The Beth Harmon that almost was

by Albert Silver
7/24/2022 – Usually, when discussing former chess prodigies, the talks will gravitate around the accomplishments while young, and then shift towards their accomplishments as a mature player. Among the most unusual stories of such in chess is that of a little girl whose feats were worthy of the fictitious Beth Harmon, yet never bloomed into the tale of an adult champion.

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At age three, she could replay a game of chess from memory after just seeing it, and by age seven could play six simultaneous games blindfolded. At age nine she beat an International Master who had been national champion five times.

Who is this girl? Meet Jutta Hempel.

Six-year-old Jutta Hempel simultaneously re-playing by heart six famous mastergames at Gluecksburg, Northern Germany on August 13th, 1967. (Photo: Stern / Juergen Nickel)

Born in Jensburg, West Germany in 1960, Jutta Hempel quickly became a media star, featuring in newsreels from around Europe as she gave simuls and astounded with her precociousness... and incredible cuteness to melt anyone seeing her.

Her face of deep concentration can be seen clearly.

The first sign of her exceptional gifts came, as mentioned, at age three, when Jutta could watch a chess game and replay it by memory. By age four, she was playing chess at the town Youth Center, and by age five she was the top junior player in the town. On her sixth birthday, she played twelve others in a simul and won 9.5-2.5 in four hours.

A German newsreel report on this simul, dated from 1966, and digitalized by Das Bundesarchiv was made, bringing images of the little girl working her way around the boards much to the consternation of the opponents.

A sign of the times, the players are all enjoying a beer and a smoke as she proceeds to break them down, one by one.

In her next simul in the town square, she won 9-1, and at age seven, she won the Flensburg junior championship. She then played six games blindfolded simultaneously. As is common with such young over-performers, by the time she was eight, she was performing even more simuls, some of which were broadcast on television.

The above German newsreel is not the only one to be found online, and the best known is by British Pathé.

The overlap in some of the footage is obvious, and an agreement between the two was no doubt made

The depth of her precociousness became manifest, when at age nine, she won a problem-solving contest, and in a tournament in Flensburg, she drew two games against International Master Jens Enevoldsen.

Jens Evald Enevoldsen-Elsing was a Danish chess master who won the Danish Championship outright five times and tied for first in a further two. He represented Denmark in no fewer than eleven Chess Olympiads and though he was 63 when he played young Hempel in 1970 at the Flensburg Open, he also played for Denmark that same year and again in 1972.

Bent Larsen and Jens Enevoldsen in a training match (source: arves.org)

Nevertheless, while games of Jens Enevoldsen from the 1970 Open can be found, as well as of Jutta Hempel, their actual encounter seems to have been lost to time.

What became of her

According to Edward Winter's site Chess Notes, Ludwig Steinkohl (Bad Aibling, Federal Republic of Germany) contacted her father, Hermann Hempel of Flensburg, who replied with two long letters giving details of her career.

"That year she went on to further education in Kiel, in accordance with her own belief, ‘First study, find a profession and then perhaps start playing again’. As she was interested in Business Studies she spent two and a half years as an employee in a Danish bank."

At the time, according to her father, she commented, "A woman cannot earn a living from chess. But if I have children I will teach them to play, because chess has been a great help to me with everything."

You can find her player profile and games in the Online Playerbase

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Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications, and the content creator of the YouTube channel, Chess & Tech.
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