The greatest prodigy of all time

by Albert Silver
6/1/2022 – The claim to be the best ever in chess, in any category, is usually backed up by either hard numbers (Karpov's number of grandmaster tournament wins is not open to debate), or strong opinions such as the best absolute player. But the debate on the greatest prodigy seems to lie somewhere in between, depending on your criteria. Read this article and see if you agree. (photo: Capablanca at age four)

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Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the greatest prodigy of them all?

The world has a fascination with great prodigies whatever the field or area. This is quite understandable since it brings with it the promise of a greatest ever and subsequent elevation of whatever it is they so precociously dominate. In terms of sheer genius, precociousness and accomplishments, perhaps the name that resonates more than any is Mozart.

It is hard to imagine a greater prodigy in any field than Mozart, here aged six.

Playing the piano or violin blindfold is a nice parlor trick, but composing a full-fledged symphony at age seven is a ridiculously high bar to set.

Defining the criteria

In chess, the most common criteria used are either youngest grandmaster (or master) or the youngest to break Elo X. Both are exciting and fun measurements, but both suffer from similar problems. Let's take a look at what these might be and why.

The Youngest Elo X

By Elo X, we mean either 2500 FIDE, 2600 FIDE, or 2700 FIDE. When it comes to the youngest 2800, well, the only two players who seem to have any claim to this are Magnus Carlsen or Alireza Firouzja, but as we will see, even this is not set in stone. The problem with using Elo as an absolute measurement is that Elo is not meant to measure absolutes at all. Elo is designed to measure the difference (if any) between two players, and not their absolute strength.

Let's put it this way, In the 2009 World Championships for the 100 meter race, the results were as follows

  1. Usain Bolt - 9.58 seconds,
  2. Tyson Gay - 9.71 seconds (+0.13s)
  3. Asafa Powell - 9.84 seconds (+0.26s)

These times are absolute, regardless of wind factor or other, and they are the times each runner took to cover the distance. However, if Elo had been used instead of a stopwatch, it would certainly rank the athletes correctly, but it could not tell you how fast Usain Bolt ran. Instead it could only tell you that he was 0.13 seconds faster than Tyson Gay, and 0.26 seconds faster than Asafa Powell, and the probability of beating either of them on any given day. In other words it could only tell you the difference.

This might seem a nitpick, but it is actually a crucial point. As of this writing, Magnus Carlsen stands at a towering 2864 Elo, and is 58 Elo above no.2 Ding Liren rated 2806 Elo, and so on. Imagine if FIDE were to suddenly decide to add 1000 Elo to every single player. In other words, Magnus is now 3864 Elo, Ding Liren is 3809 Elo, and even you dear reader have gained 1000 Elo. Does this mean you are stronger? Not in the slightest. Is the entire list now useless? Not in the slightest. So long as everyone has the same change, and the differences of Elo between the players remains untouched, the Elos are rigorously correct. Magnus Carlsen is still 58 Elo above Ding Liren and that is all that matters.

Now suppose you were to do this to the runners above. You decide to arbitrarily add three seconds to everyone's result. Usain Bolt is still faster than Tyson Gay by +0.13 seconds, but now his time is 12.58 seconds. Is that ok? No, because contrary to Elos, their times were not relative, they were absolute. 

Why this matters

It will be no news to most readers that ratings from decades past do not translate to ratings of today. In other words, in the 1977 ratings list, with Karpov the clear no.1 at... 2690 Elo, it did not mean he was weak enough that he would barely be able to compete with the Top 50 players of today (the world 50th today is rated 2685), since Elo does not measure absolute chess strength. It meant he was only 45+ Elo ahead of the field, based on his results in 1976. He would soon widen this gap to 60 Elo over Kortchnoi (world no.2) and 95 Elo above Henrique Mecking (world no.3) the next year, but another talk for another time.

Henrique Mecking was one of the great prodigies, winning the 1965 Brazilian Championship at age 13 in a 20-player round-robin and then at age 15 in his only two participations (photo: folhapress)

The point is that it is far more relevant to state a player was world no.2 than some Elo number. The world ranking represents how the player stood compared to all the players of their time.

When Mikhail Tal climbed to 2705 Elo in 1980, he might indeed have become only the third player to break 2700 Elo at the time, but what merited attention was that more than 20 years after having lost his title, the Magician from Riga was now back to being the world's no.2 player in the world.

