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Chess Champs From Harlem and Russia Meet on Common Ground

May 30, 1992

NEW YORK (AP) _ The idea was for chess prodigy Alex Sidelnikov to talk about his ″greatest tournament chess game.″

But a roomful of young champions ended up hearing a humble confession instead.

″I lost,″ he said.

On this day at least, winning wasn’t important. The goal was to see whether black youngsters from Harlem and white youngsters from Russia could find common ground on a chess board. They did.

Sharing bits of strategy and platters of cold cuts, the pride of New York City’s public schools - the chess teams from Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Junior High School in Harlem - met Friday in a Murrow classroom.

All carried impressive credentials and opinions on how Sidelnikov could have won.

The Murrow team, made up of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, won the national high school championship this year. The Powell team won the national championship last year and narrowly lost in the finals this year.

The Harlem team regularly travels to tournaments across the country. Next week, it’s off to Rikers Island to play a team of inmates. Saturday, it trounced two New York state assembly members at a Manhattan chess club.

″They whipped us,″ said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky. ″These kids are enormously talented.″

The Brooklyn players won a state championship last year only to find no money was available to send them to the nationals. This year, an 11th-hour $2,000 donation from Brooklyn Union Gas Co. helped give them their shot at the title.

The financial struggle came as somewhat of a shock to the products of a Soviet system geared toward picking and nurturing young chess talent, said team adviser Elliot Weiss.

Maksim Royzen, 16, one of Murrow’s top players, said state chess teachers molded his game from the age of 6. Now Royzen, whose family moved to the United States six months ago, hopes to win enough prize money in chess tournaments to pay for lessons that can run as much as $80 an hour.

The less-experienced Harlem players tended to stumble onto the game, encouraged by team adviser Richard Gudonski to play during lunch. Powell’s program took off when one of the city’s top professional players, Maurice Ashley, showed up to lend a hand.

″They come to it without any preconceptions,″ Ashley said. ″To them it’s just like checkers or any other game.″

Divergent backgrounds make for divergent styles of play, Ashley said. His team’s style is ″like the fast break of the Lakers,″ while the Murrow team’s style is ″like the half-court game of the Celtics.″

By the end of the meeting, the players gravitated to three chess boards set up at the back of the classroom. Integrated two-man teams faced off. Heads bowed together, they quietly discussed the fate of bishops, kings and queens.

Ashley took in the scene, unconcerned about who was winning.

″People like to play up our differences, but just look at them,″ he said.

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