Time to make room for our latest adopted icon

By Patrick Kennedy, The Whig-Standard
Sunday, October 27, 2013 9:43:46 EDT PM

Through the years, the Limestone quarter has laid claim to more than a few famous folks, hailing them as ours whether they’re homegrown or not. Why, just the other day a local radio station played Summer of 69 and shamelessly identified the artist as “Kingston’s own Bryan Adams.” Granted, the husky-voiced hit-maker was born here, but he blew town when he was still on pabulum.

Scottish-born Sir John A., Canada’s first head honcho: Kingston’s son. English Patient author Michael Ondaatje, a Queen’s student who vamoosed soon after graduation: Close enough, we’ll take him. Astronaut and Royal Military College grad Marc Garneau: Our nebulous connection to the heavens. Billionaire Elon Musk, inventor of PayPal and ex-husband of movie star Cameron Diaz: Lean, local roots despite the Muskie came here to attend Queen’s and pulled out two years later.

And now we have Raja Panjwani, whose residency here was brief (2000-04) but progressively significant in his ascension as a chess player extraordinaire.

Panjwani, 23, could soon become an international grandmaster, the highest title the game can bestow, and the city’s first chess star. Move over, Aykroyd. Make room for our latest adopted icon.

“He’s a new rising star in Canada,” Susan Polgar said from Webster University in St. Louis, where she runs the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE).

Having Polgar laud your chess game is akin to having Hemingway trumpet your novel. The native Hungarian is a a four-time women’s global champion and was the first woman to break the gender barrier at stiff, staid men’s’ world championships. Before she happened on the scene, the only females seen at such male-dominated affairs were slinging cocktails.

At a ‘simultaneous exhibition’ in Palm Beach, Fla., Polgar once played 326 opponents, pacing alongside the long narrow tables while making split-second moves. When it was over, 17 hours later, she’d lost just three games. Methinks the lady knows her knights.

“You can see it in Raja’s play,” she said from SPICE headquarters, explaining: “His demeanour, decisions, nerves, sportsmanship, time management — he’s very good, and he’s going to get better now that he’s playing more.”

“And he’s a very nice man, very well educated,” she added, referring to the latter’s Science degree from Western and a master’s degree in physics from Oxford. (Like his physician parents, he wants to pursue a career in medicine but will consider earning another master’s degree (economics) master’s degree from Yale, starting in the autumn of 2014.

That gives him a year to hunt down the grandmaster kudo, his golden fleece, and he vows to stay game sharp. As it is, Panjwani, now residing in Kitchener, has been home but once this month, and then only shortly. The Whig twice spoke with him on the phone last week, once in St. Louis and the next day in Detroit, where he was competing in the Fall Festival chess tournament.

Obtaining that GM accolade will not be easy. It requires “sustained excellence at the international level,” noted Frank Dixon, Panjwani’s coach during those formative years in Kingston when the youngster climbed the rankings with astonishing speed.

In chasing the honour, Panjwani must, in tournament play, notch a trio of grandmaster performances called ‘norms’. That requires a minimum rating of 2,600 in each of three events. How one actually does that is known only to chess aficionados.

(Mechanic 1: “Hey Walter. Heard you had a 2,600 at last week’s Chess-fest?

Mechanic II “Sure did, Luke.”

Mechanic 1: “Is that like a metric 26er ?”)

The Timmins-born Panjwani earned norm No. 1 at the SPICE saw-off. One down …

Dixon, who captained the Queen’s chess team during his student years and coached the 1999 Tricolour team to the Canadian Championship, feels his erstwhile phenom is about to climb the final rung on the chess ladder and then some.

“Raja is knocking on the door of Canada’s top-10 players list,” Dixon said in an email correspondence. “As such, he is a strong contender to be selected to Canada’s (five-player) team for the 2014 Chess Olympiad.”

Panjwani was just five years old when his mother, Gulshan, introduced him to the game, the modern version of which dates to sixth century Persia (Iran). His father, Dilip, himself an expert-class player (one down from Raja’s master status), took over pre-Dixon tutoring.

The son recollected a seminal moment in the mentor/mentee relationship, a tournament match in Kingston around a decade ago in which father was paired against son.

“It was my 11th birthday,” recalled Raja, who by then had already experienced the rite of passage of a son toppling the old man at his own game.

In the head-to-head match, the son was getting whupped but good. Without notice, the father, “from a completely winning position,” offered his foe a draw.

“I was actually better than my father at the time and had been beating him since the age of nine,” said Raja, who was already classified an expert by age 10 and would go on to defeat a score of grandmasters. “I wasn’t likely to win that day. It was (a sporting gesture) that I’ll never forget.”

The chess player had lofty praise for former coach Dixon.

“He inspired me,” he said. “I had a lot of talent, which he developed it and put me on the right track.”

Panjwani doesn’t have to reach too far back for his most memorable highlight to date, the aforementioned norm No. 1 carded in Missouri. “That was important, because to me it was my first indication that I could be a grandmaster.”

He, too, has played simultaneous exhibitions, often beating 50, 60 players at a time. It’s old hat for him. He was 10 at his first quick-play chess show. At his level, it’s akin to watching Sid the Kid rip through a tyke hockey team: child’s play.

Despite his brilliance in this most cerebral of board games, Panjwani knows something is missing.

“One time at my house,” he said, “my girlfriend, who also plays, wanted to play a game. But we couldn’t.”

Evidently, strange as it may seem, the wannabe grandmaster does not own a chess set.

Source: http://www.thewhig.com

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