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Friday, August 25, 2017

Modern Day Legends Battle It Out

  When Phiona Mutesi was in New York City in 2015 to promote The Queen of Katwe, a new book about her life, a reporter was told by one of the players present, “I mean, it’s an inspirational thing, but she’s not a real player. There’s a couple of young girls here that could beat her for sure.” 
     The fellow proceeded to tell the reporter, “I’m a living legend. I played with Bobby Fischer and Marcel Duchamp.” Asked if he had ever beaten Fischer his reply was, “Not often.” 
     When asked his name, the reply was, "Asa. A-S-A. I don’t need a last name. You can Google me. I’m famous." The man was Asa Hoffmann. 
     It's true; he beat Fischer. But, as Stuart Chagrin, the club president said, “If Asa played Bobby five hundred times, yeah, he probably won a couple.”  Another player referred to Hoffmann as “the person who is blessed to have played everyone in history.” 
     Hoffmann also advised the reporter that he was a master of seven different games: chess, Scrabble, bridge, poker and backgammon. That's only five, but no matter to Hoffman. He continued, “I’m waiting for chess boxing, senior middle weight division. Siss! Pow! Bam!” (he karate chopped the air) “I’m a trained killer from Vietnam. Well, they trained me to go there, but they didn’t send me, so that’s why I’m still here and in such top shape. Chess is great, but there’s no money in it. If I was in golf or tennis, I’d be rich.” 
     Asa Hoffmann (born February 25, 1943 in New York City) is a FIDE Master, chess teacher and author. Known as the sparring partner of champions, his peak USCF rating was 2471, his peak quick rating 2515 and his peak blitz rating 2414. When it comes to blitz, Yasser Seirawan described Hoffmann as "a near legendary figure in the New York City chess world." Hoffmann was portrayed in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer by actor Austin Pendleton. 
     When interviewed at the 1987 New York Open Hoffmann told a reporter, ''I could've been a contender. I could've been a Grandmaster.'' Instead, he became a chess hustler. Hoffmann, a former New York City junior champion and vice president of the Manhattan Chess Club, described himself as a professional gambler, but a small-timer. ''I want to be a high roller,'' he said. ''I want to own a horse instead of betting on one.'' 
     Hoffmann is a gamesman from a family of lawyers. ''My parents didn't want me to be a chess player,'' he said. The son of two attorneys, he grew up on Park Avenue and attended Columbia University. His parents had hopes he would become an attorney, but Hoffmann had other plans and after a year at Columbia dropped out to play chess full-time. He was able to make a modest living playing blitz for money in the clubs and parks and was good friends with future World Champion Bobby Fischer. They played countless blitz games together, but Hoffmann concedes that only rarely was able to win. 
     In 1987 he married long-time girlfriend, chess photographer and actress Eva Veronika Klein and they were married until her death in 2007. In 2014 Hoffmann married a girlfriend from 37 years earlier, Virginia D'Amico. Their wedding reception was held at the Marshall Chess Club. 
     Hoffmann's opponent in this game was Aleksander Wojtkiewicz (January 15, 1963 – July 14, 2006), a GM who was born in Latvia. In his early teens he was already a strong player; a student of ex-world champion Mikhail Tahl whom he assisted in the 1979 Interzonal in Riga. He won the Latvian Chess Championship in 1981. 
     Wojtkiewicz's promising chess career was interrupted when he refused to join the Soviet Army. In 1982, at the age of 19, he was called up for the draft. At the time, the Soviet Union was fighting a war in Afghanistan and he did not want any part of it, neither philosophically or practically. He went underground, making a living by hustling cards and chess on the streets of St. Petersburg and resort cities in the South of Russia and working as a pimp while sleeping on the floor friends’ apartments. After four years, in 1986, that lifestyle had left him worn out so he turned himself in and was sentenced to two years as a draft dodger. His time in a Latvian jail as the prison photographer taking pictures of violent crime scenes had a profound psychological effect on him. 
     After serving a year he received amnesty as a result of the meeting of Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. When released, he moved from Riga to Warsaw where he won two Polish Championships and represented Poland in the Chess Olympiads in 1990 and 1992. 
     At first he was in good favor with Polish chess officials, but their relationship quickly soured. Having become a leading Polish player, the Polish federation gave him an apartment and a car and wanted to give him a house. However, Wojtkiewicz showed up drunk at the meeting with the mayor of Warsaw and head of chess federation and told both that he wanted no favors from former communists like them. This, naturally, cost him the support of the Polish chess federation. 
     In 1998 he had a son, Josef, with the Lithuanian player Laima Domarkaite. He did manage to obtain sponsorship from the Polish airline LOT which allowed him to fly for free anywhere in the world. He took advantage of their sponsorship to play in international tournaments world-wide. A frequent visitor to the US, he eventually settled here in 2002 and briefly attended the University of Maryland at Baltimore in order to take advantage of their chess scholarship to play on the university team. After settling in the US he became one of the most active players on the tournament circuit and won the annual $10,000 first prize for Grand Prix tournaments several times. Wojtkiewicz played in the World Championship cycle 2004 and tied for first at the 2006 World Open in Philadelphia and won the 2006 National Open in Las Vegas. 
     He died on the evening of July 14, 2006 at the age of 43. His close friend and attorney wrote that people were asking her about his death and she claimed to have spoken with his physician and the medical examiner.  She stated that he did not die of liver failure or alcoholism. He died of a perforated intestine and massive bleeding. She also stated that if he had been helped sooner, he would have lived, but he had lost so much blood by the time the ambulance arrived that it was too late. 
     IM Mark Ginsburg disputed that. Changes in his appearance were noticeable and Ginsburg's claim was that Wojtkiewicz did, indeed, die of liver failure as a consequence of heavy drinking. Ginsburg stated that a few months previously at the World Open, Wojtkiewicz had a condition called ascites and bleeding associated with a liver that was no longer functioning. 
     At the World Open, Wojtkiewicz mentioned to Ginsburg and GM Nick DeFirmian that he had quit drinking, believing that his liver would recover. But, with his liver not functioning, the back up of blood resulted in a perforated instestine as well as end-stage liver disease were all the result of alcohol abuse. 
     The following game between these two modern day legends is typical of their uncompromising play.

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