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Chess

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CHINESE teenager Wei Yi is the latest player to achieve the international grandmaster title at an amazingly young age: 13 years, eight months and 23 days.

That makes him the fourth youngest player in the history of the modern game to earn the distinction. Such a phenomenal performance always raises expectations and inevitably leads to the question: is he on the path to the world championship?

For some guidance, let's have a look at the three players in history who were even younger when they won the coveted title.

We'll start with the player in the No. 3 spot, Magnus Carlsen. He beat Yi to the punch by about four months. Carlsen, now 22, is the highest rated player in the world, and widely seen as the next world champion.

Carlsen learned chess at the age of five, which is typical for many prodigies. Once he started playing seriously, he got stronger and stronger, a process that has never stopped. He now holds the highest rating in the history of the game.

The story is somewhat different for Parimarjan Negi, who was five days younger than Carlsen when he got his GM title. Though he too steadily improved in the years after winning the title, he seems to have hit a plateau. His current rating of 2639 puts him 130th on the world rating list, and he is not considered a serious contender in any top-level tournament.

The all-time youngest grandmaster is Sergey Karjakin, who achieved the feat at the incredible age of 12 years and seven months, a full nine months ahead of Negi and Carlsen. Like Carlsen, Karjakin has climbed higher and higher in strength, and it still isn't clear where that potential might lead. His current rating of 2786 places him sixth in the world.

The ability of children to be strong at chess at an early age isn't hard to explain. Chess requires good memory and calculating powers, which seem to come naturally to some people. Like music and mathematics, two other fields which produce prodigies, chess provides a platform for kids who come equipped with those natural gifts to excel.

But then the hard work has to kick in. No matter how naturally talented you are, you have to devote countless hours to study, memorization, training and synthesis of opening, middlegame and endgame theory. There are also lessons to be learned about the psychological nature of the game and how that affects you and your opponent.

Some prodigies take on the serious work, while others move on to other pursuits. Those prodigies who become grandmasters are in a category of their own, but even there the difference between average and great is connected to effort. The very best players in just about any game are always a combination of incredible, sometimes unexplainable natural talent, and serious hard slogging.

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This week's problem: White to move and draw (Andersen). Solution to last problem: White wins with 1.Qe3 (threatening Kc3) f4 2.Qf2 d8Q 3.Kc3 with mate to follow.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 E11

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