Bobby Fischer was the youngest-ever American Grandmaster, a title that took him 15 years, 6 months and 1 day to collect. That is, until Hikaru Nakamura came along, besting Bobby by three months and earning the title as the new youngest-ever American GM.
That is, until Ray Robson came along, notching his elite title two weeks before he turned 15.
Fischer held his youngest-ever title for 45 years until Nakamura broke it in 2003 -- and then Nakamura was only able to hold it for six. And now, the youngest-ever title seems ready to slip even quicker from Robson’s grasp, as Sam Sevian -- at 13 years, 6 months and 19 days old -- dances tantalizingly close to a new GM salutation, just one performance norm away.
And behind Sevian? Take your pick. These days, the bottom seems to be falling out on how early we’re exposing our children to chess, and the World Chess Hall of Fame is taking it all the way to the floor.
“We looked at the programs we and the Chess Club offered, and saw that they were all aimed at kids 5 or older,” said Claire Grothe, program manager of the WCHOF. “We wanted to reach out to that younger audience, to start teaching skills that are crucial to early physical and cognitive development in general, but ones that also develop foundational chess knowledge. Things like shapes, colors and patterns, as well as symbols that are common to the chess board and also familiar to small children.
“We’ve all heard stories about kings, queens, knights and castles -- why not tap into those timeless symbols and use them as a means of getting young kids interested in chess?”
Enter Jessica Leonard, a Saint Louis University professor of early childhood curriculum and instruction, who collaborated with the WCHOF to design and run a summer series aimed at setting the framework for brighter, younger minds. “ROOKie Readers” is an early literacy program designed for children aged 2-5 and their caregivers, while “Breakfasts with Baby” has been exposing future chess stars right from birth.
Sub-5-years-old is a peculiar age to explore any educational plane, especially one in a subject as delicately complex as chess -- how can we possibly teach the benefits of attacking two pieces at once, when a fork is “something we don’t play with” until the age of 4? Leonard is the first to admit the classes aren’t designed with checkmate in mind.
“I could try and teach them strategy, but obviously they wouldn’t comprehend it,” Leonard said. “This is geared toward the development side, what children can be exposed to at an early age. We can start to create those familiarities when we talk about kings and dragons and squares and colors; the basis is just getting them in early and exposed to the whole aspect.
“Once they get into Kindergarten and that real school setting, that’s when chess really starts around St. Louis, where they’ll learn the rules and positions of it. But until then, my lease is that you get them in early, in a good strong program, and keep developing.”
Leonard says the hour-long sessions are loose and exploratory, with each week focusing on a different area of creative and cognitive development. Start With Art, Move and Groove, Building Brainpower and Baby Talk have been themes; each with planned semi-structured activities, like storytime and art projects, but also including side activities where parents and children can socialize and play informally.
And the WCHOF provides an appropriate setting for budding curiosity, currently showcasing the Michael Graves Design collection of games as an exhibit, home to the ever-climbable World’s Largest Chess Piece -- as well as the young-fan-favorite oversized chess set. Just try to keep your kid from hugging a chess piece.
The classes began weekly on Tuesdays in May and will run through September, and Grothe says the WCHOF plans to continue them year ‘round. Each class is limited to 12 child/adult pairs, with advanced registration recommended.
“We’ve been really excited with the results so far, seeing families return week after week,” Grothe said. “One of the strengths of the program is that (Leonard) has designed it to be highly flexible, which is great in that it allows families with small children to get out of the house and into a new environment -- but with no pressure to complete a specific activity. You can create your own experience.”
Just like in chess.
Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.