The Legend of Jeff Sarwar

This is a chess story that needs to be told. Maybe you are aware of the film, Searching For Bobby Fischer, which was about chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin rise through the amateur ranks of chess in the United states during the 1980's. Well, his nemesis in that movie was called Jonathan Poe, which was based on the real life chess prodigy Jeff Sarwar.

If you have never heard of Jeff, I'm not surprised, but you will know more about this fascinating character after reading this, I promise you that. Because I met Jeff Sarwar, actually played him a game in a simultaneous exhibition performed on Canada Day on Capital Hill and conspired to cheat him out of a win.

That little kid bouncing around those 30 or so tables with his broad rimmed hat was an unforgettable moment in my life and I want to share it now, because it might be cathartic.

Some author said, and I'm paraphrasing, "if you want to hear a story never told, then you must tell it!".

It was at Billings Bridge Chess Club in Ottawa where I first became aware of Jeff Sarwar. The room was owned by him. The energy was way different than usual. Jeff was chattering away loud and fearlessly about the nuances of the Sicilian Defense and nobody was correcting him. Who was this little intimidating punk? He couldn't have been older than 8 or 9 but he was speaking like he was a chess master. One of the guys I played with leaned in a said something like," he's maybe a 1900 or so".

But how did he know, we both thought beating a 1500 was an accomplishment, so who told him this? I was going to get to the bottom of this mystery so I walked over closer to the action and kept my mouth shut and waited for the answers to unfold organically.

Jeff was moving the pieces around with the speed of a skilled chess player. When watching any movie about chess the thing that bothers me most is perhaps the way the actors don't possess this finesse. An actor just can't fake these movements as easily as Tom Cruise could learn to shoot pool in 6 to 10 weeks.

This loud mouthed twirp was capturing pawns gracefully like a kung fu master plucking out an eye. Knights and Bishops were dancing about in a frenzied blur of fingers and forearms and all the time Jeff was narrating his opponents eventual demise.

It was a few minutes before realizing there were a couple other characters involved with Jeff, his sister and father were also hovering around taking it all in. His sister looked a few years older and was also a chess player. Now I'd recalled seeing her earlier playing on the street around The Rideau Centre and Parliament Buildings on a large chessboard for money. His father was chatting quietly with the club higher ups near the door, watching everyone that came and went.

Evidentially someone else came over and whispered to me what was going on.

They were from New York and they had just arrived in Ottawa and were making money hustling chess on the street and Jeff was going to put on a simil during the Canada Celebrations and they were looking for chess players to participate. I lived downtown went early and got a seat.

It was hot and sticky that day and I didn't have a hat and was dressed in a striped black and white T-Shirt that read, Alcatraz Swim Team and looked like a convict. i'm always amazed with what happens to old T-Shirts because I almost never throw T-Shirts away, and yet where do they all disappear? Now that I'm older I blame ex-girlfriends and laundromat thieves, but that's another story.

It's a very long time ago, but I can never forget Jeff wearing that big broad rimmed hat. It was perhaps his greatest weapon that day while he literally bounced around from board to board cheerfully moving pieces effortlessly to the delight of the crowd that had gathered round to see the spectacle and force of nature that was Jeff Sarwar. Someone from the crowd called to me, and waved, "Hi Jim!".

It was my mom and little brother Eddie, What the hell was my mom and Eddie doing there?!

Damn, my family was going to see me get crushed by this little kid I remember thinking. I was especially worried about what Eddie was going to think because I was his chess coach and he thought I was a chess god because he had never beaten me before or even been a pawn up or had a promising position. He bragged to friends about me, and now Jeff was about to expose me as a C or D class player and no big deal.

The stars had aligned that day because I happened to sit down next to one of the stronger players from the chess club and the way I remember it Jeff was moving counter clockwise and had to pass by him first. I concocted this plan whereby I would just copy his expert opening moves and hope an asteroid hit before Jeff mortified me in front of every person that mattered and a mob that had come to see blood.

Turns out that a hot July day playing chess in direct sunlight without a hat is not well thought out and I had to drink a ton of liquids and my mom brought me over a couple cans of coke. Soon after, I had to go to the portable toilets and there was a lineup and I ended up missing a couple rotations of moves. When I finally got back Jeff had just passed my board and the expert started talking about my position and what he would do if he was me.

To make a long story short, I was coached the rest of the exhibition and ended up with a draw. By this time Jeff looked exhausted and the heat and gravity of the scene had started to really grind him down so he started throwing out draw offers left and right I suppose. After all, he wasn't getting paid, and he was just a little kid, it would have been rude not to accept his offer.

The recording of the notation of that game probably followed me around for 30 years before losing it but I'll never forget that day or meeting the player who Bruce Pandolfini claimed, "was stronger at 9 then Bobby Fischer was at 11". Probably butchering that quote, but the rest is all true. Look into if it seems dubious. My tail is dun.

@Deadlyfalcon426 , he is now a professional poker player. His story is much more interesting than Josh Waitzkin imo and they should have made the movie about Jeff and how they lived in a car and travelled around hustling chess. He could have been the GOAT if he had the support that Josh Waizkin had.

God, that kid was awful. I remember once in one of those Shelby Lyman things he was sounding off about all & sundry (and nobody pulled the plug).

very gifted but could he have become a GM at 12 years, 7 months, 0 days (Karjakin, youngest ever)
even with optimal training?

Probably no-one of that generation could have become a GM at 12 - the (computer) resources to do so weren't there. I remember Leko was regarded as an incredible prodigy when he became a GM at 14.

this is like the first forum i ever know with at least 2 titled players talking

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