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5 Amazing Chess Prodigies You've Never Heard Of

5 Amazing Chess Prodigies You've Never Heard Of

NathanielGreen
| 24 | Chess Players

Morphy. Capablanca. Fischer. Most chess fans know these legendary names. Other young players, like GM Abhimanyu Mishra or ChessKid FM Tani Adewumi, are known to chess fans right now and we await to see just how good they will become. And with the 2022 Junior Speed Chess Championship presented by SIG underway, chess fans will get to watch many of these prodigies. 

Whether you or your child is the next big chess talent or just enjoys the game and its benefits, ChessKid is the #1 place for kids to learn & play chess! Register today at ChessKid.com!
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But who have been some lesser-known top chess prodigies whose exploits have nearly been lost to the sands of time? Read on, and then don't forget to share what you've learned with your family and friends!


Jeff Sarwer

You may know FM Jeff Sarwer better as "Jonathan Poe" from the film Searching For Bobby Fischer as future IM Josh Waitzkin's opponent in the climactic scene. Other than the fact that Sarwer played Waitzkin in the final game of the 1986 Primary Championship, the movie took several liberties. It modified his name, understandably. But for narrative purposes, they also changed the result of their game and tournament and made Jonathan into a very intense character.

One thing the two had in common in real life: like Waitzkin, Sarwer was a student of NM Bruce Pandolfini. The year before the tournament from the movie, Jeff in fact beat the older Josh:

Another thing that is true about Jeff Sarwer: his upbringing was unusual, even by chess prodigy standards. Sarwer was the World Under-10 Champion when he was just eight, but he played no chess for about 20 years from roughly ages 10 to 30. 

As he told Card Player magazine in 2010, "My dad taking me away from chess was one of the worst things that happened to me in my childhood. As usual, he had his own issues which took precedence over my chess career." That same year he told WGM Jennifer Shahade at U.S. Chess, "Our dad was... our alternative culture, one that may have been abusive but one that we understood." The "our" is Jeff and his sister Julia, who was a great young player in her own right—the year Jeff was under-10 champion, Julia won the same title for girls.

Jeff Sarwer reemerged in 2007 and eventually became a FIDE Master in 2015. With that kind of success, despite 20 years of no competitive chess including the extremely important teenage years, there really is no telling how good he could have become with an uninterrupted childhood career. He turned out to be an excellent poker player as well. 

Tal Shaked

GM Tal Shaked (pronounced shah-KED) was actually born the same year as Sarwer, 1978, making both of them younger than the more famous Waitzkin (born in December 1976). No one made a movie about Shaked, even though he eventually became the only one of the three to achieve the grandmaster title.

Shaked didn't start playing until he was seven but was the 1987 U.S. Primary Champion at nine years old (just after Waitzkin and Sarwer shared the title in '86) and a USCF master by age 14. From there Shaked went on to become the 1997 World Junior Champion, the last American to do so until GM Jeffery Xiong in 2016.

Later in '97 Shaked was invited to a major chess tournament, Tilburg Fontys, along with established stars like GM Garry Kasparov and GM Vladimir Kramnik. Against Kasparov, Shaked got his queen trapped and resigned on move 20, but still. The 1990s version of Garry almost never played someone 15 years younger than him outside of a simultaneous exhibition, so being in the same field was itself a sign of just how good Shaked was.

Shaked left professional chess at 21 years old to study computer science at the University of Arizona, and his decision paid off. He's spent most of his adult life as a top engineer for Google, a company you may have heard of.

Parimarjan Negi

If you have heard of GM Parimarjan Negi, it's possible that's from his excellent and popular books on 1.e4 openings in the Grandmaster Repertoire series rather than his playing career. But Negi achieved the GM title at age 13 in 2006, which made him the second-youngest grandmaster ever at the time. He's still the seventh-youngest ever as of April 2022.

India is a place that produces a lot of young chess talent. In just the 2022 JSCC, there are GMs Nihal Sarin, Arjun Erigaisi, Raunak Sadhwani, and Praggnanandhaa R. Average age: 17 (in an event where 20-year-olds are eligible). The legendary GM Viswanathan Anand, for his part, earned his title at 19 and, of course, later became the country's first undisputed world champion in 2007. And of all of them, Negi was the first to reach grandmaster before age 14. 

Chess.com Prodigies Parimarjan Negi
Negi in a more chess-active time. Photo: Peter Doggers/Chess.com.

