan himself never became World Chess Champion, he remained among the world’s best players for the better part of his long career. He twice qualified to take part in the Candidates Tournament, a competition to determine the challenger for the world champion title. He was a member of the American team at 10 Chess Olympiads, the biennial team tournament in which nations compete. At the 1988 Olympiad in Dubai, he defeated Garry Kasparov of the Soviet team, thereby notching his second victory over a reigning world champion in tournament competition. Seirawan was U.S. Chess Champion four times, winning that title the first time in 1981 and the last time 19 years later in 2000, underscoring the incredible length of time that he remained competitive. In 2007, after winning many prestigious tournaments and matches throughout his career, he retired from competitive chess.

Beyond his phenomenal rise and successful tournament career, Seirawan's contributions to the chess world have had a lasting impact. In the pre-computer era, he made significant contributions to chess opening theory, perhaps most notably the Seirawan Variation of the Caro Kann Defense. In 1988 he founded International Chess Enterprises, which published Inside Chess, then one of the world’s top chess magazines. He has written many books on the history of the game, as well as the Winning Chess series, popular books of instruction, and Chess Duels (London, 2010), in which he analyzes his games and describes his encounters with some of the giants of chess, all World Champions. With his friend Bruce Harper, a chess master from Vancouver, B.C., he created Seirawan Chess, a chess variant that uses a traditional chessboard but employs two additional pieces, the Hawk and the Elephant. Seirawan has also been a vocal critic of FIDE, the governing body of international chess competition, pushing for changes and lobbying to unify the Chess World Championship title at a time when there were two champions, each recognized by a different governing agency. In 2000, with Scott Oki of Microsoft and others, he helped establish America’s Chess Foundation, a nonprofit organization that uses chess as a learning tool for 2nd and 3rd grade students.

Seirawan married Yvette Nagel, a Woman FIDE Chess Master from Hilversum, Holland, who won the Woman’s Chess Championship of the Netherlands in 1981. They met in 1988 and she moved to Seattle to work with him on Inside Chess and helped establish America’s Chess Foundation. Her father is Jan Nagel, a well-known Dutch politician, and she and Seirawan later moved to Amsterdam, where she received a master’s degree in public administration in 2010 and began working for the city and the mayor’s office.

At the age of 51, Seirawan briefly returned to competitive chess as a member of the United States team at the 2011 World Team Championship in Ningbo, China. Although the U.S. ended up in sixth place out of the 10 countries competing, Seirawan had good results against the active, much younger players he faced, including a victory over one of the strongest players in the world, Judit Polgar of Hungary, on her 35th birthday. Later that year, Seirawan tied for first place in the Magistral Casino Tournament in Barcelona, an event consisting of nine grandmasters.

Seirawan is today [2024] perhaps best known as a chess educator, lecturer, and commentator. He has a large presence on the internet, giving tutorials and often playing through some of history’s great chess games, explaining the moves and demonstrating possible variations. An engaging storyteller, he lectures on the rich history of the game, frequently with personal insight, and he is a popular host of tournaments streaming live on the internet. In 2023, he was named Chief Commentator and Spokesperson of the famed Saint Louis Chess Club. For many, however, despite his continuing contributions to the world of chess, Seirawan will always be best known for the many great chess games he played throughout his career. The fifth game of his match against Jan Timman played at Hilversum in 1990 stands as just one example of the beauty he has brought to the game.


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