ART & CULTURE
14-YEAR-OLD CHESS PRODIGY
DANIEL NARODITSKY’S GOT GAME.
Daniel Naroditsky is a difficult guy to get a
“He’s currently travelling in
Europe,” his father informs me over the phone, before clarifying
that he’ll be returning home to the San Francisco Bay Area for only
a short stint. I book the earliest appointment and am set to speak
with Daniel as soon as his plane touches down from Budapest.
In the meantime, I settle down with his
book, Mastering Positional Chess. It is like trying to read about an
Enigma machine, the text punctuated by weird symbols and codes.
Phrases like the “Berlin Wall Variation” and “Bishop Sacrifice”
are scattered throughout. To me, it all seems like an encrypted
hitman assignment. I mean, “sacrificing a bishop?” Are we talking
about bumping off a member of the Catholic clergy here?
Just to be clear, the Daniel Naroditsky
I am talking about is, at 14, the youngest published chess author in
history. He is, in fact, one of those kids who occasionally has a
movie made about his early life: he is a chess prodigy.
To clarify even further, I have always
found chess fascinating, even though I have never actually played the
game. I mean, let’s face it, to play it well requires great
intellectual prowess. Sure, it’s been labelled the game of choice
for dweebs, geeks, nerds and spazzes, but those labels were probably
started by folks insecure with their own IQ. Those who are in the
know understand that the world’s greatest board game is the game of
After all, even director Guy Ritchie –
royalty of British celluloid cool – is obsessed with chess.
Ritchie’s ex, Madonna, is game too. Add to this mix chess fiends
like Will Smith, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bono and pretty boy Jude Law,
and you’ve got yourself a nice little clique. So, hell, if the
“lame game” is good enough for them, I say bugger off,
However, if celebrity endorsements
aren’t enough to sway you, consider this: our prodigy Daniel
Naroditsky gets to jet set all over the world. There are few good
opportunities to play in America so he travels abroad to compete in
tournaments reserved for the best of the best. But for Daniel, who’s
been on the All-American Team five years in a row, it’s not so much
the place but the players. The stronger the opponents, the better he
gets. And Europe is ground-zero for chess geniuses. The best player
on the planet is 19-year-old Norwegian wunderkind Magnus Carlsen.
Daniel travels like a rock star but
works like a pro: tournaments are a psychological grind. There are
usually two games per day, each one lasting about four hours. (And
yes, bathroom breaks are allowed.) Daniel studies his opponents and
uses their weaknesses to his advantage.
“A strong player can anticipate an
opponent in almost any position,” he tells me, adding that he can
foresee as many as seven moves. The masters, or “the big of the
bigs,” as he calls them, can stop an opponent in their tracks.
Grandmasters can see up to 10 moves into the future.
Besides playing up to eight hours a day
at weekend tournaments, Daniel has two-hour training sessions twice
weekly via the internet with his coach (who lives abroad), and he
studies classic chess games for three hours a day (sometimes twice
that). When travelling, his entourage consists of his mother,
Lena, who accompanies him on trips to Europe, and father Vladimir who
travels with him on long weekends.
“He’s like a professional athlete,”
explains Vladimir, who introduced Daniel to chess at six-and-a-half
so that he would have an “intellectually stimulating” game
Chess has been played for generations
in Daniel’s family, but his quick grasp of the game nevertheless
came as a shocker. According to his parents, it took only a few
months for him to learn the rules, and soon after he
was playing in his first tournament. He won all five games and
quickly progressed to playing with adults. In 2007, in Turkey, Daniel
was crowned World Youth Chess Champion (Under-12 Boys category) after
beating a whiz kid from Russia in only 27 moves.
“As soon as I was introduced to
chess, I felt a connection between me and the board,” Daniel
His hero Garry Kasparov became, at age
22, the youngest undisputed World Chess Champion in 1985. (A couple
decades later he ran in the Russian presidential election. Yes, chess
has a completely different level of respect in good old Russia.)
Daniel calls Kasparov “the greatest player to have ever played
Kasparov is one of the big of the bigs
– a chess Grandmaster. At Daniel’s present rate, he expects to
reach that status in three or four years. To me, a Grandmaster sounds
like a character straight out of Harry Potter. When I ask if
Grandmasters are given a special flying cloak or magic ring, Daniel
tells me that, unfortunately, no, but the prospect sounds very
interesting. He does reveal, however, that for him chess is a war.
“It’s an endless battle and there
are never-ending possibilities on every move,” he enthuses, while
adding, “It’s a bloodless war.”
So, cloak or no cloak, after a few days
at home, Daniel Naroditsky will fly off to wage another bloodless
campaign and I’ll be at home trying to make sense of all the
hieroglyphics in his book.
Words by: FILIP TERLECKI
Illustration by: SIMON LÉVEILLÉ