May 10, 2006

Checkmate: Steve Strogatz challenges -- and beats -- a giant of U.S. chess

In the beginning, there were 35 competitors.

The challengers -- Cornell students, faculty members and one very brave elementary-schooler -- took their places around the U-shaped tables. Chess grandmaster and three-time U.S. champion Larry Christiansen, one of the greatest attacking players in the history of U.S. chess, strode from one player to the next, getting a feel for the territory, making his moves.

Within 20 minutes, the challengers began to fall, one by one pushing back their chairs, gathering their things and leaving.

And when it was over, one man remained.

The man -- Steve Strogatz, Cornell professor of theoretical and applied mechanics -- was the single competitor to beat Christiansen in a simultaneous exhibition April 9 in Robert Purcell Union. Another player -- graduate student Chris Jones -- played to a draw.

Strogatz signed up for the game on a whim. But his win was the result of years of preparation. To put it mildly.

When he was younger, he admits he might have taken his dedication to the game a little too far. "I really spent an enormous amount of time playing chess," he confessed. "I would say I was obsessed with it. I was addicted."

It was a fruitful addiction, though. As an undergrad, Strogatz ranked third on the Princeton University chess team. Later he played online, challenging (and sometimes beating) some top-ranked players.

But ultimately, mindful of the need to be a productive, well-rounded citizen, he drew the line. He deleted all the chess programs from his computers. He weaned himself down to one casual game a week.

Still, some temptations are too good to resist. So when Strogatz heard that the Cornell Chess Club had invited Christiansen to campus for a simultaneous exhibition, he couldn't say no.

He didn't have a planned strategy, but relied on instinct to guide his moves. And nearly two hours into the games, as his fellow challengers were dropping out, Strogatz was holding his own.

But he had a wedding reception to attend at 2 p.m. So he assessed his board, noted his strong advantage over Christiansen and offered the grandmaster a draw.

Christiansen declined. So Strogatz stayed. "Daddy, concentrate!" his daughters, Leah, 5, and Joanna, 3, urged.

In the end, Christiansen's hope -- that Strogatz would lose his advantageous position with a careless move -- was in vain. Strogatz listened to his daughters, and he concentrated. And he even made it to the wedding reception.

Which leaves a question: Has the win stoked the old obsession, whetted Strogatz's appetite for more?

No. "It was a really exciting thrill for me," he says. But it was a one-time thing.

He is off the wagon. Or is the expression "on the wagon?" He's not sure which means which.

"I'm wherever I need to be with respect to the wagon," he says. And -- quite possibly thinking back to the afternoon of April 9 -- he grins.