Former child prodigy returns to chess

by ChessBase
2/24/2015 – Jeff Sarwer was a classical prodigy, believed by many to be one of the strongest in history. At seven he was giving simultaneous exhibitions, at eight he won the Under Ten world championship. But then he disappeared from the chess scene to take up professional poker. Now, in his late thirties, this former media star, subject of the film "Searching for Bobby Fischer", is going after the GM title.

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


Former chess prodigy considers new run at grandmaster title

Poker player and former chess prodigy Jeff Sarwer finished third in the Kings of Talinn poker tournament over the weekend but he has a bigger goal in mind these days: grandmaster status in the game that first grabbed his attention when he was still playing with toy dinosaurs. The former prodigy-turned poker pro spoke with PokerListing's Finland's Tuomo Järvelä during his run to the final table and revisiting his first "Mindsport" love is on his mind.

"I think I'm going to test the waters a little bit with chess before I go in and say I'm going to become a grandmaster, but I don't think many people at my age just decide to study chess and become a grandmaster. So if I could do it – and that's a big if – I think that would be very nice. In a way it's perhaps a bit of unfinished business in my mind. I have no aspirations to become the World Chess Champion or something like that. But if I can become a chess grandmaster in my late 30s, when I only had a bit of training as a kid, that would be nice. For myself, as a personal goal."

World Champion at eight

Sarwer's background is an unconventional one. Home-schooled by his father, Sarwer and his sister traveled across North America and the World while his chess talent developed. He learned the game at age four, and by six was granted a lifetime membership in the Manhattan Chess Club in New York.

"I started chess by playing with toy dinosaurs when I was a very young boy," Sarwer said over the weekend, "lining them all up. Then I found chess pieces. A lot of people get into games who are into math. And I got into chess because it was aesthetical. I just loved the way the pieces looked and that made me love the game."

Given a tumultuous family situation which only got more complex, Sarwer was pushed away from chess as he grew older. Now in his late 30s, Sarwer says he's enticed to revisit his first love and take it to the next level.

"Poker's the game where you make money"

Like most games players, Sarwer says, he moved into poker later on in life because that's where the money is. "You could ask so many people who play games. They all move to poker at some point. Whether it's Magic: The Gathering or Starcraft or chess, there's so many cross-overs because poker's the game where you make money." Sarwer earned €16,470 for his third place finish over the weekend.

Jeff Sarwer (born May 14, 1978 in Kingston, Ontario) is a Canadian-Finnish former child chess prodigy whose charismatic personality and chess talent made him a well known media figure. His chess career and his family's unconventional lifestyle were the subjects of many articles and TV shows. Jeff's attacking playing style was often compared to Bobby Fischer, and a tournament game drawn against him by another young chess player, Joshua Waitzkin, was the inspiration for the climax in the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer.

Jeff Sarwer's character was portrayed as Jonathan Poe. In the film's final game, Jonathan declined the offer of a draw and eventually lost. In reality Jeff Sarwer declined the draw offer by Josh Waitzkin, but the game ended in a draw (because of insufficient material) a few moves later. Under tournament tie-breaking rules, Waitzkin was determined to have played stronger opponents during the overall competition and was awarded first place, but they were declared US Primary School co-champions. At the time that the game was played, Jeff was seven and Josh nine years old. Here for posterity is the original game:

