Serving the game his way

HE IS a product of the Soviet schools that churned out mind champions like nobody's business. Like several players from the land that patronised chess, he also achieved the Grandmaster title, at a `ripe' age of 24 years. And, for chess, he might have killed a physicist in him.

But, it hardly brought luck to his career the way one would like to. Despite struggling to embrace success on the international circuit, this average Russian allowed himself another opportunity to be with the game. He took to training, to a faraway country, at an age when others would hardly think of taking up the retired man's job.

That's Grandmaster Maxim Sorokin. And, this mild-mannered person is now in India on his favourite mission - to train youngsters. Not only the tactics of the game, but how to relax and engage in other recreational activities to keep the mind fresh.

Sorokin started the first leg of the month-long workshop in the capital as part of the FIDE, the world chess governing body, programme for the development of the game. Being conducted under the aegis of the All India Chess Federation (AICF), the workshop is aimed at helping upcoming players learn some nuances of middlegame and endgame. ``At this age more stress should be given on middlegame and endgame.''

To understand him, it is necessary to know the turbulent times Sorokin went through after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the steady decline of the state support to the chess.

``We used to have strong chess schools across the country with good coaches, mind you always a Grandmaster. But, now everything has changed and with minimal social guarantee for the future of the player, committing your career to chess has become a problem in Russia now,'' says Sorokin.

``There are several Grandmasters in Russia today, but apart from those coming from affluent families or those who are doing well on the international circuit, rest are all poor. They are even struggling to earn enough money to lead normal life,'' he laments.

The reasons for such a dramatic change in the condition of chess, in Russia, are many. One prime factor is the withdrawal of support from the state, which in the past had upheld chess in high esteem.

In contrast, chess seems to be flourishing in India. Ever since Viswanathan Anand, now the World champion, won the junior world title in 1987 and his subsequent triumphs over the next decade, brought chess to the forefront.

``They are conducting such extensive coaching camps, youngsters are travelling abroad on federation's cost and host of national and international tournaments are being organised in India,'' Sorokin points out. The coach says if such guarantee for the future is available, and a little government support, the future looks brilliant for Indian chess.

Despite such a bright picture being painted, Sorokin fears that the normal human attitude may some day cause a problem.

``The problem is that once they (chess players) start getting such support complacency will creep in. This is what actually happened in the erstwhile Soviet Union when most of the players depended on the federation and the government for support,'' says Sorokin.

Once a sportsperson is assured of the regular income regardless of the performance, the problems start there. Because, you never know what is going to happen (politically).

``In Russia, government abruptly decided to cut the pipeline providing money to the chess federation after the break up of the Soviet Union. So, one has to be cautious of overdependence,'' Sorokin suggests.

This is a telling comment for our over-dependant chess players. Barring Anand all are at the mercy of the AICF. The federation dictates where and which player should play. It also charts out what the players, regardless of their seniority, should do when on foreign trips.

This is where the social guarantee for the players' future is an utmost necessity.

Sorokin has come through all this in Russia. A trainer's job, particularly with chess gaining popularity worldwide, has become a paying one. He, however, had never thought of it when he first started to move pieces on the board.

Sorokin began playing when he was around four years. ``Much before the primary school. And, I was lucky I had good coaches, all Grandmaster level, never below.''

Having no specific interest in other games, he liked solving problems. When at the high school, he participated in Mathematics Olympiad and did well. Later, Sorokin joined the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology with physics as main subject.

But, he couldn't do both - physics and chess. At a age when career decisions were to be taken, and his destination, GM title, clearly visible, Sorokin decided to quit the university after three years into the course. ``Actually physics and chess do not go together.''

The Grandmaster title came in 1992. But, with no big success coming on the circuit, he accepted an offer from Argentina and shifted his base to the Latin American country in 1993. During the five-year stay in Argentina, he hoped for a longer association with the country. He showed his gratitude by changing his affiliation by joining the Argentinian chess federation.

It could never stay that way. Sorokin had to come back to his country. But, he has not yet changed his allegiance, probably because he is not so active on the circuit.

In a country that lives football, a mind game could hardly earn any takers. The casual attitude of officials and the lesser allocation for chess over the years as the country's economy went worse, it became extremely difficult for him to continue.


New Delhi