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Prodigal Sons

The search for the next great chess prodigy—the next Bobby Fischer—is constantly underway. And the candidates are getting younger and younger.

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Anatoly Karpov, the 66-year-old former World Chess Champion, was comfortable playing chess underneath the bright lights and in front of the cameras on a television studio set. His opponent, Mikhail “Misha” Osipov, had never played on quite so big a stage before. In this case, before a studio audience on the Russian television program The Best, broadcast on the state-run Channel One. Nevertheless, Osipov looked comfortable. He greeted Karpov warmly, and complimented his showdown with Viktor Korchnoi, which Osipov had studied to prepare. (“It was a beautiful game!”) Osipov played the Nimzo-Indian defense, and played it well.

But Osipov took a long time to consider each move, while Karpov played quickly. Their game was timed, with Karpov playing with two minutes on his clock to Osipov’s 10, in consideration of Karpov’s superior skill and experience. That time advantage dwindled as Osipov spent precious minutes thinking.

Fourteen moves into the game and they were equal in time, with Karpov up a single pawn. Graciously, Karpov offered Osipov a draw.

“Nyet,” Osipov responded, and continued to move.

A few moves later, Osipov’s clock ran out.

“You’ve lost on time,” Karpov told Osipov. “You had to accept the draw. Be more realistic about time.”

Osipov shook Karpov’s hand, but his face tensed up and fixed itself into a frown. He got up from his seat and wandered toward the studio audience, no longer able to hold back tears. Osipov sobbed wildly and looked into the bright lights and the audience before him, bewildered.

“Mama!” he shouted as the cameras continued to roll. “Mama!” His mother bounded from the audience onto the stage and picked up the 3-year-old boy into her arms and held him tightly, wiping the tears from his round, cherubic face.

Despite the disappointing result, Misha Osipov remains a media sensation in Russia. The now-4-year-old from Moscow has already beaten a grandmaster (albeit one with poor eyesight and not exactly in his prime at 95 years old) and has won a number of youth tournament titles. Osipov already has two coaches and a corporate sponsor. He’s helping revitalize Russian interest in a game that was once a source of national pride, a revitalization that began last year when Russian Sergey Karjakin played Norwegian Magnus Carlsen for the World Championship. Both Karjakin and Carlsen were chess prodigies themselves, and Karjakin holds the record for being the youngest player to become a grandmaster. Neither of them could play chess at the age of 3.

Mikhail Osipov plays against 95-year-old grandmaster Yuri Averbakh
Mikhail “Misha” Osipov
Sergei Bobylev/TASS

It is incredibly rare for a 3-year-old to even grasp the rules of chess, let alone play at a high level. Misha Osipov is not a grandmaster or even a master-level player, but he is still strong enough to beat many club-level adult players. His rating is high enough to place him among the top 20 of American players under the age of 7. None of those players is under the age of 5. But while Osipov’s abilities are unique in a child so young, the game of chess is no stranger to child prodigies. In fact, most of the game’s greatest players began as children. And increasingly the game’s top levels are accessible only to players who commit themselves to serious study before the age of 10.

Michael Khodarkovsky is the president of the Kasparov Chess Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Garry Kasparov, the 13th World Chess Champion, to promote chess in schools as a cognitive learning tool and to teach chess to children around the world. Khodarkovsky, a FIDE Senior Trainer and the coach of the U.S. youth team since 2004, heads up the Foundation’s Young Stars program, where he and Kasparov scout the top young players around the world, recruit them to attend rigorous invitation-only training programs, and connect them with coaches and other resources. Their goal is to identify the kids with the highest potential and give them the tools they need to become champions. For their next session, they’ve invited nine kids, between the ages of 10 and 13. Every member of their last class became a grandmaster by the age of 16.

Khodarkovsky estimates that about half of the players who show remarkable skill before the age of 10 will give up on chess entirely. And he blames, at least in part, the attention we shower on prodigies. “I’m against all of these records at this young age,” he says. Khodarkovsky says that the sensationalism, both in the media and among the chess community—parents, coaches, other players—can take a toll on a young child and make it less likely they will continue on in the game. “Even if they don’t say and can’t articulate everything adults can, it doesn’t mean that they don’t feel it, and don’t feel the pressure. For them it’s a different situation. You are a record-breaking youngster or talent or prodigy and all of a sudden you’re the center of attention. Now everybody wants to defeat you because you’re the star. That’s a kind of pressure that’s very difficult to overcome.”

