Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Prodigy In My Family?

Levy at a chess tournament
As a working mom, I had to enroll my older son in an after-school care program when he’d entered kindergarten. The program charged $7 for the unstructured afternoon time per day, and $10 for the enrichment option. I signed him up for painting because he loved to draw and chess because every person in my family played it, moi included. No one was particularly hopeful he’d grasp the concept – up to that point, my father’s attempts to teach him the basic principles failed miserably. Levy simply didn’t have the patience to stay in one place for more than a minute. Levy’s father said he’d do much better in gymnastics, but that class was already full. 

I figured Levy would learn the pieces’ names, some moves, and we’d call it a start.
My Size Trophy!

Whether it was the right moment, the right setting, or the right teacher, but the game took. Within months, Levy learned not just the moves, but strategy and tactics. When he started consistently beating every kid in his section, we took him to a children’s tournament hosted by Susan Polgar at her New York chess club (she was the Women's World Chess Champion from 1996 until 1999) – and he won first prize. 

In Russia, chess is as much of a favorite past time as baseball is in America. If you didn’t learn from your parents, you picked it up from your cousins or the elders on the park benches. Schools hosted tournaments, and social clubs sponsored competitions. Coaches scavenged students’ organizations for talent for their teams. Being a chess player was an honor. It meant you were smart.

Depending on the sources, chess arrived in Russia around the 10th century by way of Baghdad, the Byzantine, or perhaps even the Vikings (see Supriya’s post on its history). Around 1262, it received a name: shakhmaty (checkmate). Supposedly, it was banned in 1550s by Ivan the Terrible for unclear reasons. The first chess book published in Russia was a translation of Benjamin Franklin's Morals of Chess. Then, in 1824, Alexander Petrov, who had held the title of the best Russian player for over half a century, wrote  A Systemized Game of Chess. In 1886, St. Petersburg held a telegraph match against London – and won. 

Infamous for their asinine judgment, the Bolsheviks were precipitous to dub the game as a "decadent bourgeois past time." Yet the ban was short-lived: the tradition had long roots and numerous enthusiasts, including the proponents of the new regime. When Chess Master Ossip Bernstein was arrested for being a bankers’ adviser and ordered shot by a firing squad, a Bolshevik’s officer recognized and released him. A similar story happened to the famous Alexander Alekhine who was awaiting his fate in a death cell in Odessa for alleged spying, when the Commissars’ Council received a petition from his fans, and set him free. The Commissars made the right decision: in 1927, Alekhine became the fourth World Chess Champion by defeating Casablanca. By that time, the socialist state counted 140,000 registered chess players. When the Fédération Internationale des Échecs – World Chess Federation (FIDE) created the Grandmaster title in in 1950, 11 of the 27 first grandmasters hailed from the Soviet Union.

The 1980s brought the world the unforgettable battles of Karpov-Kasparov. 

Garry Kasparov and Levy's team

Anatoliy Karpov learned to play chess at the age of four and became a Soviet National Master at fifteen - the youngest in history. Garry Kasparov, a half Jewish, half Armenian Soviet prodigy, began studying chess seriously after he nonchalantly proposed a solution to a chess problem debated by his parents. Karpov had been enjoying his ten-year world championship tenure when Kasparov challenged the title in 1984. A long and hard battle, it became the one and only world match to be abandoned without result because neither player could score enough points for a win. A year later, using a Sicilian defense while playing black in the 24th game, Kasparov became the youngest world champion at age 22. 

The laurels of the world championship come hard, but as a favorite hobby, chess can be motivating and addictive, although no victories come easy. Chess skills take a lot of studying and patience– books, lessons, private coaching. Most importantly, it takes perseverance. 

At age 10, Levy won the State Chess Championship and two years later became the second place player in the country for his age group. Alas, the triumph didn’t last long – his teenage angsts kicked in and he dropped out of the race. Three years later, on a whim, he decided it was time to come back, and within six months, earned the title of the National Master. 

Will I ever see his name in the list of World Champions contestants? I think he has the talent. I don’t know if he’s got the necessary level of obsession. Neither do I think that a fanatical fixation on 64 squares and 32 black and white pieces is healthy either. But I hope he will make an International Master one day. It would be cool to have one in the family.
Kasparov's chess books... autographed!!!

1 comment:

  1. I have had the pleasure of befriending this wonderful and hospitable young man. Levy is a gracious, kindhearted and amiable guy! Always good for supplying a laugh or two, his company is very much appreciated. I wish the very best for this talented hooligan!