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How to Spot Top Talent: Greg on Chess Print E-mail
By IM Greg Shahade   
February 9, 2014
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Jeffrey Xiong at the recent Bay Area International
I have now organized 23 United States Chess School programs. I have worked with over one hundred of the most talented young chess players in the country over the past seven years. I have seen them study, solve puzzles, answer questions, play training games, and have fun with their peers during our week long training sessions. 

There is one very reliable sign to how much potential and how strong a young chess player is or is going to be, and it’s probably not what most people would think. 

It’s not how quickly a student solves tactics or sees combinations (although these two things always seem to be correlated with the main point of this article). It’s not the student’s positional understanding. It’s not even how much they claim to study chess.

Instead it is “How likely is this student to recognize a famous game/position and know the players involved?” 

 Do they know that it’s Capablanca vs Botvinnik in the AVRO tournament or Fischer vs Petrosian or Karpov vs Unzicker? 

I think that if you gave a quiz of 100 famous chess positions and simply asked children “Who was playing this game?”, and didn’t ask what moves should be played or anything chess related other than historical/biographical information, the players who performed the best at this test would end up being the strongest players ten years later. 

We even see some evidence of this at the very highest level. In a documentary about Magnus Carlsen's preparation for the World Championship, one scene showed him identifying famous positions and tournaments with fellow Norweigian GM Jon Ludwig Hammer. 

Why is this true? Shouldn’t it be that simply solving tactics, finding the right ideas in positions, should be just fine in today’s computer age of chess? I don’t think so. It’s indisputable that while lots of our top young players love chess, not all of them love studying chess. Quite a few of them are probably pushed by parents to study just a little bit more than they’d want to on their own. 

Yet some very special kids just want to soak up everything about chess. To them, it is very important to know about the Winter vs Capablanca game, and white’s bad bishop.

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It’s very important to know about Spassky vs Fischer and the crazy pawn grab from Game 1 of the World Championship.

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They will not forget this information, because they love chess so much that it is much more meaningful to them. When a child cares that much about chess, they work harder and with more consistency.    

If a 1900 rated 9-10 year old seems to recognize every game and position that I show this probably means they are going to be exceptionally strong chess player. It may not be because at that moment they are stronger than everyone else their age, but it’s because they feel the need to know and retain this information. Their bond with chess is so powerful, that they know who the player “Motweli” is, or what the famous move was from Averbakh vs Spassky, without even seeing the position. They care much more than other kids do.

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GM Daniel Naroditsky at the STL Chess Club

How can parents use these patterns and information to help their children? Asking your kids to memorize these names and games is no good, because that is not what is happening in these cases. These super talented kids were not asked to memorize information. It was internal motivation. You cannot make a kid care about chess so much that they want to sit and read Kasparov’s Great Predecessors in their spare time. Forcing or coaxing them to do so will never have the same effect.
If it’s important to the child to know the exact order of the World Champions, this is a very good sign. If you simply tell them a move, and ask them from what game it’s from, such as:

Karpov v Unzicker (after Ba7!) 
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Lewitsky v Marshall after ...Qg3!
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Then you know you have a real talent on your hand. In the past years, the number of children who know random famous positions and examples has risen by a significant degree. I showed a position from the game Cohn vs Rubinstein, and multiple students recognized it in my last chess camp (probably from Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, a great book!). The proliferation of study material on the Internet has helped a lot. In my last camp I overheard some students talking about Gregory Serper’s latest column on chess.com because one of the positions I set up was mentioned in this column. Then they started debating which of his articles were best. 

Children are soaking up and taking in information at a faster rate than ever before. There is information out there on the Internet that’s  fun and easy to read. There are tactics trainer programs that the top children are nearly obsessed with. 

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IM Sam Sevian
The deeper and more obsessive the curiosity a child has about chess, the more likely it is that they will one day be playing in the U.S. Championship. This has shown itself to be true for the first 5 years of the camp, as Ray Robson, Daniel Naroditsky, Jeffery Xiong and Sam Sevian (as a few examples), all excelled in their general chess knowledge of random facts and positions. Often they would recognize both the players and the tournament, and you’d see other children, and even the coaches, look at them with an expression that said, “wow, why do you know that?”  

 
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