Developing Young Chess Masters: What are the Best Moves?

By Kenneth A. Kiewra, Ph.D. & Thomas O'Connor, Ph.D.
University of Nebraska - Lincoln

       Hikara Nakamura rocked the chess world in 1998 when he became the youngest chess master of all time at the tender age of 10. The legendary Bobby Fischer turned heads when he won the prestigious US Open at only age 14. How is such remarkable chess talent possible so young? After some youngsters born with chess talent or is their precocious talent the result of other factors? To find out, we interviewed the parents of six young chess masters. We asked them to describe the reasons why their children became so good so fast. In the end, we unraveled five common threads tethering these six youngsters to early chess mastery.

        All the young masters began playing chess at a relatively young age - between 3 and 9, but most were not born into "chess families". This is surprising because top performers, such as Mozart in music and Picasso in art, are often born into families already accomplished in the talent area. The young masters, thought, were just as likely to get their chess introduction in chess clubs or schools as in the home.

       Some parent believed their children were born with special gifts that allowed them to master chess at an early age. One parent commented "He's one of those fortunate individuals who had a certain amount of natural ability for the game... a natural flair for combinations... it's kind of God-given." Another remarked, "Chess came extremely natural to him. He's a critical thinker... and chess is just a natural place for him to show his talent."
       Parents' conclusion that chess talent is born is tempered - perhaps negated - by evidence that chess mastery occurred only after considerable practice over a long period of time. These youngsters, on average, practiced chess about 20 hours per week for eight years before attaining master status. Even if they were born with incredible gifts, it still required about 8,000 practice hours to realize those gifts.
       Just how do the young masters practice? All have studied with expert coaches and rely heavily on the computer to examine chess databases and play practice games. One parent attributed his son's meteoric rise to internet chess: "In the last two years he's gone up almost 1100 rating points (because) he really started playing on the internet. I know a lot of people don't think that's good for you, but that's what made him better." Chess columnist Shelby Lyman writes: "What distinguishes these youngsters from those born... earlier is the advanced computer-enriched chess culture that has surrounded them from their earliest years."

       All the young chess masters have been coached by titled players and most began regular instruction of one or two hours per week soon after learning the game. One player began formal instruction with a master at age 4. Another has had the same coach - an International Master - since age 6. A third studied with an International Master between ages 6 - 14, then began lessons with a Grandmaster. Two young masters have experienced more limited and inconsistent instruction and were not presently working with coaches because of the shortage of qualified coaches in their vicinity. These two players draw heavily on computers and books to supplant coaching. The shortage of nearby coaches is a problem that another player overcomes by arranging telephone lessons with a coach living across the country.

       With one exception, the young masters were focused on chess to the near exclusion of other interests and activities. One parent remarked, "The extra-ordinary amount of time he puts toward [chess] takes him out of a lot of fun and games. The kid gives up an enormous amount to dedicate himself to the sport." Another parent commented, "He is sort of one dimensional. He doesn't do much outside of chess. [Chess is all] he's done since he was a youngster. He just lives and breathes chess."
       The players' commitment to chess leaves little time for other activities. For instance, the young masters watch less than one hour of television a day - and some watch none - while the national average is four. Their social interactions with peers are often minimized too because of chess. "He doesn't do much outside of school socially - very, very little actually," one parent commented. Another reported that social relations were fine, but the child preferred to be alone studying chess. Another explained "Chess is a bit reclusive if you're just using a computer and not interacting with people. Maybe that's a downside to chess."
       School achievement was mixed among the young masters. Three of them perform excellently in school. The others perform at average or below average levels. Not surprisingly, the two players who spend the least amount of time on chess perform the best in school, while the two who spend the most time on chess perform the worst. We asked all parent why their children were so committed to chess and got one common answer: They love it. One parent said "He is passionate about it... just thrilled by it." Another remarked "He loves it. He loves it. I don't know why. This is the thing he loves." A third parent added, "He loves the game. It's [that]simple. He said to me just last night 'I love this game. I just love it.'"

       The families too have made remarkable commitments to fostering the young chess masters' talents. Parents have assumed the roles of manager, financier, and counselor. Parents are busy managers spending many hours arranging lessons, planning travel arrangements, and accessing materials. Some also organize chess clubs and arrange matches with other top players to widen chess opportunities. One parent summed up the management role parents play. "My son calls me his agent. That's kind of what I feel like. I do all the planning and everything else and he gets on the plane or in the car and we go."
       These chess parents also pay a heavy financial price to develop their children's chess talents. Most spend about $5,000 - $10,000 annually on lessons, tournament registrations, travel, and materials. Despite the players' success and notoriety, none of them receive sponsorship outside the family to offset costs.
       Parents also play a counselor role offering emotional support when needed. One parent remarked, "I don't advise [on chess]. There's no advice I can give him really... I guide him emotionally." Another parent remarked, "I don't understand the game very well... but I understand the psyche of winning and losing and pressure... I just try to keep him upbeat [at tournaments] and let him know I'm there for him... They are just young kids and they need a lot of support."
       When we asked parents why they spent so much time, money , and energy helping their youngsters attain chess master, their answers were simple: They love their children and they enjoy their helping roles. One parent said "... because he's my son and I love him and want him to be whatever he can be. And if it happens to be chess... then that's what I want for him. I want him to be happy." Another added, "... because he is my son and my job is to shepherd him until he can stand on his own two feet. And, I love his chess too."

       What are the best moves, then, for becoming a young chess master? First, recognize that young chess masters are a rarity. There were just eight in the US, age 16 or below, when we conducted our study. Second, recognize that young chess masters are made not born. Even those born with keen intellectual traits required thousands of practice hour over many years to attain mastery. Early mastery, we believe, hinges on extraordinary player and family commitment. The best moves stem naturally from these commitments.
       Committed players practice chess religiously - often with top coaches and computers - for many years, often sacrificing other even routine interests. Committed families arrange and finance the torrent of chess activities while providing unwavering support and guidance. The child's commitment is fueled by a love for the game; the parents' by a love for the child.
       While the moves necessary to reach chess mastery are supremely difficult, there is nothing tricky about them. They are playable moves for those children and families who commit to chess mastery.