Masterminds: Chess Prodigies is an exhibition that tells the stories of notable chess prodigies including Bobby Fischer, World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen and the Polgar sisters. Through photographs, videos and mementos of important chess matches and tournaments from the collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame, visitors will learn more about these talented young players as well as their later accomplishments. The exhibition will also highlight the achievements of players who took up the game later in life and still made a mark on the world of chess.
Unlike many other fields, in chess, kids can sometimes compete with—and defeat—adults. Chess prodigies are young players who excel at the game. Masterminds tells the stories of talented young players from the 19th century to the present. It features artifacts from the collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame and loans from prodigies and former prodigies, including World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, Grandmaster Leinier Dominguez, Woman Candidate Master Alice Lee, 2020 U.S. Chess Champion Wesley So, International Master Christopher Yoo, and 2016 World Junior Chess Champion Jeffery Xiong.
Prodigies in the United States
In the United States, many of the country’s most celebrated players gained fame as children. One of the most prominent American chess players is also one of the game’s most well-known prodigies. Future world chess champion Bobby Fischer learned to play chess at age six, and after a few years, he began to set records. At age 13, he played “The Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne, a player twice his age. Roughly a year later, Fischer won his first U.S. Chess Championship. Fischer’s early accomplishments and his later victory in the 1972 World Chess Championship popularized the game in America, especially among young people.
Saint Louis Chess Campus
The Saint Louis Chess Campus, which includes the World Chess Hall of Fame and Saint Louis Chess Club (SLCC), is fortunate to welcome many of today’s most talented young players. Since 2009, the Saint Louis Chess Club has hosted the U.S. Junior Chess Championship, and since 2017, it has hosted the U.S. Junior Girls’ Chess Championship. Some important milestones have also been achieved at the SLCC. Sam Sevian, the youngest person to achieve the grandmaster (GM) rating in the United States, earned his last norm in the Saint Louis GM Norm Invitational Tournament.
The SLCC also serves children in the Saint Louis community, reaching out to over 75,000 students in 200 schools and making chess part of the curriculum. In a survey, a majority of the kids reported that playing chess made them feel more confident in handling difficult materials and tasks. They also reported wanting to attend school more on days that they had chess. The SLCC hopes to develop prodigies in the Saint Louis region.
Prodigies in the U.S. and Around the World
Many of today’s top players, including World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, were chess prodigies. In the United States, each of the country’s top four players—Grandmasters Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Leinier Dominguez, and Hikaru Nakamura— started their impressive careers as children. Nakamura even held the record as the country’s youngest grandmaster for many years.
One of the most famous groups of chess prodigies are the Polgar sisters—Susan, Sofia, and Judit. Their father, Laszlo Polgar, raised the trio with the intention of creating geniuses. All three made chess history. Susan was the first woman to earn the grandmaster title through tournament play and to win the “triple crown,” the Women’s world blitz, rapid, and classical titles. Judit was the first person to break Bobby Fischer’s record of attaining the title of grandmaster at age 15, was the first (and to date) only woman to qualify for the final stages of the world chess championship cycle, and achieved the highest rating ever earned by a woman. Sofia earned fame for her achievements in the “Sack of Rome,” in which she earned a performance rating over 2900 at the Rome 1989 tournament against competitors many years her elder.
In the past two years, chess prodigies—real and fictional—have captured the imagination of people around the U.S. In 2019, the story of Tanitoluwa Adewumi, an eight-year-old Nigerian refugee who won the K-3 New York State Championship only a year after beginning to play the game, was broadcast on news outlets around the country. More recently, The Queen’s Gambit, the story of the fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon, attracted over 62 million viewers during its first 28 days on Netflix. Masterminds tells these stories among many others, and we hope that they will inspire you to take up the game, no matter your age.
Emily Allred, Curator
World Chess Hall of Fame
"Masterminds: Chess Prodigies" Opening Reception
Thursday, February 11 5pmRead More
2/8/2021: STL Public Radio — World Chess Hall of Fame’s New Exhibit Highlights Chess Prodigies
2/22/2021: HEC TV — Masterminds: Chess Prodigies at the World Chess Hall of Fame