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At age 10, chess master is already an old pro

Sam Sevian holds the title of youngest U.S. chess master — for now. The average age of chess masters has been steadily falling for years, but recently, that pace has quickened.

May 05, 2011|By Scott Kraft, Los Angeles Times
  • I never get tired of playing chess, says 10-year-old Sam Sevian, who was introduced to the game when he was 5 by his father, who himself was a strong player as a youngster.
I never get tired of playing chess, says 10-year-old Sam Sevian, who was… (Don Kelsen / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Santa Clara, Calif. -- The two chess masters hunched over their royal armies, lost in thought.

On one side, playing white, was 10-year-old Sam Sevian, who a few months ago became the youngest chess master in the history of the U.S. Chess Federation.

His opponent, playing black, was David Adelberg, 14, who had been crowned Arizona's youngest chess master when he was 12.

Sam had lost a match to David two years earlier. This time, he vowed, would be different.

The windowless hotel meeting room in Agoura Hills, filled with dozens of players, was as silent as a church sanctuary.

Sam and David came out playing the Scheveningen variation of the Sicilian defense, a favorite of the grandmaster Garry Kasparov, one of their idols.

As the match entered its fourth hour, Sam decided to stir things up. For 40 minutes, he studied his position, brown sneakers suspended above the carpet, fists pressed against his chestnut-colored hair, lips moving silently.

Finally, Sam made his move: a bishop sacrifice.

Sam's father, Armen, smelling of the cigarette he'd smoked on the balcony, caught his son's eye with an expression that silently asked: How's it going? Sam shrugged his shoulders and raised his palms: Who knows?

But Sam's chess coach, standing nearby, watched with a small smile of satisfaction. "What he's doing is very complicated, very complicated," he said. "But it might work."

::

The title of chess master is awarded to players who reach a threshold of points, earned in official tournament competition and based on their performance as well as the strength of their opponents.

The average age of chess masters has been steadily falling for years, but recently, that pace has quickened. To win a tournament in Reno last year, Jesse Kraai, a 28-year-old grandmaster from the Bay Area, played four of his six matches against children; the average age was 13.

"Today, you have 7- and 8-year-olds who are training better than Bobby Fischer did a generation before," said David Pruess, content manager for chess.com, a global chess website with 3 million members. He holds the international master ranking, one step higher than master and one below grandmaster.

This bounty of prodigal talent has had an unintended side effect: The half-life of a newly minted chess star has shrunk "to a year or two, tops," said Pruess, 29. "It's easy for a kid on his way up, full of confidence bordering on arrogance, to forget that he's become a target for even younger players."

Pruess, in a column last year, detailed his own loss to David Adelberg and good-naturedly warned the youngster that he'd better start preparing "for the 10-year-olds who will soon be coming to get him!"

That was prescient. Young David's nemesis turned out to be Sam Sevian, a fourth-grader from Santa Clara who, in December, became a chess master at the age of 9 years, 11 months and 11 days.

(Sam followed in the footsteps of Fischer, who earned the title of youngest chess master in 1956, at the age of 13 years, 3 months and 29 days.)

Sam is the pre-pubescent embodiment of the single-minded passion for chess that H.G. Wells once described as "a desire that dieth not, and a fire that is not quenched."

He lives with his obsession, and his parents and younger sister, in a modest two-bedroom condominium near San Jose International Airport.

A professional chess board sits on the coffee table in the small living room; chess books, in English and Russian, are stacked on the side tables.

Sam and Isabelle, 8, share a bedroom with three single beds; one is for their grandmother, who often visits from Armenia.

He keeps his favorite inspirational reading material on the bedside table: the fantasy adventure series "Percy Jackson & the Olympians," which features a 12-year-old demigod on a journey to prevent apocalyptic wars between three Greek gods.

In some ways, Sam is a typical kid. He rides his bike inside the gated condo complex and watches television when his parents allow it. ("Two and a Half Men" is a favorite).

Most afternoons, though, are devoted to homework and chess. "I never get tired of playing chess," he said, "but I do get tired of studying it."

One afternoon before his rematch with David, Sam arrived home from school and immediately went into his parents' bedroom, where he sat down at the family computer. He logged onto a chess website, looking to challenge someone to a game of blitz chess.

In an official chess match, each player is allowed a set number of hours to make all his moves and six-hour games are not uncommon.

In blitz chess, each player gets three to five minutes. Blitz chess games aren't official, but many players use them to hone their skills.

A 57-year-old international master from Serbia accepted Sam's invitation.

Swiftly moving the pieces with his computer mouse, Sam finished off his opponent like an afternoon snack. "That felt good," he said.

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