As the kings and queens of American chess descend on St. Louis for the 2009 U.S. Championship tournament this week, another set of brainiacs is brawling here in San Francisco before a bemused federal judge.
The dispute, between warring factions of the U.S. Chess Federation's executive board, packs all the drama of a Cold War–era grandmaster showdown. It's a culture clash of skillful tacticians.
On one side is Susan Polgar, a Hungarian-born chess champ who cast herself as a reform candidate in the 2007 federation elections and won a seat on the seven-member executive board. Two other candidates supported by Polgar also joined the board, including her husband, Paul Truong.
Bill Goichberg, the federation president, criticized Polgar for keeping her marriage to Truong a secret during the campaign. Goichberg, whose leadership in the USCF dates to the mid-1970s, backed a separate slate of candidates. One of those candidates finished fourth and took the last remaining seat on the board.
Two months after the election, a former board member who had staged a losing campaign went to court in New York and claimed that Truong had impersonated him in thousands of defamatory postings on Internet message boards. The lawsuit was dismissed, but not before the board launched its own investigation.
The federation board leadership claims that during the investigation, Polgar and an associate, Gregory Alexander, hacked into another board member's e-mail account to steal legal documents. The leadership also claims that the two broke into a chess federation computer server so they could impersonate Goichberg on the U.S. Chess Web site. The federation hired San Francisco attorney Karl Kronenberger, an Internet law specialist, to handle a case against Polgar and Alexander in the San Francisco courts. Both defendants have denied the accusations. Polgar has hired San Francisco attorney G. Whitney Leigh to represent her; Leigh is the law partner of former Supervisor Matt Gonzalez.
At a recent hearing, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel criticized both sides for their handling of the dispute, according to The Recorder, a legal newspaper. Patel also reportedly said that having a married couple serve together on a nonprofit board is a train wreck waiting to happen, and that one of them should resign. But on May 4, the judge granted Polgar's request to countersue five members of the USCF board (including Goichberg) and Kronenberger, claiming they had all abused the legal process when they took her to court. Polgar has a month to file her new claims.
For local chess players, at least, the controversy doesn't seem to be drawing attention away from the annual U.S. Championship. Two dozen players are competing, including Sam Shankland, an 18-year-old international master who studies the game at San Francisco's Mechanics' Institute.
"Most chess players play chess to relax and enjoy themselves," said John Donaldson, chess director at the Mechanics' Institute, "so they try not to follow this thing too closely."