When a player is at the top, they are expected to win. When they do, it’s another win for the champ. When they lose, it’s a travesty. Their opponents relish defeating them, celebrate even. And once that pressure starts to crack a young player open, sometimes they never recover. “They will quit because it’s not fun for them anymore,” Khodarkovsky says.

Fred Waitzkin discusses this pressure in his 1988 book, Searching for Bobby Fischer. In 1986, his 9-year-old son, Josh, was the top-seeded player in the National Primary Championships. Josh had played poorly in a tournament leading up to the championships, and the loss seemed to shake him. “He would never again be the same cocky little boy who was convinced that no child on earth could beat him,” Waitzkin wrote of his son. Josh would have to play his games at the championship on Board 1, before a TV camera, on a table at the front of the room. Because he was the no. 1 seed, Waitzkin worried that “everyone would be gunning for him.” Fred Waitzkin wondered if the pressure was too much for the young boy, if he wouldn’t be able to handle it. Two weeks before the tournament, Josh would complain to his father that voices of other people sounded too loud in his head. As he played games in Washington Square Park, he’d look up at his father with a scared expression on his face. “When I asked what was wrong, he would say that he felt as if walls were closing in on him,” he wrote. “I asked a psychologist friend about these symptoms, and his disquieting reply was that unlike adults, kids haven’t developed methods to handle pressured situations.” The next week, Fred noticed that Josh was pulling out his own hair as he contemplated positions during study.

Fred wrestled in his book with the guilt he felt in encouraging Josh’s chess career. He wondered if Josh’s ambitions were the boy’s or his own.

I worry that my ambition for Josh will outstrip his desire to play. I worry about the tyranny of his heady national ranking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he could just play chess the way he plays football and basketball, without being concerned about his rating, or about what little kid in California is catching up with him, or about not being national champion? I wonder about the payoff or penalty down the road for a little boy who feels like a failure when he is less than number one. When was I ever number one in the country at anything? I’ve never even known anyone who was number one at anything besides my son—and yet this is the standard by which he judges himself.

One day at the beginning of that summer Josh said, “Everyone tries to beat me. I’m expected to win, and when I lose it’s a big deal… Sometimes I wish I could give it up for a while,” he said.

… There was a moment of silence between us, and then I took a deep breath and asked the question whose answer I dreaded: did he sometimes think about giving up the game entirely?

Joshua’s eyes became misty. “How could I do that?” he said in a trembling voice. “Chess is my life.”

Josh Waitzkin would win the National Primary Championship in 1986. He went on to win several more championships throughout primary and high school, earning the title of international master by the age of 16. In 1993, the movie about his life came out, immortalizing his final game in the 1986 Primary Championships and turning him into the biggest chess celebrity since Fischer himself. A few years later, Josh gave up chess completely.

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I first tried to teach my son Gus to play chess when he was 3 years old. A chess player in Washington Square Park once told me that would be a good age to start. It didn’t work. He’d throw the pieces and yell “chess is too hard!” I put the board away for a while, and brought it back out when he was 4. This time he got it, except for the knight—always the trickiest piece. We worked on it and worked on it. We played many games in which I’d award him with treats that got increasingly tasty relative to the value of the pieces.

When he was 5, he entered kindergarten in NYC public schools, where he received chess instruction in class and at an after-school program. His coach told me that Gus was the strongest player in his class. When we traveled to Arkansas for the next year so I could work on my book, the public school there, like most schools in America, had no chess program. When the scholastic tournament came around in a far corner of the state, I drove him up alone, tailgating the students from the local math and science residential high school. One of the students on the team there had taken Gus on as a project, coaching him after school for free. The math and science team took second place, but the students seemed more proud of Gus for winning first place in his division.

Now 7 years old and back in New York, Gus hasn’t managed to nab better than second place in tournaments against similarly ranked elementary school students. The competition here is intense. The first tournament we entered upon our return had more than 1,000 kids. Many of the top young players in the country, even in the world, live here in New York. At fancy private schools like the Dalton School or Trinity School, they receive coaching from international masters and grandmasters. Even the top public school teams, like IS 318 or Stuyvesant High School, have players who commit to chess with all of the seriousness of a top basketball recruit at Abraham Lincoln High School. Many of those players dream of becoming young masters, a dream shared by many of their parents. To accomplish that, they need to boost their rating, which is an estimate of a player’s skill level calculated based on results in official tournament games. The U.S. Chess Federation awards the title of “national master” to any player who achieves a USCF rating of at least 2200. According to Jerry Nash, the scholastic director of the U.S. Chess Federation, to get to this level “isn’t nearly as much about talent as it is perseverance.” Nash says it requires five to six hours of work every day for several years. There are currently around 130 players in the U.S. under the age of 18 with a rating as high as 2200. One of them, Liran Zhou, is 9 years old. He’s the youngest player to ever become a master, and he lives and plays in New York.