The youngest GM

Before anything, let's be clear that the title of grandmaster is worthy of the utmost respect and is the greatest title one can achieve in the game, other than that of World Champion. However, the title itself and what is required has undergone not a few changes since its creation.

For example, for 33 years(!) Bobby Fischer held the record for youngest grandmaster ever when he earned the title in 1958 at age 15 years and 6 months. A less informed reader might conclude that he was simply 'slower' to get the title compared to players today due to less access of information, less efficient training methods and so on. But the fact is there is just no comparison with what he needed to do.

In 1958, there were no FIDE ratings, GM norms, or any such criteria. There were essentially two ways to become a grandmaster. You could either be voted (yes, really) by a commission to be a grandmaster, or you could achieve this on your own by becoming an open challenger for the world title. The latter meant you had to qualify for the actual Candidates Tournament to be granted the grandmaster title. While they had a different set of events to reach the Candidates tournament then (Zonal -> Interzonal -> Candidates), the Candidates itself was not vastly different from today's. The winner would earn the right to a match for the world title in a match. Fischer won the US Championship outright, qualifying him for the 21-player Interzonal, from which he then qualified to the eight-player 1959 Candidates tournament. That is how he became a grandmaster.

Among the great chess prodigies is without question Samuel Reshevsky. At what stage he was of master or grandmaster strength is hard to know, but he was to become one of the elite players for many years (photo: Library of Congress)

I have no desire whatsoever to diminish the achievements of other GM titleholders of any age, nevermind just the youngest, but the criteria are simply not the same. When FIDE adopted the system used today based on Elo ratings, norms, and more, it was a good thing as it made the process more transparent and democratic. The problem is that the norms were centered on rating performances meaning they were treated as absolutes. Exactly like today, a norm requires among other things a 2600+ performance. It treats Elos as immutable truths and this is a fundamental mistake as Elos are anything but immutable. In 1971, when the first FIDE ratings list was issued (meaning when FIDE officially adopted it), a 2600 Elo was the cutoff for the top 16 players in the world (Taimanov and Gligoric were tied 15-16th). Thus a norm meant a performance that equated to that level of play of a Top 16 player. Today the 16th player in the world is rated 2750 Elo, so if the GM norm were updated to reflect not an absolute Elo, but rather the Elo of the top 16 players, then a norm would require a 2750 performance.

In fact, in 1991, when Judit Polgar became the first person to break Fischer's record after 33 years, using the new GM title criteria by FIDE, the cutoff was not vastly different from 1971, since the 16th player in the world at the time was rated 2625. A minor inflation, but nothing as dramatic compared to today.

Both Judit Polgar (left) and her sister Sofia Polgar playing a game of blindfold chess (photo: Polgar collection)

Compared to what both Bobby Fischer faced to get the title in 1958, and even Judit Polgar in 1991, it is not unreasonable to state that it is vastly easier today than it was for them.

List of grandmasters before age 14

Nr Name Nat Age Born
1 Abhimanyu Mishra USA 12 years, 4 months, 25 days 2009
2 Sergey Karjakin UKR 12 years, 7 months, 0 days 1990
3 Dommaraju Gukesh IND 12 years, 7 months, 17 days 2006
4 Javokhir Sindarov UZB 12 years, 10 months, 10 days 2005
5 Pragg. Rameshbabu IND 12 years, 10 months, 13 days 2005
6 Nodirbek Abdusattorov UZB 13 years, 1 month, 11 days 2004
7 Parimarjan Negi IND 13 years, 4 months, 22 days 1993
8 Magnus Carlsen NOR 13 years, 4 months, 27 days 1990
9 Wei Yi CHN 13 years, 8 months, 23 days 1999
10 Raunak Sadhwani IND 13 years, 9 months, 28 days 2005
11 Bu Xiangzhi CHN 13 years, 10 months, 13 days 1985
12 Samuel Sevian USA 13 years, 10 months, 27 days 2000
13 Richard Rapport HUN 13 years, 11 months, 15 days 1996

Abhimanyu Mishra is the record-holder for the youngest grandmaster, qualifying for it at 12 years, 4 months, 25 days (photo: Crystal Fuller)

World Ranking

One criterion that does translate better is that of world ranking. No one will argue that the world no.1, no.2, or no.3, regardless of the era, is clear and indisputable. In this, using the FIDE ratings only to classify the rankings, one name emerges head and shoulders above the rest in terms of pure precociousness. Here are the three youngest players to break into the FIDE Top 100.

