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A passion few understand Tournament: For chess players and fans, the 1996 Pan American championship here is a chance to observe the masters' moves.


His black cap said "Repent," but after a morning at his street-corner pulpit at Eutaw and Saratoga, Larry Eugene Smith yielded to an earthly temptation -- chess.

"In each game, it's as if it is a lifetime in itself," said Smith, a recovering "chess junkie" as he clutched a Bible. "The immortality of it is you get to play again, another game, another game."

The 1996 Pan American Chess Championships at Baltimore's Inner Harbor yesterday had stars and eagerly awaited matches. But for chess lovers such as Smith, the tournament was more a chance to watch the masters, talk tactics and indulge a passion few nonplayers understand.

"It's a web," said William Stokes of Baltimore, explaining the illustration his wife painted on the side of his chess case. "People get caught in there."

The tournament, which began Friday at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel and ends tomorrow, has drawn 350 players.

Most are members of high school and college teams from around the country -- including the University of Maryland Baltimore County's powerhouse team, which was tied for the lead yesterday after noon after winning its first two rounds. Teams also came from Canada and Peru.

A few dozen Baltimore-area players not affiliated with a team are competing in a division that includes some team coaches and the chess computer CRAFTY, which is playing by Internet from the campus of the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

To the uninitiated, the tournament has the look and feel of 350 people doing homework. The fifth-floor ballroom is nearly silent, except for little clicks as players hit timers after each move.

But later, when players unwind in the "skittles" room -- a place for chatting and quick, unofficial matches -- they tell of tense battles won and lost by the narrowest of margins.

"It's civilized warfare. No holds barred," said Ralph Lowry, an alternate from the Borough of Manhattan Community College keeping an eye on his team. "All you have to do is make one wrong move, and it's all over."

That's what happened to Alan Shapiro, 61, of Baltimore, who lost to an 11-year-old -- thus keeping alive a decadeslong streak of Saturday morning tournament losses.

And that's what happened to Jay Campbell, a Catonsville man with a love of the game but no training. In hopes of breaking a monthlong losing streak, he courted a ticket yesterday by letting his parking meter expire rather than leave at midgame. He lost anyway.

"God's punishing me for the false pride," Campbell said as he surveyed the board of winners and losers posted outside the ballroom.

But for many, players and the handful of spectators, attending tournaments is more about learning than winning.

Said Smith, the street-corner preacher: "I desire to see what the masters and grandmasters see."

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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