The pawnwho wouldbe king

Luke McShane, 12, is Britain's latest chess prodigy, but can he succeed where others have failed?
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It's a terrible burden being an ex-world champion at the age of nine, but Luke McShane, who celebrates his 13th birthday tomorrow, seems to have got over it.

Luke is the latest model - and perhaps the best - to come off the production line of British chess prodigies. When he was eight years old, less than three years after being taught the rules of the game by his grandfather, Luke won the world under-10 championship in Duisburg, Germany, despite being the youngest of the 45 contestants.

At age 10, he became the youngest player to draw with a grandmaster in an international tournament; a couple of months later, he was the youngest to defeat an international master - a lower form of life than a grandmaster, but a far greater achievement than the draw. At 11, he became the youngest to beat a grandmaster, and he has beat grandmasters several times since.

For the past week and a half, Luke has been in action in the Challengers Tournament at Hastings. Yesterday, when the last round began, he needed one final win to move an important step closer to becoming an international master himself.

The titles of "master"and "grandmaster" are awarded by the International Chess Federation according to a precise formula based on a player's results. Generally, three qualifying results - or "norms" - are needed before a player is awarded the title. Last month, in the Caledonian Masters tournament in Edinburgh, Luke became the youngest British player ever to secure an international master norm.

So far, so good. But Britain has always been good at producing chess prodigies who do not quite win the world championship. Does Luke have the capacity to eclipse Nigel Short, who three years ago reached the dizzy heights of a world title match only to be shot down in flames by Garry Kasparov?

There is little doubt that he has the natural ability. Away from chess, he looks and behaves like any other 12-year-old: shy of strangers, monosyllabic in conversation, playful with children of his own age, likes to watch Jim Davidson's Big Break on television while doing his homework.

At the chess board, however, a transformation occurs. When most child chess players reach a position in which no obvious move suggests itself, you can see their eyes darting around the board in uncertain fashion. After a few minutes they lose concentration and pick a move almost at random.

Luke is different. He recognises the critical moments in any game, then, with his elbows anchored to the table, holds his head between his hands and stares at the board in total concentration until the problem is solved.

When he drew with a grandmaster and beat a master at the age of 10, those games lasted six and five hours respectively. Playing an abstract game such as chess for such long periods requires a trance-like state that will permit no distraction. In a 10-year-old it is quite phenomenal, particularly in a child who has not specifically been bred to be a chess player.

For this is the age of hot-housed minimasters. We saw it first with the three Polgar sisters in Hungary, most particularly the youngest of them, Judit Polgar, who became an international master at 11 and a grandmaster at 15. Then came another Hungarian, Peter Leko, a grandmaster at 13. Both had been taught chess as soon as they were out of nappies, and specialised in it from the age of four. But the advances of both Polgar and Leko have slowed recently. The long-term advantages of chess hot-housing may not live up to their early promise. That is what Luke must hope, anyway, for, apart from the little matter of a pounds 12,000 sponsorship from Psion computers last year, he has had no more particular concentration on chess at the expense of other branches of his education.

A great chess player, like great champions in any other sporting activity, needs more than talent - natural or otherwise. There is the important question of temperament, and a solid grounding in technique is also necessary to conquer the highest peaks. The Russians knew how to nurture their prodigies.

When Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov were playing like masters at the age of 12, they were spirited away from international competition and placed under the wing of a wise old teacher. By the time they were 15, they emerged with the highest professional standards of technically proficiency and the emotional toughness of old boots.

Previous British chess prodigies have often suffered from a spirit of gung-ho amateurism. Tony Miles, our first grandmaster, relied too much on originality to throw his opponents off balance. At the very highest level, it simply wasn't enough. Short acquired excellent technique after early setbacks, but seemed to lose confidence again when approaching the final hurdle.

The British way, sadly, has always been to throw our prodigies in at the deep end, letting them get used to being defeated and leaving them to pick up the pieces. But one of the things you learn from too many losses is how to lose. And that's a talent Kasparov and Karpov were never given an opportunity to acquire.

As long as Luke is kept away from the big fish until he is ready for them, he could do very well indeed, for there are few players of his age who are anywhere near as strong. His international rating places him among the top 40 players in Britain.

While he is probably the best 12-year-old in the world today, he may, however, find himself demoted to third-best 13-year old tomorrow.

For his great rival, tienne Bacrot of France, has already secured the international master title, as well as defeating the former world champion Vassily Smyslov in a six-game match; and the 13-year-old Ukrainian Ruslan Ponomaryov has acquired a rating that most grandmasters would envy.

Luke has one advantage, however: he does not seem to take chess too seriously. Who knows how good he might become if he puts his mind to it?

Tony Miles, 41, won the World Junior Championship in 1974 and went on to become Britain's first grandmaster two years later.

Some outstanding successes in international tournaments in the late Seventies and early Eighties had him frequently touted - in the British press at least - as a possible world-title contender. Yet despite two wins against the reigning world champion, Anatoly Karpov, Miles never really established himself among the world's top ten.

After a total collapse of form in the late Eighties, he has recently regained lost ground, but still ranks well outside the world's top 100 players. Miles was, however, the man who proved to his British colleagues that the world's top players could be beaten.

Michael Adams, 25, spent his early years beating Nigel Short's British records for precociousness.

British champion and grandmaster at 17, world-championship candidate at 21, he was, throughout his teens, the strongest player of his age in the world, with a ruthless ability to hustle even the top players to crushing defeats. However, his disastrous loss to Viswanathan Anand in a world-title eliminator in 1994 exposed a lack of technique at the very highest level.

Adams is now ranked 15th in the world, after apparently securing a place among the world's top ten a couple of years ago.

Nigel Short, 31, is the only British-born player ever to qualify as official challenger for the world championship. But his attempt came to a disappointing end when he was routed by Garry Kasparov in a much-hyped match in 1993.

Short was a genuine chess prodigy, whose instinctive grasp of the game brought him wins against seasoned internationals before he reached his teens. After a difficult initiation into top-level tournaments, he went on to defeat Anatoly Karpov in the world championship semi-finals in 1992. But when it came to the title match against Kasparov, Short seemed stage-struck. After this defeat, Short's career went into decline, but picked up again with some fine tournament victories in 1996. He is currently ranked ninth in the world.

Jonathan Speelman, 40, sprang to fame in 1988 when he reached the semi-final stage of the world championship eliminators.

A player of great imagination and originality, he had seemed to lack the competitive instinct to succeed at the highest level, but a year of outstanding results brought him up to fifth place in the world rankings.

Speelman's capacity for producing brilliant ideas in his game was the match of any other player's, but he had one outstanding defect: he felt sorry for his opponents when he beat them. He is now ranked 51st in the world.