American Born Chess Deficit
By Joel Benjamin   
October 31, 2006
Dear Joel,

The members of the 2004 U.S.Olympiad team were all born in Russia and all but one member of the Silver-medal-winning U.S. Women's Olympiad team were born there too. Both the 2006 U.S. Champion and the 2006 U.S. Women's Champion were also born in the Soviet Union. Now I have nothing against immigrants but I can't help but wondering what kind of message this sends to young American-born players. What can they reasonably hope for?

Brooklyn, NY
Actually, two of our 2004 women's team were not born in Russia - Jennifer Shahade and Susan Polgar, who hails from Hungary - but I get your point.

Our young players are unfortunately receiving the message that they should go to college and develop another profession, because chess does not pay. The biggest problem is that the U.S. chess market already cannot support the number of established strong grandmasters on the scene today. But the attrition of talent is not a recent phenomenon, as we can see with a review of American chess history.

When I came up through the ranks in the early 80s, it was a relatively short trip to the top. I joined a group of dominant American players which included Seirawan, Christiansen, de Firmian, and Fedorowicz. These players lasted on the scene for many years. Those four and I, along with a sole Russian immigrant, Boris Gulko, comprised the 1990 silver medal Olympic team.

In the early 1990s several powerhouses arrived on the scene, most notably Kamsky, Yermolinsky, Kaidanov, and Shabalov. Over the years, more and more Russians (I use the term in the broad sense, because many of the players come from other former Soviet republics) have immigrated while our best American hopes have come and gone. The brightest stars to leave the chess scene include Patrick Wolff, Ilya Gurevich, and Tal Shaked.

Now I include Gurevich, because it is no more relevant that he was born in the Soviet Union than it is that Yasser Seirawan was born in Syria or Hikaru Nakamura was born in Japan. The issue is less American vs. Russian as homegrown vs. imported, developed products. America benefits from Dmitry Schneider or Lev Milman earning the GM title as much as Josh Friedel achieving that goal. Irina Krush learned chess on the plane coming to America, and her accent is more Valley Girl than Russian. The question is whether our community will do anything to protect and nurture our developing players.

This issue is played out in many areas, most notably our Olympic team. USCF policies have vacillated according to political changes. At times we have had a three-year residency requirement for Olympic (and U.S. Championship) eligibility; currently it is one year. Though many other countries have more stringent rules (citizenship is often required), it is hard to support the three-year requirement (as I have) without being likened to Pat Buchanan.

Alex Shabalov addressed the issue a few years ago with some very interesting comments. When he first came to the U.S., he couldn't understand why some people wanted him to wait three years. But later he realized that the three-year requirement kept a lot of foreign GMs from coming to the U.S. to reap good paydays on our team and in our championship.

Unquestionably, a number of our Olympians improved a lot since they arrived, but they were all IM level or better when they immigrated. Gata Kamsky and Varuzhan Akobian came here as teenagers, but even they can hardly be deemed "homegrown."

The finalists in the 2006 U.S. Championship were both brought to the U.S. by college scholarships; Yuri Shulman attended University of Texas at Dallas, while Alex Onischuk matriculated at University of Maryland Baltimore County. I mean no disrespect to these excellent additions to our chess community, but it is telling that a "New York Yankees" approach of importing established grandmasters should extend to academic life.

A lot of Americans feel we should have policies that give us the strongest possible team, however it is achieved. I can't say that this philosophy is wrong, but I think we would be especially proud if a team containing players who developed their skills in America could repeat the success of the 1990 Olympic team. I also believe a successful team that has several homegrown players will stand a better chance of generating media coverage and sponsorship. [Results won't do it alone; we need aggressive promotion as well]

Looking at the landscape of players, it seems that established players will dominate U.S. teams for several years. It takes extraordinary talent and determination for a Nakamura to develop; we will not see young players join him on the team until our community does more to help our young players. Outside of the Samford Fellowship and occasional gatherings organized by the Kasparov Chess Foundation, there is almost nothing we do for our young talent. There is much focus on participation, but very little on excellence. Until we shift some of that focus, we will not develop players as fast as we import them.

Joel Benjamin