Researching Chess Prodigies: An interview with Dr. Kenneth Kiewra

by Alexey Root
10/14/2016 – In the chess world, Dr. Kenneth A. “Ken” Kiewra was initially known as the father of IM Keaton Kiewra. He raised Keaton in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Keaton dominated chess, winning the Nebraska State Championship nine times in a row. As Keaton’s rating soared, Ken became interested in whether his parenting experience with Keaton was unique. His research into chess prodigies and their parents led to chapters in two books and an article in a peer-reviewed journal. Alexey Root asks Ken about his experience nurturing chess talent.

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Alexey Root: How did Keaton learn chess and how did he get involved in organized chess tournaments?

Ken Kiewra: As a very young child, Keaton showed a lot of deep interest in a variety of topics such as dinosaurs, cars, and games. When he was two or three years old, he liked tic-tac-toe, Connect 4, and checkers. He would be hungry to learn strategy so I would teach him how to improve his play in those games. By the time Keaton was four years old, adults could not beat him in those skill games. At that point, I thought to myself, “Is there something more meaningful we could do with these talents?” When Keaton was four, I brought out an old wooden chess set and showed him a few moves. He was not interested in chess at that point, so I put the set away. However, he continued to show an interest in games and strategy. So when Keaton was in second grade, I brought the chess set back out. Keaton immediately fell in love with chess this time around. Keaton wanted to play chess with me before and after school. I read chess books so I could teach him, though I did not have a background in chess. After a few weeks, we went to his first tournament. It was a cruel reminder that talent is made, not born. In Keaton’s first game, he got checkmated in four moves. Around then, I decided to find him someone who could teach him more appropriately. With his interest in chess and instruction from his first formal chess teacher, he became more prepared for tournaments. He played in the K-3 section of the state tournament and finished third. Six months later, in the nationals, he finished fifth in K-3 section as a second grader. That impressive result at nationals fueled his fire to continue with chess.

Keaton Kiewra and Tom O'Connor: early successes

In "Developing Young Chess Masters: A Collective Case Study" (a chapter in Chess and Education: Selected Essays from the Koltanowski Conference edited by Tim Redman) you wrote that one factor in developing a young chess master is “training with top-flight mentors.” Which chess mentors filled that role for Keaton?

After Keaton’s first tournament, we turned to a chess expert named Kevin who came to our home. Kevin was an outstanding instructor, who made sure Keaton thought about the game. For example, when Keaton asked, “Why does the bishop need to go to that square?” Kevin answered, “You tell me” and then helped Keaton articulate the reasons for the bishop move. When Kevin moved away about a year later, Tom O’Connor (another chess expert) became Keaton’s teacher. Tom would come over once or twice a week. Tom and Keaton remain close. For example, Tom attended Keaton’s graduation from The University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) and recently visited Keaton at Keaton’s home in San Diego.

When Keaton was in middle school, Tom suggested that Keaton needed a more advanced chess coach. We found that coach through Keaton’s summer chess camps. In the summers, Keaton attended chess camps in Omaha staffed by New Yorkers Bruce Pandolfini, David MacEnulty, and GM Miron Sher, who had newly arrived in the U.S. Both Pandolfini and MacEnulty recommended Miron as Keaton’s next teacher. After Miron became Keaton’s teacher, Miron stayed at our home during chess camps and chess study sessions, some of which I organized in Lincoln during the summer and during the school year.

There were other mentors too. For example, before Keaton attended UT Dallas, Keaton had phone lessons with Yury Shulman. Knowing that Yury had graduated from UT Dallas influenced Keaton’s decision to also attend UT Dallas where he played for their chess team.

Was Lincoln, Nebraska a chess hot spot in the late 1990s and early 2000s? If not, what did you do to find opponents and tournaments for Keaton?

