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Improvisational chess champion plays by his own rule

By Peter Halesworth

 

Utut Adianto opened his chess career with a stunning first move. At 14, the unknown boy from Jakarta flew to Puerto Rico and shocked the chess world by winning second place in the 16-and-under world championships.

Now in the middle-game of his career, the 30-year-old Utut is Indonesia’s first professional chess player, ranked 70th in the world. He’s third in Asia behind Viswanathan Anand of India – who challanges Gary Kasparov in September for the Professional Chess Assciations world championship – and Ian Rogers of Australia. Although he recently moved into the elite of the chess world by achieving super grandmaster rank, most often Utut finds himself pitted against a familiar and formidable opponent: himself.

“I must study more, at least five hours a day,” says Utut, who tends to practise no more than two to three hours a day. “Sometimes,” he adds with a sheepish smile, “I don’t play for a week.”

That’s a surprising admission from a professional chess player. Most world-class players are compulsive about practice. Some of the best lock themselves for 8-12 hours a day for months on end. Shut away from the distractions of daily life, they live monastic lives, studying thousands of past games on computer databases and weaknesses as well as those of prospective opponents.

There are several possible explanations for Utut’s approach. For one thing, he is Indonesia’s first and only world-class chess player, a pioneer in a young nation which, unlike Russia, Germany or the United States, has no history or tradition of chess-playing. Perhaps more importantly, there is no demanding coach or mentor pointing Utut to the chessboard, forcing him to practise whether he is in the mood or not.

“If Utut had been born and classically trained in Russia, he would be a candidate for world champion right now,” says American grandmaster Yasser Seirawan, ranked 37th in the world and second in the U.S. “To be the best, you need to have constant exposure to the strongest grandmasters in the world. Utut hasn’t had enough of that.”

Utut is a family man, too, with obligations to his wife, Dr. Tri Hatmanti, an ear, nose and throat specialist, and their seven-month-old daughter, Mekar Melati Mewangi. “Chess is important, but it is just as important for me to be a whole person,” Utut says.

When facing an opponent across the chessboard, though, Utut is single-minded. “He is very tenacious at the board, great fighter, and very opportunistic,” Seirawan says. “In chess, the window of opportunity opens and closes very quickly. Utut is very good at spotting his opportunities.”

Utut sees himself as an artist, a natural product of Indonesian culture. With little classical training, his style of play is eclectic fusion of classical principles of chess with his personal penchant for improvisation. He let his opponent’s game come to him and then he mixes it up in the middle of the game, relying heavily on his playing experience.

Much to Utut’s satisfaction, chess is increasingly popular in Indonesia, with player battling it out under the light of a gas lantern on a city sidewalk, or in the shade of banyan tree near rice fields. Utut says the game of chess allow Indonesians to play out their daily struggle to make ends meet, to use pieces on a chessboard to sharpen the improvisational skills they need to survive. “For most, life is still difficult,” he says. “In our culture, we always try to find jalan keluar, the way out. Many only have enough rice for today, and must think about how to get it tomorrow.”

Utut’s own road to becoming a professional chess player hasn’t been an easy one. In 1990, he was on life’s conventional path, holding a steady job, using his degree in politics from Universitas Padjadjaran in Bandung to market condominiums in Jakarta. But that path led his career nowhere. In a year, his elo rating – a ranking system based on match play – fell to 2,470 from 2,525. That was too much for Utut. He quit in 1991.

“I felt I had lost something,” Utut says. “That’s why I left work. At that time it was very difficult, though. I had just married, and didn’t have any money. I said to my boss I want to be a chess player. He looked at me funny.”

Utut scrimped save enough to travel to international tournaments. By 1993, he was also working with his long time chess mate, friend, and patron, Eka Putra Wirya, owner of a hydraulic tools company. Eka put up the money for Indonesia’s first school in Jakarta, Sekolah Catur Enerpac, which Utut runs. His goal: to produce world-class players. Utut believes one of his 40 active students will make it – probably one from a wealthy family whose children don’t have to work but are ambitious enough to succeed. “This is our obsession,” he says.

“I believe in my country,” Utut adds. “We cannot play good basketball; we are not tall enough. But in chess, if you play around six to seven hours a day, you are fit. Chess doesn’t need big money. Just a chess set.”

 

Peter Halesworth is AP-Dow Jones correspondent in Jakarta.

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