Competitive chess produces a huge number of intelligent, analytical and intellectual people. It also, somewhat surprisingly, generates an unusual amount of prodigies. Chess prodigies are somewhat common these days, with kids as young as 12 becoming Grandmasters, and beating far more qualified and experienced opponents than ever before.
As we delve into the world of chess prodigies, we seek to learn more about them, and understand the general public's fascination with a corner of the chess industry reserved especially for the youth of this world. While it's not hard to understand why a seemingly innately talented child is a point of interest, it is interesting to look at just why we view intelligence in children as surprising, and why we celebrate intelligent kids by pushing them into adult roles perhaps a little too mature for their age.
A brief look at the world's most famous chess prodigies
Chess prodigies gain more media attention, and generate more publicity, than the average chess player. This is because their talents are more interesting to the public than those who have spent years of their lives training and practicing. While there are many chess prodigies to choose from, we've selected a number of household names, noted on an international scale. These kids are renowned for their impressive performances and remarkable appearances, and their ages make the situation all the more incredible.
Magnus Carlsen is a fascinating example of child prodigy. Carlsen is currently 25, and holds the title of World Chess Champion, but his career began at a much younger age. At just 14, Carlsen drew with Grandmaster and world famous chess champion Kasparov. There are various conspiracies as to why this draw happened, with some experts suggesting that the tie was not due to Carlsen's ability entirely. For example, some people speculate that Kasparov may have underestimate Carlsen due to his age, and therefore neither prepared nor studied for the match- giving Carlsen an advantage.
The idea that prodigies are often underestimated by their adult opponents is widely discussed in the chess world. It's a question that remains largely unanswered, as observers attempt to determine whether a child prodigy has the unique of advantage of being a child, which makes other players natural underestimate and undervalue them (and therefore play less competitively).
Regardless, after drawing the match with Kasparov, Carlsen continued to prove his remarkable talent. In 2009, Kasparov assumed the role of trainer for Carlsen, and Carlsen went on to break many different records. At the age of 15, for example, he achieved the honor of being the youngest person ever to break a 2600 Elo rating. While this has since been surpassed, it was still a major achievement at the time.
Interestingly, not all chess prodigies continue their career in chess, or progress at such a fast rate as they become adults. Magnus Carlsen was somewhat of an exception, as at 24 years of age he became the highest ranked player in history, with an Elo rating of 2882. While his career continued to thrive, many young prodigies burnout before they reach adulthood, and therefore do not go on to achieve the same scale of success as Carlsen.
A similarly exceptional player is Jonah Willow. This English prodigy drew with Russian Grandmaster Alexander Cherniaev at the tender age of 15 (in 2012).This was a huge feat, and Cherniaev was so blown away that he took time aside after the game to analyze the match with Willow.
Much like other child prodigies, Willow started playing at the very young age of 5, after watching his father and sister play recreationally. He started practicing, and still does, 1 to 3 hours per day- and his studies encompass a huge range of skills. Interestingly, unlike other prodigies, he doesn't have a 'win or die' mentality. In various interviews, he was quoted as saying that he "wasn't nervous" and that it "didn't matter if he lost". This a is rare yet somewhat refreshing perspective for a prodigy to have.
Child prodigies: a race to the top
For many chess prodigies, their career quickly becomes a race to the top. Parents push their children into competitions, qualifying round and ultimately championships with opponents double their age. However, as prodigies remain a point of interest across the world, some observers have pointed out whether child prodigies receive lesser treatment than their adult counterparts- and whether they're sometimes taken less seriously than adults.
In many entries online, the date in which the youngest Grandmasters are ranked is actually the date they qualified, and not the date in which they received the title. Usually, when an adult qualifies, they receive the title almost immediately after. But with chess prodigies, it becomes a little more bureaucratic, which brings into a question whether they're undervalued because of their age.
Fortunately, chess prodigies don't seem to face as much discrimination with race. There is a diverse selection of nationalities in the pool of top prodigies, with Asian and African countries dominating the list as much as European and more western nations.
The Parent Factor
One huge issue that often surrounds child prodigies is, unfortunately, their parents. What begins as an attempt to encourage their child, often results in pushing their child further than their limits and creating a rebellion of sorts. A number of documentaries were released in the last 10 years, that looked in detail at how parents push prodigies, particularly in chess- and how detrimental this can be to their career.
The general consensus seems to be that helping your child succeed is natural and normal, but forcing your child to succeed isn't the most effective way to help them thrive. An article by the New York Times titled 'Fathering A Chess Prodigy' outlines the behavior of some parents who invested too much interest in their children's success. The author outlines how Fathers would physically fight each other, and how children were forced to ask their parents to "be quiet and give them room to play". The overbearing nature of some parents is often what leads to the ultimate failure of child prodigies. Those who were forced into competitions and made to practice often fall out of love with the activity, and ultimately abandon chess altogether.
Magnus Carlsen, the chess prodigy described above, was fortunate enough to have parents who respected the bounds of reasonable encouragement. Carlsen's father was quoted by various news reports with the following statement:
"My advice to young parents is that they shouldn't pressure their children into doing anything. They should allow the children to decide for themselves what they like."
The questionable practice of chess prodigies
As chess is played so competitively, there is an element of pressure put on kids to perform well, particularly (as previously discussed) by their parents. There is, for example, a 'Prodigy watchlist'. This is a watchlist of young players who rank higher than previous players, and it's constantly updated with new children, who beat the seemingly unbeatable and set new records. This list is one of the many things that creates a fierce, near aggressive sense of competition amongst parents who want their child to be recognized for their abilities.
This list is just one of many insights into the darker side of child prodigies- and one that makes professionals question whether child prodigies should exist at all. After all, the term prodigy is one assigned to an intelligent child. The connotations that come with the word 'prodigy' are entirely manmade and very detrimental to the wellbeing of some kids. Some child psychologists argue that the pressures put on child prodigies are too great. Kids that perform exceptionally well are then virtually stripped of their childhood, and forced to compete in championships with adults who were given the privilege of being silly children, and who are much older than their competitors.
Numerous studies have, throughout the years, been conducted on the phenomenon of child prodigies. A number of books were also released by former child prodigies, including Alissa Quart, an English prodigy who wrote a novel based on research compiled from other child prodigies. She discusses this book detail here, where she also mentions how commonplace prodigies are in the world of chess, and how labeling a child as 'superior' from such an early age can lead to a sense of dissatisfaction later in life.
Regardless of whether prodigies are right or fair, it's indisputable that certain children have abilities well beyond their years, that are simply mesmerizing to the general public. For prodigies such as Carlsen to succeed, and essentially take over the chess world, is truly remarkable- and a wonderful example of how kids can grow and evolve regardless of challenges they face in their everyday life.
It's also interesting to note that many child prodigies are homeschooled, which suggests that conventional education isn't a basic necessity for amazing chess players. This means that no matter your background or your upbringing, you're still perfectly qualified to become a Grandmaster yourself.