5 Incredible Chess Prodigies You’ve Never Heard Of
Morphy. Capablanca. Fischer. Most chess fans know these legendary names. Other young players, like GM Abhimanyu Mishra or ChessChild FM Tani Adewumi, are known to chess fans right now and we’re waiting to see how good they will become. And with the 2022 Junior Speed Chess Championship presented by SIG underway, chess fans will be able to watch many of these prodigies.
But who were lesser-known chess prodigies whose exploits were nearly lost to time? Read on, then don’t forget to share what you’ve learned with your family and friends!
You may know FM Jeff Sarwer best as “Jonathan Poe” from the movie Finding Bobby Fischer as future MI Josh Waitzkin’s opponent in the climactic scene. Besides the fact that Sarwer played Waitzkin in the final Primary Championship game of 1986, the film took several liberties. This changed his name, understandably. But for narrative purposes, they also changed the outcome of their game and their tournament and made Jonathan a very intense character.
One thing the two had in common in real life: Like Waitzkin, Sarwer was a student of NM Bruce Pandolfini. the year before the movie tournament, Jeff actually beat the elder Josh:
Another thing is true about Jeff Sarwer: his upbringing was unusual, even by the standards of chess prodigies. Sarwer was world under-10 champion when he was just eight years old, but he didn’t play chess for about 20 years, from about 10 to 30.
Like he said card player magazine in 2010, “My dad taking chess away from me was one of the worst things that happened to me growing up. As usual, he had his own issues that took over my chess career .” That same year he said WGM Jennifer Shahade at US Chess, “Our father was…our alternate culture, a culture that may have been abusive but that we understood.” The ‘our’ is Jeff and his sister Julia, who was an excellent young player in her own right – the year Jeff was Under 10 champion, Julia won the same title in the girls’ category.
Jeff Sarwer reemerged in 2007 and eventually became a FIDE Master in 2015. With that kind of success, despite 20 years without competitive failures, including the all-important teenage years, it’s really unclear how much he could have become good with an unbroken childhood career. . He also turned out to be an excellent poker player.
GM Tal Shaked (pronounced shah-KED) was actually born in the same year as Sarwer, 1978, making them both younger than the more famous Waitzkin (born December 1976). Nobody made a movie about Shaked, though he eventually became the only one of the three to win the Grandmaster title.
Shaked didn’t start playing until age seven, but was the 1987 U.S. Primary Champion at age nine (right after Waitzkin and Sarwer shared the title in ’86) and a USCF Master at 14. From there, Shaked became the 1997 World Junior Champion, the last American to do so until GM Jeffrey Xiong in 2016.
Later in 1997, Shaked was invited to a major chess tournament, Tilburg Fontys, with such established stars as GM Garry Kasparov and GM Vladimir Kramnik. Against Kasparov, Shaked trapped his queen and quit on the 20th move, but still. The 1990s version of Garry almost never played anyone 15 years younger than him outside of simultaneous exposure, so being in the same field was in itself a sign of Shaked’s quality.
Shaked left professional chess at age 21 to study computer science at the University of Arizona, and his decision paid off. He spent most of his adult life as a top engineer for Google, a company you may have heard of.
If you have heard of GM Parimarjan Negi, it may be through his excellent and popular books on 1.e4 openings in the Directory of the great masters series rather than his playing career. But Negi won the GM title at age 13 in 2006, making him the second-youngest grandmaster at the time. He is always the seventh youngest of all time as of April 2022.
India is a place that produces a lot of young chess talent. In the 2022 JSCC only, there are GMs Nihal Sarin, Arjun Erigaisi, Raunak Sadhwani and Praggnanandhaa R. Average age: 17 (in an event where 20s are eligible). Legendary GM Viswanathan Anand, for his part, secured his title at 19 and, of course, later became the country’s first undisputed world champion in 2007. And of them all, Negi was the first to achieve the big teacher before the age of 14.
Despite his huge early success, Negi has only played one chess event since 2017. Like Shaked, Negi has found IT to be a more viable career option. It’s no secret that making a living solely from chess requires becoming absurdly good, otherwise secondary skills are needed (which can always be chess-related, such as streaming or coaching). There are, for example, probably more starting quarterbacks in the NFL than there are people who live by playing chess alone. So when you can become a PhD student at MIT (yes, that MIT), you take it.
Negi was profiled in chess life in 2017 (also picked up here by ChessBase India) as well as other names you may have heard of: GM Robert Hess and GM Daniel Naroditsky, as well as GM Darwin Yang. In the play, he further explains his decision to quit professional chess.
It’s not fair to call her Polgar’s “forgotten” sister, but it’s true that of the three, Sofia stayed in chess the shortest time, largely retiring in 2002, and in the meantime” settled” (in giant fear quotes) for the title of international master instead of grandmaster like her older sister Susan and her younger sister Juditthe latter became by far the highest rated female chess player of all time.
All three helped lead a Hungarian women’s under-20 team at the 1988 Chess Olympiad (which also included WGM Ildiko Madl) to a half-point win over the GM-led Soviet team Maia Chiburdanidze who had won the event 10 of the last 11 times. Two years later, the Soviets brought their other best woman into the fold, GM Nona Gaprindashvili, but the Hungarian team won again. During this 1990 Olympiad, Sofia scored 11.5/13 on third board.
Between these Olympiads, Polgar won a victory known as the “Sack of Rome”, which is by far his best-known achievement. Polgar won a tournament in Rome in 1989 with a score of 8.5/9. Not only was it near perfect, but it was a solid tournament with several Soviet grandmasters. As Polgar writes on his site:
The first two matches were against lower rated players and then in the third round I faced Palatnik, a powerful Soviet GM. He was my first “victim”, followed by Grand Masters Chernin, Suba and Razuvaev. Dolmatov was the one who “saved the honors” in the last round by playing the only draw against me in the tournament.
For some IMs, beating a grandmaster in a tournament makes the event a success. Defeating several without a single defeat makes this one of the greatest lesser-known achievements in chess history.
Nobody knows what happened to this precocious youngster from Arizona, who actually broke a record once held by Shaked as Arizona’s youngest national master, and was also once the highest-rated junior player in the United States. He managed to become an international master in 2009, but his chess didn’t progress much from there. The last I heard, he had turned to obscure business ventures.
Ok, of course we’re kidding. I love you, Danny!
Romanian-American Gabriel Schwartzman was FM at 12, IM at 15, and GM at 17 in 1993, all a fairly typical career progression for a young chess talent. Back then, you could count on your own hands how many players had been grandmasters by age 17. These days, you would need a lot of people’s hands. In a pattern that should be recognizable by now, Schwartzman quickly changed professions. In his case, he did it in his mid-twenties.
FM Jorge Sammour-Hasbun was born in 1979 and earned his FIDE Master title in 1988, making him the youngest at the time. Imagine playing a game like this at any age, let alone 12:
William Napier was one of the few teenage players to stand up to the masters at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, and in 1897, at the age of 16, he beat Wilhelm Steinitz in a tournament match. Chess historian Edward Winter shouted Napier and several other prodigies from longer ago here.
Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” started playing just as this conclusion was being written. It was about love and trust and stuff or whatever, but the title is an apt description of both failures and growth. Be good at chess while growing up can only be harder, except for the part where you easily beat all your peers in the game.
But at some point, the competition gets tougher. For example, in the Junior Speed Chess Championship.
Watch the main event of JSCC 2022 presented by SIG and ChessKid, featuring two-time champion Nihal and 15 young challengers hoping to take his throne every Monday, Thursday and Friday starting April 11!