The waitress had a look of incredulity. Two hungry customers requested a chess set for the long wait for their cutlets and dill soup.
"What? A chessboard?" she asked, looking at them oddly. "Sorry. We don't play here."
This town of 150,000 on Russia's remote southern steppes claims to be the chess capital of the world. The game is taught in schools. Signs exhort townspeople to "Play Chess!" A presidential decree protects the game.
"Chess detracts kids from hooliganism and develops the brain," says Konstantin Maximov, head of the local parliament.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has tried to build a republic of chess players since he became president of Kalmykia in 1993. He wrangled to become the chief of the International Chess Federation despite strong resistance by the Rus- sian Chess Federation. He put his tiny republic on the map in 1996 by hosting the world championships between Anatoly Karpov and Gata Kamsky.
But Mr. Ilyumzhinov is not finding it easy to create a national identity around his personal passion.
Despite government insistence that even shepherds play in the evenings, this journalist saw not a board in public - unlike in Moscow cafes, New York parks, and Hungarian baths. Even several government officials looked sheepish when asked if they played. "I don't have much time," mumbled a presidential aide.
Even though many citizens may not play, they are proud to host such an illustrious event as the 33rd World Chess Olympiad. Scheduled for Sept. 26 to 30, it is expected to draw participants from 120 countries.
"No one plays chess except the kids in schools. But thanks to our president and chess, people know where Kalmykia is now," says housewife Larissa Ralatschinov, proudly.
The pride and joy of officials is the $35-million project to build a "Chess City" of housing and a palace where the event will be held. But after a year and a half, only a handful of the 84 buildings have been completed. Sewage, water, and electricity systems are still not hooked up.
Alexander Imerdykov, vice chairman of the state organizing committee, insists it will be done in the three remaining months. Workers are toiling around the clock.
"It has to be finished," he says. "It has to be."