When I was learning chess, my dad was a chess master, my brother was better than me, and I wondered at which age I would excel. My dad told me that 35 years old was the age most chess players peak. Well, that was in 1975, and in 2015 it seems most of the best players are around 20! In fact, 35 is ancient in today’s chess world. Gone are the days of world champions older than 50, like Wilhelm Steinitz and Emanuel Lasker.
How did this happen? A lot of people think computers and the internet are the cause of the youth movement in chess. U18 grandmasters (GM) are commonplace now, with America seeing the world’s youngest GM, Sam Sevian, earn his title just after his 14th birthday. And even more recently, Jeffery Xiong, a young Texas International Master, also earned the GM title (which will be confirmed by FIDE in the next month) at age 14! In fact, Jeffery won the very strong Chicago Open Memorial Day weekend, winning more than $10,000 ahead of over 30 grandmasters!
So the question is, what age should children learn to play and even enter competitions? I am often asked this question by parents. Although it varies from child to child, I think somewhere between the ages of 3 and 6 is normal. Ninety-nine percent of grandmasters learn the game before age 8. Of course, it’s not necessary that all young players become masters and grandmasters; enjoying the game and having fun is a good enough reason to play chess.
I taught my son Spencer, a national master, at the tender age of 1! In fact, when Grandmaster Gregory Kaidanov came to my home in 1993 to study chess, he played a game with Spencer - who had not yet had his second birthday - and Spencer played eight consecutive legal moves! Unfortunately, the chess pieces looked tasty, and the game ended when Spencer thought the best plan was to put the pieces in his mouth.
Of course, an age of 1 is quite early to learn chess, but in a kids’ chess class at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis a few years back, I did have a 2-year-old who came every week! He only knew how the pawns moved, but that was still better than some of the other children.
With so many ways to play chess now: School, internet, chess clubs, tournaments, chess camps, etc., it is easy to see why kids are learning at a much earlier age and getting good fast!
Two young players who may be playing for the World Championship in a decade or so are Russian Ilya Makoveev and Uzbek Nodirbek Abdusattorov. Abdusattorov is only 9 years old, and rated over 2400 FIDE - an amazing feat. He has already beaten two GMs in rated tournament play, and is the strongest 9-year-old ever. Makoveev recently turned 9 and has won European and World titles in his age group, often with a perfect score! Both players seem a lot better than other children their age and soon will need to play in adult-only events to find competition. And I thought I was good when I reached master level at age 14.
The most amazing player in the world right now - as far as young players are concerned - is 16-year-old Wei Yi of China. Yi is rated 30th in the world, and the only player rated over 2700 under the age of 20! Yi recently won the Chinese Championship - an amazing feat since China has more players rated over 2700 than any country in the world and are the reigning Olympiad Champions.
Will there be a World Champion under age 20 sometime in the next 10 years? Bet on it!