That record once belonged to Bobby Fischer, American World Champion and a child chess prodigy himself. He became the youngest-ever master in 1957 at the age of 13. That record stood for 20 years until Joel Benjamin beat it by a few months in 1977. The record would be broken three times before 1998, when Hikaru Nakamura became a master at the age of 10. Nakamura, unlike the record holders before him other than Fischer, Benjamin and Stuart Rachels, went on to become the U.S. Champion. He won that title four times from 2005 to 2015, and in 2015 was ranked second in the world. Nakamura’s record for youngest-ever American master held for 10 long years until it was broken on March 4, 2008, by a young boy in San Francisco named Nicholas Nip, six days before his 10th birthday.

Magnus Carlsen at age 13
Future World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen at age 13
AP Images

Nip, like most American chess prodigies, started playing much later than Misha Osipov. Nip learned chess in an after-school program at the age of 5. His talent was immediately evident and he started winning local scholastic tournaments almost weekly. His parents entered him in tournaments against adults, and he did well in those, too. After he won the California State Scholastic Championship at 6 years old, Nip and his mother started flying around the country to compete in bigger events, including the National Scholastic Championships in Nashville, where Nip finished fifth in his first tournament.

As Nip continued to play tournaments at a furious clip—41 over the next two years—his rating climbed steadily. On Nip’s ninth birthday, in 2007, his rating was already 1966. He was less than 300 rating points away from becoming the youngest-ever master.

“As a young kid, I knew exactly what it meant to become a chess master,” Nip told me. “That’s why I pushed myself so hard to be the first kid to do it before age 10.”

That effort, however, consisted mostly of Nip and his mother traveling around California and Nevada, sometimes entering back-to-back tournaments weekend after weekend to try to gain the rating points he’d need fast enough to beat the record. What it didn’t consist of was lots of study. While the kids Nip played against in national events were often home-schooled so they could devote eight hours a day to studying chess, Nip and his family preferred that he have a more traditional childhood.

“It's sort of strange. Chess came naturally to me,” he recalled. “I spent approximately two hours a day, max, studying and practicing chess. I felt like I was missing out on other activities like sports and watching TV and having playdates with friends.”

As Nip’s 10th birthday approached, it appeared he might come up short. With his rating sitting at 2193 and the next tournament he could earn points in scheduled for after his 10th birthday, his mother and the local tournament director put their heads together. The tournament director invited three highly rated players to join young Nicholas in a private tournament where he would play each of them twice. Nip won three and drew three, earning him enough points to push him over 2200 and break Nakamura's record. Nakamura was, by this time, the youngest-ever grandmaster (another of Bobby Fischer’s long-held records now broken) and a former U.S. Champion. However, Nakamura still smarted from having his decade-old record bested. He wrote on his blog that he thought the U.S. Chess Federation should modify the rules by which players can become masters so that players like Nip couldn’t “manipulate the system.” A number of prominent grandmasters chimed in to agree with him, casting doubt on the 9-year-old’s achievement. The controversy even found its way to the pages of The New York Times, where Nicholas’s mother, Sophia Nip, said it had been her son’s goal to break Nakamura’s record since he was 5 years old.

In the months following Nip’s achievement, he went on Live! With Regis and Kelly to play a simultaneous exhibition—he’d play 10 opponents at the same time. The young boy in a too-large green polo shirt won nine and drew one. Afterward Regis Philbin pestered him with questions about whether he wanted a girlfriend. Kelly Ripa asked him if it was too late for someone her age to learn to play chess. Nip replied, “No, it’s not too late.” “What if we are not smart?” Ripa responded. “No, you can still play,” he said, nervously, looking side to side as if trying to find a way out.

A few months after his television appearance, Nicholas Nip told his parents he no longer wanted to play chess. He retired from the game in the fourth grade. He hasn’t been seen at a chess tournament since.

Bobby Fischer, right, and Boris Spassky play the last game of their historic 1972 "Match of the Century," in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Bobby Fischer, right, and Boris Spassky play the last game of their historic 1972 "Match of the Century," in Reykjavik, Iceland.
AP Images

During the 1950s and ’60s, the Soviet Union treated chess like sports. Success in the international arena would prove the superiority of the Soviet system—not only were they the best athletes in the world, they’d also show that they had the strongest minds by dominating at the game. In order to ensure the Soviets would win the World Championship, the Union of Sports Societies and Organizations created chess training schools and recruited children from across the USSR to study chess full-time. The state-supported program worked. From 1948 until 1993, the World Championship was held by a Russia-affilated player, save for a nearly three-year period between 1972 and 1975 when a young Bobby Fischer rose through the ranks in a country with very little interest in chess to become the first American-born World Champion.

