At the end of Richmond Junior Club last Saturday I was analysing a game with one of our members. He’s typical of many of the children we see. He knows how to play a good game and wins most of his games at school but lacks the concentration and impulse control needed to avoid blundering every few moves so struggles at higher levels. His father and younger brother arrived to pick him up and settled down to watch the analysis. The young boy sat next to him and started taking some of the pieces off the board, much too his brother’s annoyance. I asked how old he was, and was told that he was three, nearly four. Well, I guess that’s what you’d expect from a three-year-old. I’m not sure that most kids of that age should be allowed anywhere near chess clubs. While they might be able to learn the names of the pieces and how to set the board up, by and large they’d be better off jumping puddles or making mud pies.
So what, then, should we make of three-year-old Mikhail Osipov, who recently appeared on a Russian TV talent show solving chess puzzles and playing against none other than Anatoly Karpov? Some of my Facebook friends considered putting such a young child on television to be bordering on child abuse (‘an obscenity’, according to one prominent chess blogger). Others, by contrast, could hardly contain their excitement at the sight of an amazing new prodigy and future world champion, seemingly having no reservations at all.
My view, as you might guess if you read last week’s column, is somewhere in between the two extremes. Should three-year-olds play chess at all? By and large, no, but I know parents who have successfully taught their three-year-olds to play. The vast majority, though, will, like the young boy I met the other day, be far too young even to master Noughts and Crosses. Should parents expose young children to this sort of publicity? It’s not something I’d do myself if I had children, but then I wouldn’t expose myself to that sort of publicity either. Yes, some child prodigies are spoiled brats with unpleasantly pushy parents, but others, probably the majority in the case of chess, are genuinely talented children whose parents are making sacrifices to help them succeed. As a chess teacher it’s not my business to be judgemental, at least in public, about how parents bring up their children as long as it doesn’t cross the line into child abuse. I have in the past refused to teach children who are clearly being pushed by their parents into doing something they don’t want to do and are not enjoying the lessons.
So what do we know about Misha Osipov? Can he actually play chess or is the whole thing just a fraud or a publicity stunt? No doubt he has an exceptional memory: he had probably memorised the answers to the puzzles and it’s possible the game against Karpov was at least partly staged. Apparently he holds the ‘2nd junior Russian grade’ in chess. I have a rough idea about what ‘2nd grade’ means but perhaps someone could enlighten me about what junior Russian grades are? Are they based on playing or just answering questions and solving puzzles? We’re told he enjoys playing chess online, but who knows whether or not he’s getting any help? He doesn’t seem to have an official rating, although there are several other three-year-olds on the Russian rating list, something I do find extremely disturbing. Even if a very small number of three-year-olds are ready to play a complete game of chess, I’d very much doubt whether they’re ready to take part in competitions.
I’m sorry if you feel I’m being rather indecisive on this, but I think it really depends on context. If you ask me whether Qh4 is a good move for Black that also depends on context. After 1. f3 e5 2. g4 it’s undoubtedly a good move, but after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 it’s certainly not a good move. These things depend a lot on things like family dynamics, parental aims and cultural ethos. So, although I find it rather concerning in many ways I’d rather wait and see before commenting further. If I hear any significant future developments concerning young Mikhail I’ll keep you in touch.
I’d like to leave you with one last thought. I’ve just invested in a copy of Mozart 225, a collection of 200 CDs including every surviving note of music written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with many of his most important compositions in two contrasting recordings, along with two sumptuously produced hardback books and various other collectible items. If you lose pushy parents and child prodigies you lose Mozart as well as Capablanca. Of course you might also save the lives of, to take just one example, Lena Zavaroni. It’s not an easy ethical question: I guess the only answer, if there is one, is for parents to listen to their children and teachers to listen to their pupils.