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Day For Knight


In Kasaun's apartment, a one-bedroom he shares on 113th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, clothes are everywhere, piled like mounds of snow -- a small car might be buried underneath -- and spread on a couch; in a closet; over a glass table boiling with CDs, sunglasses, Snapple bottle; behind the Yamaha keyboard purchased (finally) from Sam Ash; everywhere, it seems, but in a dresser, where he keeps books: of Japanese, piano sonatas, chess.

Kasaun is handsome and slim, a good fit for clothes. And he's a bit frantic as he talks about them. Emotions move in him. He races around, hunting for a camel-colored vest he says he loves. In seventh grade, when he wanted to be president of the United States, he owned a single suit and wore it every day. Now he'd like to own a hundred. Already he has twelve. He switches from one jacket to another -- from a light-blue to a dark-green to a salmon, which is the first suit he bought when he entered BMCC, to a dark one by Oscar de la Renta for which he paid $139, the most he's ever paid -- as if he were backstage at a bedroom farce.

These days, Kasaun wears suits everywhere. He teaches chess in inner-city schools wearing suits -- he's trying to re-create the success of the Raging Rooks. He shoots pool in suits. "I'm thinking of going three-piece now," he says, and then, grinning wildly: "My goal is cuff links."

For Kasaun, suits are partly dress-up, an impish idea in gangsta times; but they also seem to come from a transformational urge. Suits are there to package a new, emerging Kasaun. Grand masters often dress formally for tournaments, he knows. He'd like to be a grand master, but really, he wants the grand master's personality. He's after seriousness, focus, truth even -- things he suspects could easily drift beyond reach, the way college almost did. "Suits keep me studious at all times," he says. "If I'm wearing a suit, then I know I will study chess."

The day after his embarrassing loss in Bowling Green -- during which he'd shown his thug look -- Kasaun, perhaps wanting to dip into reserves of purpose, selected one of the two Brooks Brothers suits he'd purchased from a classified ad in Buy & Sell magazine. He'd paid $100 to a Wall Street guy, not including alterations. It was an understated gray suit with a subtle maroon pinstripe. He wore a white turtleneck. When he walked into the convention hall at the Pan Ams, people didn't know if he was the same player as the gangsta who'd shown up the day before, Kasaun thought, and he enjoyed that thought.

Throughout the tournament, John would handily win his matches. Alex, who'd first hesitated to cast his lot with BMCC, worked hard for the team. A dull pout on his big head, he played long matches. Prince paced off to the side -- occasionally sneaking out for tugs on a Capri. "Is he winning?" Prince would ask. During one game, Alex lost his queen in what appeared to Prince a disastrous turn. But a team member explained it was a very clever trap, and in fact, that win would be written up in the New York Times.

Still, the day Kasaun wore his gray Brooks Brothers, it would be his game that proved crucial. BMCC played third-ranked University of Texas. Alex drew his match. Kasaun realized his win could keep BMCC in first place; his loss would drop the team to fifth, probably an insurmountable hole.

"The only mistakes that count are my mental mistakes," he told himself as he sat in the conference room, which was silent but for whispering spectators. "Losing, that's your bonus lesson, that's what Maurice taught me," he thought. He knew what had gone wrong before. Chess, the way Kasaun discusses it, seems a course in personality, a challenge in self-control, in inner discipline. "This game is so deep," he says, "it makes me better at life."

Chess, it's sometimes said, is an elegant way of mugging people. Kasaun, suited in the armor of his Brooks Brothers and his studious self, repeated that whatever happened, he'd fight, even if he was down, which he quickly was. Kasaun showed no expression -- he'd been schooling himself to do just that. But he thought, "All the games I won, I was losing."

When Kasaun concentrates, he stares at the board as if it were an animal he cares for but doesn't trust. There are different ways of being down, he thought. "Don't panic. To have worse position doesn't mean you lose," he told himself. "Make the position ugly, get crazy." His opponent began making overconfident moves. Kasaun wasn't threatened, not emotionally threatened, which is what he'd say counted. Soon he had a counterplay. And once again, he found himself with a time advantage, ten minutes to his opponent's one. If his moves had proved so time-consuming for his opponent, he should stick with his strategy, he reasoned. "Now when I get the advantage," he says, "I'm tougher because it happened to me in the worst way it ever could." He settled in to play deliberately this time. "I played as hard as I could," he says; all the while he seemed to be thinking of something else, Japanese verbs or major chords. He refused to look at his opponent's clock, which soon expired. Kasaun's game put BMCC in first place -- to stay.


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