Fischer’s rise as a young player gave the Soviet Union chess machine fits. During the years that Fischer came up in the United States, gaining international attention for winning the U.S. Championship at the age of 14, the Soviets recruited thousands of new children to attend their chess schools. One of them was a 5-year-old boy named Ernest Kim. The USSR claimed Kim was defeating adults in his home of Tashkent and had climbed to a “third category rating,” the first rung on the ladder to becoming a Soviet grandmaster, within six months of learning the game. Photos of Kim appeared on magazine covers, newsreels circulated with footage of him playing against adults, sitting up on his knees with his tiny head in his hands. In 1958, when Fischer visited Moscow on invitation from the USSR chess authority, he declared that he was eager to play Kim. The government kept the child under wraps.

One Soviet chess player, Vasily Panov, railed against the chess centers in general, and the treatment of Kim in particular. He felt that too many young people were being put through the Soviet chess farm team, possibly sacrificing some future doctors or engineers in the process. In an interview with The New York Times, in speaking about Ernest Kim, who Panov said was being “dragged off to training sessions, away from playmates and school,” Panov quoted Lenin: “Do not forget that chess after all is only a recreation and not an occupation.”

Many Soviet players would go on to become World Champion, but Ernest Kim wouldn’t be one of them. In 1972, when Bobby Fischer would wrest the World Championship away from the Soviets, Kim hadn’t been mentioned by the press in more than 10 years.

In the United States, Fischer’s victory inspired a new interest in chess. The U.S. Chess Federation’s membership doubled, and many of those new players were children. Fischer appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Time, and Life magazines. He was offered millions of dollars in commercial endorsement deals, even more than a million just to defend his title at the Las Vegas Hilton. He turned them all down. He appeared on The Tonight Show not long after winning the title and Johnny Carson asked him how he felt after finally accomplishing the thing he had tirelessly and singularly pursued since he was a very young boy. “I kind of feel like something’s been taken from me,” Fischer answered. Bobby Fischer, the youngest World Champion in history, didn’t play another game of chess in public for the next 20 years.

Misha Osipov’s grandfather learned chess during this period in the Soviet Union. He never played the game at the top level but he was decent enough. More importantly, he loved the game. He played it whenever he could. He taught the game to his son, Yuri, and father and son would play each other throughout their lives, well into Yuri’s adulthood. When Yuri’s 2-year-old son Misha saw the two men playing the game one day, he was immediately drawn to it. Despite the fact that Misha was only 2 years old, he demanded to be taught the rules. Yuri and his father thought it was only a passing interest, a bright and shiny object for Misha to obsess about before moving on. But Misha asked to be taught again the next day, and the next. The toddler couldn’t stop thinking about chess. He learned to move the pieces in a week. Soon after that he left his father behind, choosing to play on the computer. Yuri and his wife, Kseniya, wrote to a well-known Russian player named Ekaterina Popova and asked her if she would consider coaching their son. Ekaterina had never taken on a student so young, but she thought it’d be an interesting challenge.

Misha Osipov
Misha Osipov
Sergei Bobylev/TASS

Popova teaches Misha the games of the great chess champions. His favorite player is Magnus Carlsen, the current World Champion and himself a child prodigy. According to Yuri, Misha found the games of former Russian World Champion Vladimir Kramnik to be a little boring. By contrast, young Misha found the games of Bobby Fischer to be exciting.

I asked Yuri Osipov how he felt watching his little boy cry that day, after he'd lost to Anatoly Karpov. Yuri said it surprised him. It was very unlike Misha to cry. After all, it wasn’t his first time losing a game. But after speaking with Misha after the show, he realized that his son had never played with an analog clock before, only digital. Misha didn’t know how to read the time on the clock and had no idea he was so short on time. When Misha’s clock ran out of time, it surprised him. “He was upset and cried because he didn’t understand why he lost,” Yuri said. “He cried because he didn’t understand that the time was over.”

My son isn’t as good at chess as Misha Osipov or Josh Waitzkin, but I still see Fred and Yuri as my brothers. Being a chess parent is full of moments like this one. As I sit and wait for Gus to return from a tournament game, where parents are wisely not allowed to sit and spectate, I grind my teeth and pace the floor. I wonder—If I can’t handle the pressure, if I’m this nervous, then how must he feel? And why do I put him through this? Could he possibly be enjoying this, or is he just doing it because he thinks it will please me?

