Sorokin, finally out of Big Brother's shadow

HYDERABAD, JULY 20. Just 50 metres from the venue of the World chess championships in Las Vegas last year, not a soul knew an event of such magnitude was taking place. That came as an unpleasant surprise for Maxim Sorokin.

How could people be so indifferent to his life's overriding passion - chess? Contrast that with the ongoing Wipro GMs tourney and he overflows with gratitude for the treatment accorded to him.

From the Ural mountain city of Ekaterinburg, named after Catherine, queen of Peter the Great, Sorokin has come a long way. Born to scientist parents, it was no surprise that he joined the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. The rigid curriculum there estranged him from chess for a year.

Playing with a vengeance the next year, he won at the universities level to qualify for the semifinals of the Supreme Soviet Championships. By then he'd had enough of books and chose to make a living out of the 64 squares.

The decision was fraught with risk. Memories of carting food and provisions from Moscow to his hometown were hard to erase. ``Moscow and St. Petersburg were showcased as signs of plenty, since these cities were accessible to foreigners,'' he recalls. Sorokin's exit from the Moscow institute wasn't taken too kindly. The area he could travel for tournaments was restricted as was his interaction with foreigners. Even after the seeds of Mikhail Gorbachev's Glasnost and Perestroika had germinated, Big Brother was watching.

As a member of the Soviet under-26 team for an international tournament in 1991, Sorokin remembers the chief of delegation being a KGB agent. In the same contingent was a teenager, little known then but who was to achieve world-wide fame - Vladimir Kramnik.

The drawbacks of the Socialist system apart, the concept and excellence of chess schools have been lost for ever. ``Every school instructor ranked no less than a master,'' Sorokin reminisces. The system's success can be gauged from the academy he himself attended, run by Alexander Panchenko. From Sorokin's batch of 30 pupils, 20 became Grandmasters. How did Sorokin fall behind the likes of Kramnik? Between 1993 and 98, he went on a coaching assignment to Argentina, which he represents, despite returning to his native Russia for good. ``The emoluments were attractive and he got to play quite a few tournaments as well. But Argentina being fairly isolated from the mainstream chess world, he couldn't quite keep abreast of global developments.

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Dogs decamped with half of AICF Honorary Secretary, P.T. Ummer Koya's footwear the other day. Caught unawares and a shoe short, he decided to play it safe. Two pairs it took to reassure him, before the spring in his step returned!

Passing the portrait gallery of chess greats, perched on the bar table adjoining the venue here, Koya paused by the illustration of Mikhail Tal. Considered the most attacking Grandmaster ever, Tal died of drinking too much, he said.

As homage to the departed genius of Tal, the bar would remain closed right through the ongoing event, Koya added, with a glint in his eye.