Merriest Christmas felicitations to all!

Mexico is progressing in chess by strengthening its Copa Gobernador Tournament in Neuva Leon, year after year.This year in its running, 10 of 14 entrants were grandmasters, making it one of the strongest in the Americas. They were topped by the Spanish grandmaster Miguel Illescas Cordoba, who posted a 9-4 score on his way to victory.

Gennady Sagalchik, an American international master originally from Russia, and Walter Browne, a Berkeley, Calif., grandmaster (who once played in a Utah open) each tallied 8-5 to tie for second and third.

This amounted to a third norm for Sagalchik, who will soon be officially elevated to the grand- master rank by the International Chess Federation (FIDE).

Robert Byrne, chess editor of the New York Times, reported that Illescas' preferred mode of winning was precise, conservative maneuvering and a strong endgame technique.

- CHAMPION - If you want to back a winner when the going gets tough, you can't do better than to put your money on Gary Kasparov. This is a recent opinion of Shelby Lyman, the syndicated chess columnist.

He writes: "Embarrassed by elimination in three successive Intel Grand Prix Tournaments this year - twice by his young nemesis, the young Vladimir Kramnik - Kasparov won a fourth and final Grand Prix recently held in Paris.

"But it wasn't easy. After winning his first-round match, the still gun-shy Muscovite jokingly told reporters that he continued to be `afraid of his own shadow.' "

A day later - on the eve of the inevitable encounter with Kramnik - a more resolute world champion took center stage. "This is what I came to Paris for," he asserted.

"Tomorrow is the day of judgment."

But the first game started badly for Kasparov, who nevertheless managed to gain a draw despite Kramnik's considerable opening advantage. After the second game was also drawn (in 18 moves), the players faced off in a sudden-death blitz playoff.

Although Kramnik succumbed to the heightened pressure with an early blunder of a pawn, the issue hung in doubt until his resignation on the 80th move.

Kasparov - who had only seven seconds left on his clock - punched the air to celebrate victory.

Inspired by the defeat of Kramnik, Kasparov easily defeated the less formidable Predrag Nikolic of Yugoslavia 2-0 in the final round.

Because the Paris Grand Prix was given twice the numerical weight of each of the previous three, Kasparov - who trailed far behind Kramnik before Paris - gained a tie in the overall series and shared equally with him a $75,000 purse.

But Kramnik was declared the official overall 1994 Grand Prix winner after the application of the tie-breaking formula.

TRISKAIDEKAPHOBES - While most of us are triskaidekaphobes, Gary Kasparov's lucky number is 13.

He is proud to point out that he was born on April 13, 1963 (1963 is divisible by 13). And he is in fact the 13th world champion.

But his putative luck was nonexistent in the 13th game of his London title match with Nigel Short - in which he could only manage to draw.

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Short himself has some larger numbers to contend with of late. Until Game 16 of the match, he had not beaten Kasparov in seven years. Before that game, he was - according to London bookmaker William Hill - a 1,000-to-1 underdog to dethrone the world champion.

Chess-playing computers, of course, summon to mind a much larger order of magnitude.

When the world's strongest chess machine, Deep Thought, completes its metamorphosis to Deep Blue, it will be able - with the help of 1,000 parallel processors - to scan 1 billion positions a second.

But chess remains unsolvable even to such prodigals of number crunching. It was once estimated that if a group of computers equal to the number of atoms in the universe were put to work scanning all possible chess moves, it would take eons to solve the game.

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