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Check Mate: Here Are 8 Of The Coolest Chess Kids In The World
February 25, 2013
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"There's degenerates that play chess, there's MIT graduates that play chess... Every walk of life comes in here and plays chess."

That's the first quote in 'The Subculture of Chess', the short documentary above, which was created by Thrash Lab. The line is spoken by Alfred, an avid player in Union Square in NYC.

The doc offers an inside look at chess culture in New York, telling the story of young player Arthur King Jr. and getting into the effects that chess has on education, community and personality. Looks like it is having an effect, too: Thrash Lab calls it "the city's trendiest game."

Well, here are some of our favourite players: the "cool kids of chess."

chess-kids-magnus-carlsen.jpg7. Magnus Carlsen

He's from Norway, he's only 22 years old, and Magnus Carlsen is officially the best chess player in the world. In late 2012, Carlsen took the title from Gary Kasparov, who held it for 12 years.

If you're wondering how the chess world determines who the "best player" is, the ranking is based on the Elo rating system, which was invented to determine the relative skill level of players.

Needless to say, Carlsen is an exceptional player. He's known as "the Mozart of chess," partly because he displayed amazing talent from a very young age.

Oh yeah, and just in case you think being the world's best chess player means you're probably not that cool, consider this: Magnus modelled for G-Star Raw's Autumn/Winter 2010 advertising campaign. With Liv Tyler. Check. Mate.

chess-kids-judit-polgar.jpg6. Judit Polgár

Speaking of "strongest player of all time" status, Hungarian player Judit Polgár gets to claim that title, too: she's considered by far the strongest female player in history.

A little background on women in chess: Polgár is currently the only woman who ranks in the top 100 chess players. But the lack of women on the top players list isn't because men are inherently better at the game, experts say.

According to researchers from the UK, one major reason for the gender disparity is the relatively tiny number of women who play. You can read about their study right here.

Polgár achieved the title of Grandmaster in 1991, when she was just 15 years and four months old. At the time, she was the youngest person ever to achieve the honour. In 2005, she was ranked eighth in the world. Around that time, she took a break from the game to care for her two children. At the moment, she's ranked 53rd in the world by the World Chess Federation, FIDE.

She's also branched out from playing to write a children's book called 'Chess Playground'.

chess-kids-joshua-waitzkin.jpg5. Joshua Waitzkin

Remember the movie 'Searching for Bobby Fischer'? That was based on the early life of Joshua Waitzkin, a chess player and author who was recognized as a prodigy when he was young and went on to win the U.S. Junior Chess championship in 1993 and 1994.

Not only that, but Waitzkin is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and he's won 13 National Championships and two World Championship titles in another martial art, T'ai chi ch'uan.

As if that wasn't enough, he also started charitable organization The JW Foundation, which helps "teachers, parents and educational institutions nurture the unique potential of children and young adults". And he's active in the fight against Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which his close friend Jonathan Wade has.

For Joshua, it seems, chess is just the beginning.

chess-kids-anna-ushenina.jpg4. Anna Ushenina

Like many of the "cool kids" on this list, Anna Ushenina really did get started when she was a kid. Her mom introduced her to the game when she was only seven, and she became the Ukrainian Girls Under 20 champion when she was 15.

Apparently, Ushenina taught herself chess for the most part - she only received limited instruction at a specialist facility in Ukraine.

These days, she's the Women's World Chess Champion. She won the World Championship in November 2012, making her the first Ukrainian to hold the title of women's world chess champion.

According to Viktor Kapustin, head of the Ukrainian Chess Federation, the win will be the beginning of a new stage of development for the game in the country.

When she's not playing, Ushenina says she's into reading detective novels and listening to classical and pop music.

Chess success hasn't taken her away from her family, though: she still lives with her parents in Kharkiv, the city where she was born.

chess-kids-justus-williams.jpg3. Justus Williams

At 12 years old, Justus Williams became the youngest African-American "National Master" in history, according to the U.S. Chess Federation.

In 2012, Williams and his junior high school team from Brooklyn's I.S. 318 competed in the U.S. high school national championships, and Williams also represented the U.S. at the World Youth Chess Championships in Slovenia.

He and four other NYC teens were the subjects of the documentary 'Brooklyn Castle' about I.S. 318, home to the most-winning chess team in the U.S.

Another fact about the school? More than 60 per cent of students' families live below the poverty line.

According to NBC News, Williams has been called the 'LeBron James of Chess'. He says, "I would like to see a lot more young, black players" get into chess.

And he's hoping to turn chess from a hobby into a career: "I want to play chess professionally, because I want to be one of the elite players in the world. Playing it just what drives me, and I like to win."

chess-kids-daniel-naroditsky.jpg2. Daniel Naroditsky

Speaking of youthful chess prodigies, how about Daniel Narodistsky? He was born in 1995, and he's already published two books of chess strategy: 'Mastering Positional Chess' from 2010, and 'Mastering Complex Endgames' from 2012.

He's also got some serious skills: in May 2007, Daniel won the Northern California K-12 Chess Championship. He was the youngest player in Northern California history to do so.

He also won the World Youth Chess Championship in Antalya, Turkey in 2007. He said in this interview that the win "showed me that if you put in a lot of work into studying, then you will almost always have a big success."

In the same interview, he talks about why he wrote his first book (which he started work on when he was ten, by the way): "I felt that there were weaknesses in my play that were simply not going away.

I read many other books by strong, experienced players, but I still did not get rid of my weaknesses. I decided to simply analyze some of my own mistakes and write my analyses into a notebook."

chess-kids-hou-yifan.jpgTie: 1. Hou Yifan

Hou Yifan is still young: she was born in 1994. But she's already achieved some amazing things in the world of chess.

She is a former Women's World Chess Champion - the youngest person ever to win the title. She's the youngest female player ever to qualify for the title of Grandmaster. And she was also the youngest player ever to participate in the FIDE Women's World Championship when she played in 2006 at the age of 12.

When she was just three, her father would take her to a local bookstore after dinner. He noticed that she would stare at chess pieces behind the window, so he bought her a set.

After a few weeks, a three-year-old Hou was able to beat her father and grandmother. She started training at age five, and played the head coach of the Chinese National men's team at age nine. He said he was surprised a nine-year-old could recognize his weak moves.

The experts see a bright future for Hou: chess writer Leonard Barden has said she could rival Judit Polgár as the best female player ever.

chess-kids-phiona-mutesi.jpgTie: 1. Phiona Mutesi

CNN calls her "the ultimate underdog." Phiona Mutesi grew up in a very poor area of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. As a girl, she slept on the streets, and had to scrounge for food for her family. She never learned to read and write.

But after a chance encounter with a chess coach, her life changed. Robert Katende, a missionary, started a chess program for poor residents of Kampala. Phiona had to walk four miles a day to practice - and get the bowl of porridge that Katende offered to kids who showed up.

After a year, she says, she got good at the game. And then she got really good: she became Uganda's champion chess player, and traveled the world to attend tournaments.

She's the first titled female Ugandan chess player, and she says chess has changed her life: "Chess gave me hope, whereby now I'm having a hope of becoming a doctor and... a grand master," she said. She's also learning to read and write, thanks to a program called Sports Outreach.

This fall, a book about Phiona will be published. It's called 'Queen of Katwe.'

Check out Phiona's story on CBC Radio's 'The Current' right here.


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