[Event "Searching for Bobby Fischer"] [Site "?"] [Date "1986.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Sarwer, Jeff"] [Black "Waitzkin, Josh"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "E76"] [PlyCount "126"] [SourceDate "2015.02.24"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. f4 O-O 6. Nf3 Nbd7 7. e5 Ne8 8. Bd3 c5 9. dxc5 Nxc5 10. Bc2 a5 11. O-O b6 12. Be3 Bb7 13. Qd4 dxe5 14. Nxe5 Qxd4 15. Bxd4 Rd8 16. Bxc5 bxc5 17. Na4 Bxe5 18. fxe5 Rd2 19. Rf2 Rxf2 20. Kxf2 f6 21. e6 Nd6 22. Nxc5 Rc8 23. Nxb7 Nxb7 24. b3 Nc5 25. Re1 Rc6 26. Be4 Ra6 27. Bc2 Rxe6 28. Rxe6 Nxe6 29. Ke3 Kf8 30. Ke4 Ke8 31. g3 Kd7 32. Kd5 f5 33. a3 h6 34. b4 axb4 35. axb4 Nc7+ 36. Kc5 e5 37. Ba4+ Kc8 38. Bc6 e4 39. b5 e3 40. Bf3 Ne6+ 41. Kd5 Ng5 42. Be2 Kc7 43. Ke5 Ne4 44. Kd4 Kd6 45. Kxe3 Kc5 46. g4 Nd6 47. Kf4 g5+ 48. Ke5 fxg4 49. Kf6 g3 50. hxg3 Ne4+ 51. Kg6 Nxg3 52. Bd3 Nh1 53. Kxh6 g4 54. Kg5 g3 55. Be4 Nf2 56. Bd5 Nd1 57. Kf4 Nc3 58. Bc6 Ne2+ 59. Kf3 Nd4+ 60. Kxg3 Nxc6 61. bxc6 Kxc6 62. Kf3 Kc5 63. Ke3 Kxc4 1/2-1/2

Jeff Sarwer won the Under Ten World Youth Chess Championship in Puerto Rico in 1986 representing Canada. When he was eight, he was believed by many to be one of the strongest prodigies in the history of the game. Allen Kaufman, head of the American Chess Foundation, said, "Jeff at nine is stronger than Bobby was at 11." Bruce Pandolfini said, "Of the several thousand kids I've taught, Jeff is certainly the most amazing young player I've ever seen."

Jeff learned the rules of chess at the age of four from his six-year-old sister Julia, and at age of six started to play at the Manhattan Chess Club. Jeff used to entertain large crowds by playing simuls against 40 people every Canada Day from the age of seven on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. He also used to show up and play speed chess at Washington Square Park in New York City, where large numbers of people gathered to watch his games.

At the age of seven Jeff's enthusiasm for the game caught the attention of grandmaster Edmar Mednis and he invited him to analyze the 1986 World Championship Match between Kasparov-Karpov on PBS. Jeff and his sister Julia (who was also a world champion for girls under ten) continued to do this for the rematch in 1987 as well. After this Jeff and Julia became well known in media circles and appeared on various talk shows and were the subject of a documentary.

After he disappeared at a very young age, many people thought Jeff would not be seen playing chess again. In September 2007 Jeff resurfaced to the chess scene apparently without training and entered a 30 minute semi-rapid tournament at Malbork castle in Poland. He finished in third place with a score of 7.0/9 in a group of 86 players including four Grandmasters. Since he had no active chess rating, he was given a provisional Elo rating of 2300 but seemed to perform above that level.

In January 2010 Jeff gave a long interview to Chess Life Online detailing his experiences from that tournament and talking about his current life in Europe. In August 2010, Sarwer was profiled in the Sunday Times Magazine talking about his father's methods, his chess career and his reappearance in public. Sarwer says that if he decided to make chess a priority, he would do so to become a grandmaster. "It would require at least two years of dedicated hardcore study and practice," he said, "especially in regards to opening preparation” for him to achieve that goal.

Source: Pokerlistings, Wikipedia

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register

BKnight2003 BKnight2003 2/26/2015 06:29

I thought it would be about Josh Waitzkin too. The movie is about him, and he was a "feature" in the old Chessmaster software.

Of Jeff Sarwer I had never heard before (my fault).
BitterPeg BitterPeg 2/26/2015 10:24

