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April 30, 2003

Another Match at the Big Board: A World famous chess master puts on an exhibition for traders.

By Gregory Bresiger

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  • Another Match at the Big Board: A World famous chess master puts on an exhibition for traders.

Logically, traders should be good, maybe excellent, chess players. And maybe they are.

Good traders are mathematically inclined. They must make fast-paced calculations in pressure-packed situations. They must measure subjective and objective criteria and bet huge amounts of money. Many of their analytical skills can be applied to winning chess matches.

Still, one would have not concluded that after a recent chess exhibition sponsored by Belzberg Technologies at the New York Stock Exchange. The world's number one ranked chess player, Garry Kimovich Kasparov, played an exhibition against 24 equities and options traders and won every match. Sometimes it was with 10 moves or less.

"The number of players isn't as important as the strength of the opposition," according to Kasparov, who before the match told Traders Magazine that he expected little trouble. He was right. But then Kasparov has had much experience dazzling people.

Child Prodigy

Kasparov was a child prodigy who grew up in the old Soviet Union. He began playing at age five and was winning matches at age seven. Apparently, this kind of event at the NYSE is a walk in the park for him.

"It was really a physical exercise more than anything else," according to the 40-year old Kasparov. The traders were screened to ensure that no one was a professional, but they also had to be good players. Kasparov has played many of these exhibitions before.

In 1988, he played an exhibition against 58 kids in the Bronx. He won 56 matches and had two draws. The exhibition at the Big Board was about the same. If Kasparov was breaking a sweat, it was unlikely that it was because of any mental challenges. One of Kasparov's victims could be compared to a Little League player going against a World Series player.

"I felt like a second grader. Playing against him was like playing against an avalanche," according to Babak Ghassemlou, vice president and director of technology for Bank of New York. He said the experience is one that he will never forget.

"He was incredible. I never felt I was going to win. He attacked everywhere and I tried to adopt a defensive strategy. I tried to react to what he was doing and defended everywhere," he said.

Ghassemlou castled early in the match. So did Kasparov. He even persuaded Kasparov to swap queens, but these moves merely expedited Ghassemlou's defeat. Ghassemlou speculated that Kasparov wanted to play an end game strategy. That's a strategy in which both sides trade major pieces in order to be able to move remaining pieces more quickly around a cleared board. With fewer pieces to get in the way, it is easier to move the length of the board.

Ghassemlou, who is not ranked, is an above average chess player. He once played a series of matches against a French master and beat him one game out of four. However, against Kasparov, Ghassemlou was like the Republican Guard charging head on into U.S. forces in Baghdad.

Actually, Ghassemlou can be proud. A man next to him insisted on pursuing an aggressive strategy. He was going to take down the great Kasparov and launched several attacks. The result: He lost in eight moves.