Why you should care
Because you always wanted to be a child prodigy.
When it comes to kids vs. grown-ups, 9-year-olds typically have the upper hand only in burping contests and drawing pictures for Mom to hang on the refrigerator. So when chess grandmaster Larry Kaufman faced off against elementary school student Awonder Liang, things looked pretty good — until Kaufman inadvertently exposed his king on move 31. Liang seized his opportunity and soon walked away as the youngest player to beat a grandmaster. Less than a year later, the then-fourth-grader was a U.S. chess master himself.
It’s been a long time — dating back to the 1970s glory days of Bobby Fischer — since the U.S. has been a power in the global chess world. Fischer’s heroics (and tantrums) were larger than life; indeed, he’s the subject of the new film Pawn Sacrifice starring Tobey Maguire. But don’t think America’s movie-worthy chess days are in the past. In a weird throwback in an era of video games, a chess renaissance is on in this country, with three American players in the world’s top 10. The question now: Will this 12-year-old from Wisconsin climb into those ranks someday?
Certainly, he’s already pulled off a number of “youngest ever” feats, including youngest-ever U.S. chess player to achieve a technical level of play called an “IM norm” and youngest-ever U.S. chess player to become a master. With a 2361 FIDE rating, Liang is No. 1, top of the pile, for his age in the U.S. To lapse into chess-speak for a moment, he says his endgame is to win a world championship. And if he does, it won’t be with a coach, oddly enough. While most top players had coaches in their youth, Liang mainly teaches himself using only a computer.
Fischer, of course, was also a child prodigy, one who became infamous for throwing fits on his way to stardom (later in life, he would become a nightmarish anti-American and anti-Semitic figure who died seven years ago in Iceland). It’s a jarring contrast with Liang, who carries his accomplishments lightly. In conversation, he speaks in terse adages, like Gary Cooper trapped in the game of kings. (For instance: “I was nervous, but I knew I would try my best”; “I plan to keep going and see how far I can get into chess.”) The round-faced child of Chinese immigrants, who wears his hair high and tight, might be a little fidgety at the board, but that’s about it.
When he was 5, Liang asked his father to teach him the rules of chess after his older brother came home with a medal from a local tournament. He preps for a match the simple way: rest, eat, look over what his opponent might do and spot patterns. A few years ago, Liang regularly played Dennis Doren, a Wisconsinite with a good-but-not-great rating, who’d learned about Liang in the local paper after he won the under-8 world championship. It wasn’t even close: The 61-year-old says Liang crushed him nine out of 10 games. “I tried to teach him some stuff that I knew,” Doren says — but what took Doren a day to learn would take Liang just an hour.
Liang’s favorite players not only include Fischer (of course) but also current world champion Magnus Carlsen and former world champion Garry Kasparov, who has taught a couple of Liang’s training sessions. Each year, Kasparov holds a chess boot camp for the country’s nerdiest chess players; in Liang’s first year, he was the youngest player invited. Liang also has a striking memory of games, Doren says. Once he was studying an opening with the then-9-year-old, who not only recognized it from one of Kasparov’s games but also remembered who won when Kasparov played it.
But the pint-size pawn pusher faces plenty of obstacles, starting with an opponent that won’t face him across the board. “Chess is expensive,” says international master Greg Shahade. Coaching, tournament entry fees, hotels, plane tickets and other expenses add up — one trip to a top championship can cost $5,000. The Liang family’s resources are limited, which, in the worst-case scenario, could stalemate Awonder’s burgeoning career. Once, Doren set up an Indiegogo campaign to fund Liang’s trip to the World Youth Chess Championship and raised more than $3,000 (the campaign’s goal), but the process was time-consuming and complicated.
Liang’s age, oddly enough, is another potential issue. Doren sometimes suspects that would-be backers who might support the kid’s championship dreams think he’s too young — meaning, basically, that he might still decide to spend his life doing something besides castling and en passant captures. (Will Liang, Awonder’s father, says he doesn’t necessarily agree, but grants that the point is arguable.) Some other countries, like Armenia, where chess is mandatory in school, provide government funding for promising players; the U.S. hasn’t been anywhere near as organized. But Liang hasn’t been boxed in yet. The Samford Fellowship, a U.S. grant for promising chess talent under 25 years old, pays out $42,000 for up to two years; it could be in Liang’s future if he can establish himself.
Chess prodigies are getting younger and younger. International master Ken Regan says this is because today’s “prodigies are growing up in the Internet world” with more access to games via computer than ever before. Plus, because Liang hasn’t received much formal training, his game has some flaws. Awonder’s openings, his father admits, could use some work. But he’s got plenty of time to learn; he’s just starting seventh grade.