Would be tremendous to see him try. Unfinished business indeed!
Doug Eckert Doug Eckert 2/26/2015 07:21
I can't find a record of the Poland tournament they refer to. Plus that was 4 years ago. Maybe he plays in a tournament to see how he does. The North American Open in Vegas would seem to be a nice tournament that fits in with his poker. PaulC congrats on the masters title at age 45 that is great. If you guys are serious about trying to get titles contact me. Always open to sharing ideas. I don't think there are too many guys over age 50 that have done it.
fons fons 2/26/2015 02:45
Can somebody quote the line where he says he's going to do this?
It's certainly not: "test the waters a little bit".
From what I can tell it's not even sure he's going to play actual over the board chess.
KevinC KevinC 2/25/2015 02:37
Congratulations Paul!
PaulPena PaulPena 2/25/2015 07:44
well I just became an NM at 45 though getting to GM would take a lot more work.
Doug Eckert Doug Eckert 2/25/2015 07:02
KevinC, I wish you the best of luck trying to make IM. I turned 50 this year and am trying to work less and would like to make IM. I had a peak rating of 2350 when I was 22. The truth is, I probably can't get there. There are myriad of factors. First, the players truly are stronger today than 28 years ago. When, I analyze my games with a computer, my games are stronger today than when I was at my peak rating. I am 2296 right now and have been working at this for a year or so more seriously.

Second, I can't remember things like when I was younger and need to work out an opening repertoire that takes that into account. That is very much a work in progress. Third, the time controls are faster today. That puts a premium on opening efficiency and the ability to handle tension at the peak of the game often for many moves. That is generally where us older players are the weakest.

The G90 + 30S time control which is used for many norm tournaments highlights that and is very hard to manage. Two examples. I had a game 2 years ago against GM Lenderman. By move 30, I had sacrificed two pawns from a horrible position to create a fortress and had used all my time except the 30S increment to come up with the idea. I blundered at move 160 and lost, playing 130 moves on the increment over about 3 hours...Another tournament, at move 55, when, for sure you are playing on the increment, I had mate in 5 against a strong IM from an insane position where all other moves lost. 4+ hours of totally outplaying the guy out the door with one move... These are the conditions today. They are fair, they are tough and they favor the young.
Moab2021 Moab2021 2/25/2015 02:04
How will he become a GM with no FIDE or USCF rated activity? I've been awaiting his return since the 2010 article about him. Is this an ego puff piece or is he really playing chess again?
Leonilo Leonilo 2/24/2015 09:40
It would be nice to have a Waitzkin Vs Sarwer rematch today!
dansafee dansafee 2/24/2015 05:55
am i the only one who read the title and then hoped it was josh waitzkin?
KevinC KevinC 2/24/2015 02:51
It would be interesting to set up a study. Right now, the problem with saying that it can't be done, is that how many times has anyone not played at all and then taken it up over 30, and actually wanted to become a master? I have never met anyone, who did not play at all, but took it up over 30, let alone want to become a master. I am certain there are some, of course, but they are few and far between.

More common is the person, who played at a modest level, but wants to make a push for master after 30. I believe they can do that, but GM is probably too hard. To be honest, I am in my mid-50's, and I often wonder if I could make IM after I retire (I was right at 2300 at my peak).

On a personal note, I had a friend, who was 38 and rated about 1000 on ICC, and making no progress. I guided him for only three months, and worked him silly, and he made it to 1850 in that time. Most of it was having him do 50, or more, tactics problems per day. After the three months, he was overwhelmed, and stopped for a while, but never went back to his hard work. He remains at about the same rating. Still, not bad progress for late 30's, and based on where he started, he was hardly "proficient" at any point.
Karbuncle Karbuncle 2/24/2015 01:56

Even in the case of 2200s, there was always evidence of them having played the game proficiently as a child. Again, the stipulations are a minimum age of 30, and having never played the game before.
KevinC KevinC 2/24/2015 01:33
@Karbuncle, there are definitely some, who became normal masters (2200+) a little later in life, but I can't ever recall anyone becoming a GM a little later in life.
KevinC KevinC 2/24/2015 01:26
While I would, in no way, judge him today for this since he was so young, but watching him commentate during that 1986 match, he was probably the most annoying child in the history of man.
Karbuncle Karbuncle 2/24/2015 01:05
Glad to see him getting back into the game, although he shouldn't downplay just how strong he already is, giving him MUCH better chances to become a GM than say a person having never played the game before. I've done a lot of research on the subject of older adults obtaining master titles, and in EVERY case, they were strong child players. I've yet to find an actual example of an adult in their 30s taking up the game for the first time and becoming a master.
Steven E DuCharm Steven E DuCharm 2/24/2015 12:38
Best wishes to him