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Squirrel Hill chess grandmaster stays sharp before U.S. Senior Championship

Paul Guggenheimer
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PAUL GUGGENHEIMER | TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Chess grandmaster Alex Shabalov lies down in a vibro-acoustic sound lounge in preparation for the U.S. Senior Championship
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Alex Shabalov competing in a U.S. Chess Federation tournament.
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PAUL GUGGENHEIMER | TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Chess grandmaster Alex Shabalov gets ready to step into a sensory deprivation tank as part of his preparation for the U.S. Senior Championship

Alex Shabalov prepares his mind and body for chess matches the way some elite athletes train for competition.

Once a week for the past few weeks, the 51-year-old chess grandmaster has spent 90 minutes in the morning immersed in the salty, body-temperature water of a sensory deprivation tank. He takes the treatment at Illume, a Downtown Pittsburgh yoga and self-care studio that lists Pirates All-Star first baseman Josh Bell among its clients.

The idea, said Shabalov, is to turn all of his senses off. There is no light, no sound, no external stimulation whatsoever. The studio’s tranquil environment provides a stark contrast to the noise and traffic just outside its front door.

Shabalov started doing this a year ago, and he said it’s become an important part of his preparation.

“I regret I didn’t do it before,” said Shabalov. “You basically just see yourself, all kinds of thoughts coming and going. You’re with yourself without distractions. It’s absolutely essential to resetting mentally. It’s something you can’t get in the world today.”

In a vibro-acoustic sound lounge at the studio, Shabalov appeared peacefully asleep under a weighted blanket on a vibrating bed while listening to soothing music.

Shabalov hopes his time in the sensory deprivation tank and vibro-acoustic sound lounge will give him the competitive edge he needs this week as he competes in the inaugural U.S. Senior Chess Championship in St. Louis. The tournament will feature the nation’s top 10 ranked players age 50 and older.

“It basically turns off all external stimulation so that you can go deeper into your present moment experience,” said Jennifer Ferris-Glick, owner of Illume. “I think for Alex, that’s critical for improving his game, having a better depth of mindfulness, a better depth of present time awareness, so that every strategy or move that he has to make is made from a place of being really immersed in that moment.”

Finding innovative ways to prepare and improve his game is critical for Shabalov as he tries to keep pace with an ever-evolving game.

Shabalov moved with his family from Riga, Latvia, to Pittsburgh in 1992, settling in Squirrel Hill. Almost immediately, he became one of America’s top chess players. He is a four-time U.S. champion, claiming titles in 1993, 1997, 2003 and 2007 by playing an attacking style with a lot of bluffing. That style, he said, was only possible before computers became an integral part of chess.

“You can’t play this way anymore,” Shabalov said. “You can’t bluff a computer. Everybody works with a computer now, and defense techniques are so improved. It’s no wonder that my peak came at a time when computers were not strong yet.”

Shabalov peaked at 25th in the world in 1998. He is now No. 43 in the U.S. among all active players and ranked well outside of the top 100 in the world. In recent years, he switched to playing a more conservative, positional style, he said.

“It’s a young person’s game now,” Shabalov said. “Because of computers, you don’t need a coach anymore.

“I wish I was born 50 years later,” said Shabalov. “Now is a really exciting time to be a young chess player because the sky is the limit. There are no restrictions. You might be born in a godforsaken place, but you can still teach yourself how to play. One of the strongest players in the United States, Wesley So, is from a very poor family in the Philippines. He became the No. 2 chess player in the world.”

As for Shabalov, he certainly is not washed up. He is tied at No. 3 in the U.S. among senior players heading into this week’s U.S. Senior Chess Championship. Competition begins Thursday and runs through July 20 with $50,000 in prize money at stake.

Shabalov said he feels as excited and competitive as ever and is looking forward to renewing old rivalries with fellow senior players and grandmasters such as Larry Christiansen, Joel Benjamin and Alex Yermolinsky.

“The tournament is still super exciting, even though it’s called a senior championship,” Shabalov said. “There’s all those guys that I played against 20 years ago. I know it’s going to be ferocious because the rivalry is still there. It’s like when Pittsburgh plays Philly in hockey.”

Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].

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