Lincoln, Nebraska was definitely not a “hot spot”; In fact, I would have described it as a chess wasteland. There were only a handful of successful players before Keaton. We sent Keaton to various places for chess camps and tournaments. For example, he went to Edmar Mednis’s camp in New York City. For that camp, we stayed with my parents on Long Island and took the train to the city each day. We went to Yury Shulman’s camp in Chicago. I also traveled with Keaton to national scholastic chess tournaments. I made sure he was physically and psychologically ready to play. Even as a youngster, he played in open tournaments such as the Chicago Open and the U.S. Open.

Success fuels the drive for more

In your research, did you find that prodigies raised in chess hot spots have an advantage over prodigies elsewhere?

I think the hot spots in the United States are pretty evident, such as New York City, some places in Florida, and Dallas. I think that living in Lincoln was a disadvantage for Keaton, but we did everything we could to compensate. Computers were not prevalent then, but I had Keaton take phone lessons with GM Sher.

Two of my research participants, Marc Arnold and Robert Hess, had the advantage of living in the New York City area. New York City had weekly tournaments, chess clubs children could attend after school, strong players to compete against and hire as coaches; a real fever-pitch for chess. During the time that Miron was teaching Keaton, he was also teaching Robert Hess, who became grandmaster, and Fabiano Caruana, who has gone on to be one of the world’s top players.

While Miron took subways to teach Hess and Caruana at their homes, he taught Keaton by phone. Miron liked the phone lessons because it meant not having to ride the subway! Keaton wore a phone headset and sat alone in a room with his chess board set up. Phone lessons were a little awkward but were also Keaton’s lifeline to chess improvement. Miron might say, “Let’s set up the board, I want a knight on c6, a king on g8” and so forth. Then, once the position was set, Miron and Keaton used algebraic notation to communicate over the phone. Sometimes Miron would send homework in the mail so he could save time by telling Keaton, “Look at position 6.” Remember, this was before teaching chess lessons over the Internet was commonplace.

Do the Internet and databases such as ChessBase equalize the opportunities for chess growth for prodigies (regardless of where they are raised)?

Absolutely. ChessBase is an amazing tool that Keaton has used for a long, long time. Nowadays, web sites provide instant coverage of events. For example, Keaton just finished playing in the Isle of Man tournament. Web sites allowed observers to view every round of the Isle of Man as it happened, along with every round in all the other important tournaments (such as Millionaire Chess) that happened on that same weekend. And there is a computer engine analyzing each of those games at the left of the screen. Moreover, one can play online at a multitude of sites. You almost don’t need to leave the house anymore to be really strong in chess.

Nonetheless, there is something motivating or uplifting about being at a top tournament in person. But competing in online tournaments and taking lessons through Skype (where one sees a coach face-to-face) allow those with a passion for chess to improve even if they do not live in a chess “hot spot.” That is, the motivation will be there even if they spend all their training time in their homes. It’s a wonderful thing that two strong players can play each other or work together without traveling. For example, Keaton plays training games over the Internet with Jeffery Xiong, a young GM in Texas.

In "How to Parent Chess Talent: Classic and Modern Stories", Chapter 12 in The Nurturing of Talent, Skills & Abilities edited by Michael F. Shaughnessy, you wrote that after you taught Keaton to play chess you helped him by “selecting study materials, being a study companion, hiring coaches, monitoring lessons, convincing school personnel to count chess as a credit-bearing subject, financing lessons and tournaments, teaching school chess clubs, organizing and managing a summer camp, writing a weekly chess column, seeking sponsorship and donations, directing a chess foundation, arranging for and traveling to weekly tournaments and events, boosting motivation, and maintaining emotional health." Tell me about some of those efforts.

