He's Got the Moves

updated 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IN THE NATURE-VERSUS-NURTURE DEBATE, chalk one up for nurture. That is Gata Kamsky's explanation for his brilliant victory at the U.S. Invitational Chess Championship last month in Los Angeles, making the 17-year-old the youngest U.S. champion since Bobby Fischer took the title in 1958 at age 14.

"It was achieved through hard work," says Gata, who defected with his father, Roustam, from the Soviet Union in 1989. Roustam, 45, a former boxer, boxing trainer and photographer and now his son's full-time manager, concurs. Does Gata have a special gift for chess? "Nyet," says Dad, who himself has only a rudimentary grasp of the game. "It's just a matter of work and starting at a young age," he explains in Russian with Gata translating.

Growing up in Siberia and later Leningrad, Gata did start young—on the piano. But when Gata was 7, Roustam ordered him to switch to chess. "Music gives nothing to the mind—just to the soul," the father says. Noted for a glacial calm that can unnerve opponents, Gata won his first tournament at 11 and was soon touted as Grand Master material.

Nevertheless, the Kamskys felt they were being shunned by the Soviet chess establishment. During a tournament in New York City in April 1989, father and son slipped their Soviet minders and were granted asylum. Ten months later Gata's sister, Julia, 18, and his stepmother, Bella, 24, joined them. Today, despite chess winnings and $70,000 annually from a French sponsor—no U.S. firm has come forward—the family lives in a three-room apartment in a Russian section of Brooklyn. Gata, who finished high school at age 13, spends 10 to 12 hours a day poring over chess books and a computer library of games. He jogs 35 minutes daily—to increase his tournament stamina. Girlfriends, he says, would only be a distraction.

His training routine will get a severe test this October in Holland, where he will meet reigning world champ—and former compatriot—Gary Kasparov in a nontitle invitational tourney. Roustam, as always, will be hovering close by. "My father has devoted his life to me," says Gata. "We depend on each other."

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