Debate

Protect our prodigies!

Our obsession with titles and the age at which they are accomplished ill-serves our most talented and most vulnerable players. A better way to protect child prodigies from overzealous parents, coaches and officials is suggested by Stefan Löffler.

A suitable dose of chess enriches children and can foster their development in many ways.
A suitable dose of chess enriches children and can foster their development in many ways. (photo: Chesskid)

His chess instruction started when he was two and a half years old. It took his father two years to get him really interested in the game. By the age of five the boy competed in tournaments. Soon his father started to drive him to a chess academy several times a week. Before the boy turned eight, he already played better than ninety percent of club players at their peak.

His bedtime depends on the hours of his next game. He has to wear a mask during training so that he is used to wearing it when he competes.

He went to school only three days a week to have more time to study chess. He studied chess seven or eight hours every day. All his holidays are spent at tournaments. By the age of eleven he has been taken out of school. He has stopped to do sports. On some days he walks for an hour, on others his body hardly moves. Now he studies chess for twelve to thirteen hours every day. He gets the odd day off chess when a tournament is over. But often his next tournament is starting on the very next day.

World and continental championships start at U(nder)8, some countries have even U7 and U6 championships.
World and continental championships start at U(nder)8, some countries have even U7 and U6 championships. (photo: World Cadets Championship 2019)

His bedtime depends on the hours of his next game. He has to wear a mask during training so that he is used to wearing it when he competes. He has learned not to show his emotions. He hardly smiles or speaks to other players. He hardly speaks to anyone but his dad and his coaches. He sees his mum and sister only during daily video calls. Video calls with friends are much more rare.

Is this a childhood? Is this a story any sponsor will buy in? Can the chess community really be proud of this boy?

He has been breaking records since he was seven: youngest this, youngest that. His further life is planned out for him. His family has invested heavily. The family expects that sponsors pave his further way in chess. His progress cannot stop.

Is this a childhood? Is this a story any sponsor will buy in? Can the chess community really be proud of this boy? His family has been guided, or rather misguided, by our obsession with titles and the age at which they are accomplished. Would it make any difference if we ignore the imminent record? Or at least shift our focus from the achievements to the circumstances? This might be a start to protect our youngest and most vulnerable players.

Children love cups and care much less than adults about titles. Let’s keep it this way.
Children love cups and care much less than adults about titles. Let’s keep it this way. (photo: Chesskid.com)

Children chess feeds legions of coaches and organisers and at the same is constantly shifting boundaries. The pressure on prodigies is enormous. Some title norms are even attained through match fixing, not necessarily with the awareness and consent of the young player.

FIDE should introduce a minimum age to be eligible for norms and lifetime titles. When they reach a defined age, say sixteen years, accomplished young players could be judged by a commission. This commission would be entitled to award GM and IM titles based on criteria that put less pressure on the kids and consider the circumstances of their achievements. Sponsors would focus on supporting substantial development rather than short-lived records. Less media attention would actually be good news for many prodigies.