Here is one example of how I worked with the local schools to help Keaton improve at chess: In elementary school, Keaton was identified as a gifted student. In Lincoln, that meant that he was entitled to have a mentor. Keaton was initially assigned an academic subject matter mentor. Because Keaton’s true talent was chess, I eventually convinced the school district to have Tom O’Connor mentor Keaton in chess. This was the first time a child was mentored in a non-academic subject. The school district paid for five hours of chess instruction with Tom each week. When Keaton was in high school, I convinced the district to allow mentoring by phone with a stronger player than Tom, as Keaton’s rating had passed Tom’s rating. The district agreed to allow GM Sher to mentor Keaton by phone from New York. Also, the district allowed the mentoring with Miron to be at night, rather than during school hours (which was when most mentors met with their assigned gifted students). What was really crazy was that Keaton even earned high school credit for all his chess instruction.

I definitely had to manufacture a chess environment for Lincoln. I organized events where we would have 200 people attending, such as chess festivals. I started chess clubs at two schools. At those clubs, I had Keaton teach some of the lessons. Keaton would be one of the featured instructors at our camps.  It’s really paid off, as now Keaton is a chess teacher and a professional chess player.

Keaton Kiewra and Tom O'Connor

Did your research on chess prodigies find that other parents make similar efforts for their children? If yes, how much parental time and money is involved?

My research in the chess domain and in other domains found that behind every talented child is a lot of family support. In 1985, Benjamin Bloom’s Developing Talent in Young People was published. Bloom found that no child can develop his or her talent alone. Parents are instrumental in talent development.

One of the chief roles of parents regarding talent development is manager. Parents of chess children often compare managing their child’s chess career to a second job. Most of the chess parents I interviewed spent $10,000 per year at minimum. As I reported in Parenting Talent: A Qualitative Investigation of the Roles Parents Play in Talent Development, one father recording spending $50,000 per year on his child’s chess (mostly for tournament entry fees, travel, and coaching).

Middle class families cut costs to support their child’s chess career, sometimes living in smaller homes or getting second jobs. Some of these families also found sponsors or arranged for their child to be paid to write a chess column. Parents strive to support their chess prodigy at the level needed.

How has your research on chess prodigies fit with your job as Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln?

A few years ago, Tom O’Connor and I taught a university-level course about teaching chess in schools. That University of Nebraska-Lincoln course combined our interests in chess and education.

Every couple years I teach an advanced graduate course called Creativity and Talent Development. I include my chess research there extensively. When I teach my other courses (Academic Success, Learning in the Classroom, and Teaching Learners to Learn), I also refer to my chess research. My two primary research interests are learning strategies and talent development. At the top rung of good learning is talent development, so I find that the two areas are unifying as one.

Nebraska chess players: Loren Schmidt, Al Lawrence, Alexey Root, Kenneth A. Kiewra, Keaton Kiewra

What follow-up research do you plan in chess?

My interests in chess research have always paralleled what was going on with Keaton and his life. Therefore, when Keaton was a child chess prodigy was when I was researching chess prodigies and the roles their parents played. Now that Keaton is an adult and a professional chess player, if I were to do more chess research I would be interested in learning about him and his chess peers. Some questions might be: How do top players train and practice? (That is, top players who are in their late teens through adulthood.) What is the chess lifestyle like for those top players? How do they manage their time? How do they study? To name names, what are Nakamura and Caruana doing when they are not playing in tournaments?

You are also the parent of Keaton’s two younger siblings, who are not chess players. What advice can you give parents of more than one child?

Keaton’s chess allowed us to rally around him and his chess; we became a chess family and that was really fun. When I ran the chess tournaments, festivals, and camps in Lincoln, the whole family helped me run those. My daughter would teach younger children how to play. My wife would help organize the camps, from registration materials to serving lunches. My youngest son would be a chess camper or play in tournaments.

While I did spend an incredible amount of time on Keaton’s chess, my wife and I made ample time for our two other children too. For example, my wife and I adjusted our work schedules so that one of us was always home with the children. I also coached their soccer teams over many years. And, when they developed deep interests and passions, we did all we could to fuel and support those too.

Anything else you would like to add?

Keaton’s pursuit of chess talent has been an enjoyable ride for our entire family. It’s been fun to be part of that process. Win, lose, or draw, chasing talent in any area is hard but rewarding for all involved.

Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.


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