Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A touching story: A Quiet Quest


Woman seeks identity in chess and in life

Monday, May 15, 2006

Of The Patriot-News

Tamara Corey sits demurely behind her chess pieces, her hands in her lap, her ankles crossed, her shoulders slightly hunched forward. She speaks softly, as though she's afraid she'll wake the pawns. Shy, perhaps from living in four European orphanages.

But in a game of chess, the Paxtang woman, 20, is a tenacious counterattacker, fierce in the endgame. "Like a sleeping bear," says Michael Mazock of Carlisle, who is coaching her in chess. "If someone awoke her with premature attacks, she would be riled."

Last month, Corey stormed back from an opening loss in the Pennsylvania State Amateur Championship tournament in Hazleton to win three matches and draw another, finishing first among players with a U.S. Chess Federation rating under 1800.

Her rating in the tournament was 1680. The average rating in the United States is 1064. A master chess player has earned a rating of 2200.

Chess might be complicated, but it's less of a mystery than Corey's life.

Corey lived in orphanages in her native country, the Republic of Georgia, until she was 8. She doesn't know the identity of her parents. She did not speak as a child because of a deformity in her palate -- the opening in the roof of her mouth to her nose was too big, and she couldn't pronounce many consonants.

She was adopted by a Pennsylvania couple and underwent surgery at age 10 to help her speak clearly. The couple introduced her to chess, just for fun. Corey found she had a talent for it -- she is patient, focused and methodical in her attacks and defenses, and it has brought her success in tournaments.

Now she's determined to become a grand master in chess, studying strategies with Mazock once a week, playing chess almost every day.

"I will never stop playing chess because God gave me the gift, and I want to make some money out of it," she said.

At tournaments, she often is the only female player. In the U.S., girls often turn away from chess as they grow up because of a phenomenon that Jerry Nash, the U.S. Chess Federation's scholastic director, calls "the geek factor."

In school, sports are considered cooler than chess, Nash said. Girls also might fear rejection by boys who lose to them in chess. They suspect a variation of the old saying is true: Boys won't make passes at girls who win matches.

"Girls competing against boys tends to be seen, I think, in a lot of places as, 'If you beat the guys, they're not going to like you,'" Nash said.

Corey has no such fear. She was schooled at home by her parents and revels in beating males in chess.

"I teach the guys a lesson," she said proudly. When the mother of two male opponents approached her at the state amateur tournament and announced, "My boys are afraid to play you," how did Corey feel? "Happy," she said.

Corey never played chess in the orphanages. All she can remember from her early childhood are dolls, not games or other toys.

She doesn't remember schooling or classes or any attempt to educate her. Her voice was nasal, and she struggled to pronounce consonants. Memories? "I remember some, but not a whole lot," she said apologetically. Happy memories? "Not so happy, maybe," she said, shrugging her shoulders slightly. "I'm not sure."

All Bobbin and Peter Corey knew as they flew to Europe to adopt Corey was that the girl did not speak. Officials in Georgia offered few details about her, Bobbin Corey said.

They brought her to their Centre County farm, where they bred dogs and kept horses. Bobbin Corey would open the family chess set, showing Tamara a couple of pieces at a time, showing her how they moved. She saved the knights for last, knowing Tamara loved horses.

"We didn't expect that so much would come of it," Bobbin Corey said.

When the Coreys moved to Paxtang in 2004, Tamara Corey joined the West Shore Chess Club, and the couple hired Mazock to coach her when she beat them in chess regularly.

"I don't play her anymore -- it's not safe," Bobbin Corey joked.

Tamara Corey's dream is to become a grand master, a difficult title to earn in chess. "Maybe in a couple years or so," she said, shrugging. "I don't know."

She has one other dream: to meet her birth parents.

One of her few memories of the orphanages is of a strange woman who visited her one day. The woman was tall, and her hair, like Corey's, was brown. She gave the girl something to eat. "I'll be back for you," the woman said.

She never returned.

"I thought maybe that was my birth mother," Corey said softly.

She hopes there is an endgame.
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