Jerry Nash has been a tournament director at scholastic tournaments throughout the country. He sees kids crying all the time. So what? “My wife teaches elementary school. She’ll tell you, they cry in class, too.” More often than not, the children deal with losses against tougher opponents by getting excited, rather than discouraged, he tells me. This is how you can tell apart those who are right for the game and those who aren’t. “Sometimes the parent is the only one that’s nervous.”

In my case, it’s pretty much all the time. I stare at the door waiting for him to return, hoping to be able to read his facial expressions for a sense of whether he won or lost before he makes it down the hall so I can mentally prepare for my own reaction when he reaches me and gives me the news. With most kids it’s obvious. When they run back, they’ve won; when they shuffle, they’ve lost. Gus is more aloof. Sometimes he’ll make a few stops on his way back, talking to another kid or getting a drink of water, leaving me in tremendous suspense. I make it a point to never ask him, “Did you win?” as soon as he gets back, so as not to make him think his result is all that matters to me. Sometimes I’ll say, “That was a long one!” or “Did anything interesting happen in your game?” Sometimes this approach means he will forget to tell me his result, instead asking for a snack.

At his most recent tournament he had been on a tear, winning every game and looking like he was going to play his last round on the first board for first place. In the penultimate round he had been paired with the top-seeded player in the event, and before he went in to play he whispered to me, “If I win this, I might win the tournament.” He ran to the room to take his place at the board.

When he reappeared in the hallway, his usual aloofness had given way to obvious disappointment. The loser’s shuffle was on full display. My brain set to work to think of the right and good parental thing to say to him. When he finally made it back to our table, he sat down across from me and looked me in the eyes and said, “I lost.” He smiled. I could tell it was forced. “I know,” I said. “I’m still proud of you.” He kept his phony smile fixed on his face, but his eyes filled up fast and the tears began to gush. He ran over to my side of the table, and I held him tightly the way that parents do when their child is brokenhearted. I had never seen him cry over chess before. I contemplated telling him we could go home, that he could forfeit the last round if he wanted. But would that be right? Was there a greater lesson for him to learn by playing on in the face of defeat?

Before I could decide what to say they called his name for the final round, where he would no longer be playing for first place but instead be vying for fifth or sixth. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve, jumped out of my arms, and sprinted down the hall to take his place at the board.

For chess parents, there is no endgame. There are few opportunities in America for college scholarships for chess players, and almost all of them are snatched up by grandmasters from other countries. There is no way for most grandmasters to make a decent living as professionals, save for the very few at the top. The top five chess players in the world earn millions from tournaments, but the earnings fall sharply once you get outside of the top 10. For the vast majority of adult chess players who stay committed to their study and pursuit of the game, the only way to earn money at chess comes from doling out lessons and taking home a few hundred bucks from the occasional tournament. There is nothing glamorous about it. According to Nash, for many young players, their breaking point comes during the transition from elementary school to middle or high school, when students are offered more choices, like sports or band. Often it’s simply because most middle and high schools have no scholastic chess program for kids to participate in, leaving them to pursue the game on their own. Without a team, Nash says, “it becomes a solitary activity. Kids need a group to stay motivated.”

But once kids reach adolescence, their parents can no longer pretend that their chess prowess is evidence of their overall brilliance. Most parents I meet who want their young kids to learn chess (but don’t know how to play themselves) believe that the game is something smart kids do. And among younger players, under the age of 10 especially, they are all relative beginners. It’s easy for a kid to jump ahead hundreds of rating points in a short period of time. Wheat separates from the chaff quickly. But once that process is over, kids need to put in work to reach the next level. And if they don’t show the same improvement, they start losing, and when they struggle against tougher opponents, many parents wave the white flag and sign them up for youth soccer. Sometimes it isn’t the young chess player that burns out, it’s our parental delusions of grandeur that die instead.

Yuri Osipov seems more well adjusted. “I don’t have any personal aims or goals for him,” he tells me when I ask about his future plans for Misha. “I suppose he will continue to make decisions himself and continue his chess career, or devote himself to another science. He is interested in science, biology especially. He is fond of animals, birds, insects, plants.”

After Misha lost to Karpov and bawled his adorable eyes out on television, the video went viral. I found it on YouTube with my son while we scrolled through videos about the Philidor position in the endgame. It affected us both. Me because my heart broke for the little boy, calling out for his mama, confused and afraid. Gus because he felt jealous that such a little kid could get to play chess against a former World Champion. If Gus had been there, he assured me, he would not have cried.

“But would you have won?” I asked him.

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