Wednesday, May 02, 2012

What it's like to be a chess prodigy

What it's like to be a chess prodigy
By Byron Kerman

When Ray Robson was 3 years old, he learned how to play chess. When he was 6, he entered his first tournament. And when he was 14, he became the youngest American ever to earn the title of grandmaster. The prodigy is now age 17, ranked eighth in the nation, and headed to St. Louis to compete in this month’s U.S. Chess Championship, May 7 through 21 at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He’ll be returning this fall to enroll in Webster University’s new Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence.

• I’ve been playing against people older than me for so long, I’ve just gotten used to it. At first, I played against kids my own age, and later, I played against adults. [The latter] was intimidating at first, but pretty quickly, it became completely normal.

• All my opponents know it doesn’t matter how old you are, just how good of a chess player you are.

• One way I prepare for tournaments is I look up my opponents' games that they've played before at online databases and see what they played before in different games, and prepare against different lines [of attack and defense]. Also I'll do some general prep for myself—I'll probably do some chess problems, which are positions where you have to to find the best move.

• Seeing a number of moves into the future is important. When I was young, I did a lot of tactics—those are calculating sequences that lead to one side winning a piece, gaining some other kind of advantage, or checkmating the opponent. I got better at tactics and at calculating, and now I can play blindfolded chess, just for fun, and see the whole game in my head.

• There are so many things that you can learn and use to improve in chess books, and everybody learns them, so one of the things that separates people is their natural creativity and finding new ideas over the board.

• I'm kind of an aggressive player. Some are more attacking, and some are more "positional," quieter. Some players are good at both.

• I would say I'm not always fully concentrating when it's not my turn to make a move. Sometimes I look at other people's games or just rest. But when I'm at my best, I'm concentrating the whole game.

• On average, a normal game is between three and four hours, but I’ve had longer games. Most tournaments have two games a day, and that can definitely take a lot out of you. At the end of long, hard tournaments, I’m pretty tired.

• Sometimes in a tournament I play against my former coaches. Two of my former coaches will be at the U.S. Chess Championships this year. I've played against them before, so I'm kind of used to it. It's always tough. I haven’t done so well against my coaches so far. Maybe they know me better than others.

• I’ve done maybe 10 or 12 exhibition games where I play against 20 to 30 people at the same time. I haven’t lost on any of those boards yet, but I’m the favorite; I’m expected to win those games.

• The biggest reward of my life in chess is getting to play chess, which I really enjoy, and being able to travel so much, too. Once you get to a certain level, you play in strong tournaments outside the U.S., and I've gotten to travel all around the world. The biggest challenge in chess for me has been coming back from 2010, which was a bad year for me. Coming back from disappointment and starting to play well again has been a challenge.

• Beginners need to learn the fundamentals. There are lots of good books that teach you how to improve. Controlling the center, bringing your pieces out, and castling for safety. Tactics are really important for beginning players. At that level, most games are decided by blunders.

• A lot of my friends are chess players, people I've played against. Some people think you have to be enemies with your opponents, but that hasn't been the case with me—there's no one I dislike, so it would be pretty hard for me to be enemies with anyone.

• It’s not like I’m a basketball player, or playing any other sport. But one time in New York, someone did recognize me at a restaurant—it was one of the waiters. He must have been a chess player.


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