Away from the chessboard, Luke McShane seems much like any other bright 12-year-old. He darts quickly from one thing to another, he fidgets, he grins a good deal and he appears rather insecure and suspicious in the company of grown-ups whom he does not know very well.
Once the chessmen are in his hands, however, he is transformed into a model of concentration and confidence. Last weekend, Luke became the youngest British player ever to defeat a grandmaster when he beat Scotland's Colin McNab in the Challengers Tournament at the Hastings Chess Congress.
Nobody was surprised. He has, after all, been beating adults in tournaments since he was 7, and, by winning the world under-10 championship in 1992, became the youngest holder of the title of Fide Master, the first rung on the long ladder to grandmastery.
Luke was taught chess by his grandfather at the age of five and won his first junior tournament six months later. Living in west London, he was fortunate to fall into the clutches of the Richmond Chess Initiative, a highly competitive training scheme for young players that has produced a string of junior champions. Under the tuition of grandmaster Daniel King, Luke has notched up a series of impressive wins over International Masters and has now gained his first grandmaster scalp.
But does he have what it takes to get to the very top? The experience of other chess prodigies is certainly encouraging. There have been only half-a-dozen players in history who attained a similar level of play at such an early age. Paul Morphy, Jose Raul Capablanca, Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov went on to become the world's strongest players. Our own Nigel Short rose to become the official world title challenger.
The next few years will determine whether Luke can follow in the steps of these champions. There are, however, different schools of thought about how best to turn a child prodigy into a world-beater. The old Soviet system knew how to deliver the goods. When a talented 10-year-old was spotted, he would be taken into the Botvinnik Chess School. Then almost nothing would be heard of him until he emerged to win a major international tournament.
The English technique, practised on Short and more recently on Michael Adams, has been to throw them in at the deep end and hope. Short's battering in his first strong international tournament probably put back his chess development by a couple of years while he rebuilt his confidence. Luke had a similar traumatic baptism last year, when he finished last in the Richmond International, but he seems to have recovered well.
Finally, there is the Hungarian system as practised by Laszlo and Clara Polgar on their three daughters: teach them the moves at two-and-a-half and specialise in chess from the age of six. Judit Polgar is now ranked tenth in the world at the age of 19.
At Westminster School, which Luke now attends, specialising in chess is not an option. All the same, perhaps now would be a good time to put your money on a McShane- Polgar match for the World Championship in 2010.Reuse content