Despite his tremendous early success, Negi has only played one chess event since 2017. Like Shaked, Negi found computer science to be a more viable career option. It's no secret that making a living on chess alone requires getting absurdly good, otherwise secondary skills are needed (which can still be chess-related, like streaming or coaching). There are, as just one example, probably more starting quarterbacks in the NFL than there are people who make a living purely from playing chess. So when you can become a PhD student at MIT (yes, that MIT), you take it.

Negi was profiled in Chess Life in 2017 (also picked up here by ChessBase India) along with some other names you might have heard of: GM Robert Hess and GM Daniel Naroditsky, as well as GM Darwin Yang. In the piece he explains more about his decision to leave pro chess.

Sofia Polgar

It's not fair to call her the "forgotten" Polgar sister, but it is true that of the three of them, Sofia stayed with chess the least amount of time, largely retiring by 2002, and in the meantime "settled" (in giant scare quotes) for the international master title instead of grandmaster like her older sister Susan and younger sister Judit, the latter of whom became by far the highest-rated female chess player ever.

All three of them helped lead an all-under-20 Hungarian women's team at the 1988 Chess Olympiad (which also included WGM Ildiko Madl) to a half-point win over the GM Maia Chiburdanidze-led Soviet team that had won the event 10 of the past 11 times. Two years later, the Soviets brought their other top woman into the fold, GM Nona Gaprindashvili, but the Hungarian team won again. In that 1990 Olympiad, Sofia scored 11.5/13 on board three.

Judit Polgar Susan Sofia Polgar Chess.com
The sisters also found time in 1988 to visit New York. Sofia is on the left. Photo: R. Cottrell/Wikimedia, CC.

Between those Olympiads, Polgar scored a victory that came to be known as the "Sack of Rome", which is easily her best-known accomplishment. Polgar won a tournament in Rome in 1989 with a score of 8.5/9. Not only was she nearly perfect, but it was a strong tournament with several Soviet grandmasters. As Polgar writes on her website

The first two games were against lower-rated players then, in round three, I faced Palatnik a strong Soviet GM. He was my first "victim," followed by grandmasters Chernin, Suba, and Razuvaev. Dolmatov was the one to "save the honors" in the last round by playing the only drawn game against me in the tournament.

For some IMs, beating one grandmaster in a tournament makes the event a success. To defeat several without a single loss makes it one of the greatest lesser-known accomplishments in chess history.

Daniel Rensch

No one knows what happened to this precocious youngster from Arizona, who actually broke a record once held by Shaked as the youngest national master from Arizona, and was also once the highest-rated junior player in the United States. He managed to become an international master in 2009, but his chess did not progress much further from there. Last we heard he had turned to obscure business ventures.

Ok, obviously we're kidding. Love ya, Danny!

Chess.com Prodigies Danny Rensch
Sporting that ChessKid gear in, if the water bottle is a hint... Las Vegas?

Honorable Mentions

The Romanian-American Gabriel Schwartzman was FM at 12, IM at 15, and GM at 17 in 1993, all what was a rather typical progression of a young chess talent's career. At the time, you could count on your own hands how many players had been a grandmaster by 17. These days, you would need many people's hands. In a pattern that should be recognizable by now, Schwartzman switched professions away from chess early. In his case, he did so in his mid-20s.

FM Jorge Sammour-Hasbun was born in 1979 and obtained his FIDE Master title in 1988, making him the youngest ever at the time. Imagine playing a game like this at any age, let alone 12:

William Napier was one of the few teenage players to hold his own with masters at the turn of the 19th into 20th centuries, and in 1897 at the age of 16 he defeated Wilhelm Steinitz in a tournament game. Chess historian Edward Winter shouted out Napier and several other longer-ago prodigies here.

Conclusion

Ringo Starr's "It Don't Come Easy" began playing just as it came time to write this conclusion. He was talking about love and trust and stuff or whatever, but the title is an apt description both of chess and of growing up. Being great at chess while growing up can only be more difficult, except for the part where you easily defeat all your peers at the game.

But at a certain point, the competition does get tougher. For instance, in the Junior Speed Chess Championship. 

You can watch the 2022 Junior Speed Chess Championship presented by SIG on Chess.com/TV. You can also enjoy the show on Twitch channel and catch all our live broadcasts on YouTube.com/ChesscomLive.
2022 Junior Speed Chess Championship Chess.com

Watch the main event of the 2022 JSCC presented by SIG and ChessKid, starring two-time champion Nihal and 15 young challengers hoping to take his throne every Monday, Thursday, and Friday beginning on April 11!

NathanielGreen
Nathaniel Green

Nathaniel Green is a staff writer for Chess.com who writes articles, player biographies, Titled Tuesday reports, video scripts, and more. He has been playing chess for about 30 years and resides near Washington, DC, USA.

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