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One giant leap for space chess

Astronaut Greg Chamitoff brought a chessboard to the international space station.

NASA's orbiting chess player is getting ready for the biggest move since his epic "Earth vs. space" match began: the move back down to Earth.

Astronaut Greg Chamitoff, who has been living and working on the international space station for the past six months, is coming home this weekend with the space shuttle Endeavour's crew.

One of the things Chamitoff brought up to the station with him was a homemade, Velcro-equipped chessboard, suitable for zero-G play. He started off playing a series of games with mission controllers - and in late September he began his biggest match yet, against chess team members from Stevenson Elementary School in Bellevue, Wash.

Actually, the whole world has gotten into the action by voting for the top move out of up to four suggested by the third- to fifth-graders. Which raises the question: "Is an astronaut smarter than a third-grader?"

So far, the kids are doing pretty well, even though Chamitoff is playing with the white pieces - which is usually considered an advantage. You can follow the game and vote for future moves via the U.S. Chess Federation's Web site.

"Black is ahead by a pawn," said Hal Bogner, director for the match, which was organized by the federation in cooperation with NASA. "But white has more mobility and is further along in bringing pieces out."

Elliott Neff, who is coaching the kids, said it's a good thing for Chamitoff that Earth's moves are being chosen by Internet voting rather than strictly by Stevenson Elementary's finest. "That's what evens things out for Greg," he said. (Neff, a self-taught chess master, has helped the Stevenson team win national titles and thus may be justified in dishing out a little trash talk.)

Everyone acknowledges that the game is just getting to the good part. Which raises the question: What happens to the Earth vs. space match when the player from outer space is back on Earth?

"He'll finish out the match even while he's on the ground," Neff said.

Bogner said managing the Earth vs. space match has been a logistical challenge, especially because Chamitoff has so few leisure hours for playing games. (It's currently his move, by the way.) "It was a scramble just to get going," Bogner said. "Now that he'll be back on the ground, there'll be more communication and it'll probably be getting more regular."

Bogner estimated that the game would run through the winter, while Chamitoff recuperates from his stint in space. "And who knows, maybe into the spring," he added. By then, Chamitoff may be up to traveling on the publicity circuit - and finally meeting his opponents face to face.

"Our hope is to set up an event with him and the schoolchildren he's been playing sometime in the spring," NASA spokeswoman Nicole Cloutier told me.

Neff said the high-profile chess match has been a lot of fun for the Stevenson team. "Being chosen to play against an astronaut has been an exciting event for them," he said. "It just opens up their world, really."

Astronaut Greg Chamitoff talks about chess in an Oct. 1 YouTube video.

Chamitoff also has been tickled by the experience.

"I think chess is a great game for stimulating young minds for analytical thinking, which is so important in all aspects of life, but especially math, science and engineering," he told the kids in an online video, "all the things that make the space station possible and our way of life possible."

Which raises the question: Will the Earth vs. space chess games continue once Chamitoff is back on the ground?

Based on a Mission Control conversation monitored on Sunday, the space station's crew might be setting the zero-G chessboard aside, at least for a while. Spacecraft communicator Terry Virts told space station commander Mike Fincke that with Chamitoff gone, "we won't be playing chess anymore."

"Maybe we can get a game of Pictionary going," Virts said.

"That's true," Fincke replied. "That's a little bit more my style."

Update for 2:25 p.m. ET Nov. 27: Here are some comments from Heather Rarick, the flight director at NASA's Mission Control who has been playing a key role in coordinating Chamitoff's chess adventure:

"Although we were not able to finish the matches before Greg leaves space station, we are all looking forward to doing so maybe in person. There has been a lot of interest in his chess matches, especially the Earth vs. space game. It's really been fun and also a bit challenging to play a game like this. Being involved in these games adds a personal dimension that makes our jobs even better. I know Greg likes playing, and he says he thinks about the games during his off time. We'll see him soon, and I do hope at least one of the Earth teams can win!"