No. 3 Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen defending his title in 2016 against rival prodigy Sergey Karjakin in game 11. (photo: Albert Silver)

The fight for the third youngest player to become a Top 100 player was a close one, with Magnus Carlsen just edging out his 2016 challenger, Sergey Karjakin, and the Chinese wunderkind Wei Yi. Wei Yi was 15 years and 5 months when he did it, and Karjakin was 15 years and 2 months old. The world champion nipped it when he was 15 years and one month old in January 2006.

No. 2 Teimour Radjabov

(photo: Shamkir Chess)

The player from Azerbaijan was one of the all-time great prodigies, famously beating world no.1 Garry Kasparov with black in Linares 2003 at just 15 years of age. Kasparov had been undefeated in five consecutive Linares tournaments before losing to Radjabov. He had not lost a rated game with white in seven years, and never lost one again. Radjabov was also the second youngest player to ever break into the FIDE Top 100, doing so at just 14 years and 9 months in 2002.

No.1 Judit Polgar

Teenage Judit Polgar analyzes with Viktor Korchnoi after their game. (photo: Polgar collection)

While much was made of her becoming the youngest grandmaster since Bobby Fischer, the truth is she was well positioned to achieve it much earlier. The greatest female player of all time is also by far the youngest player to ever enter the Top 100. Back then it was called the 'Men's' list simply because until then, no woman had ever seemed to threaten this list's label. But the great Hungarian prodigy just smashed the above records by entering the January 1989 ratings list at no.57 when she was 12 years and 5 months old. It is no exaggeration to say that she single-handedly changed the name of the Men's Top 100 list, removing the name 'Men's' from it. She was also the only woman to ever break into the Top 10 as well, reaching no.8 on several lists between 2003-2005. 

Special mention

Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer in 1957 (photo: Robert Walker/NYT)

Although there is no reason to believe Bobby Fischer was that strong before he was 13, the fact he was US Champion at age 13 and a Candidate by age 15 does strongly suggest that had FIDE ratings existed then, he would very likely have squeezed into second or third place, just behind Judit.

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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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daveyhfamily daveyhfamily 7/18/2022 09:16
Since Fischer had to become a candidate for the world championship, what if we used that criteria as being a grandmaster? What are some of the youngest in history to qualify to compete for the world championship?
Nite Moves Nite Moves 7/18/2022 07:30
Philidor was not a prodigy but he was sure damn a genius. I wonder how we would fare against Morphy, Anderson, Staunton (the coward) and even Steinitz. Everyone else from 1890 and beyond would be no comparison.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 6/4/2022 03:43
@Eine-Welt-Staat "Judit Polgar was an aritificial product, no comparsion to Bobby Fischer in his way and time."

I'm convinced that she was "produced" quite naturally. I can also assure you that in her teens she was a terrifying player, a prodigy. As about ideological propaganda, I can assure you that nowadays the west usually doesn't favor Hungary or Hungarians in its propaganda, quite the contrary.
arzi arzi 6/3/2022 04:09
Fischer did get also help from other players.
arzi arzi 6/3/2022 04:06
What about Philidor? Multi talent in chess and music. The best chessplayer in his time.
lnlver lnlver 6/3/2022 04:01
In my opinion, Fischer's case is rather unique. He learned the concepts and strategy without any financial or parental support; was driven by the desire to overcome Soviet dominance in the game. It would be an interesting experiment to place the other prodigies as black in the famous Game of the Century against Byrne and see if they could duplicate Fischer's moves.
arzi arzi 6/3/2022 03:32
To : Eine-Welt-Staat

At the age of 15, Judit Polgar became the youngest grandmaster by then. Could you tell me, E-W-S, has Magnus or other GM get his/her title without his/her parents help? Different times have different means and also different strengths. No one get the GM title without help. How do you compare Paul Morphy to Capablanca, Fischer or Polgar? It's very difficult, but it's not worth going to personalities because of it, is it?
Eine-Welt-Staat Eine-Welt-Staat 6/3/2022 03:01
You are opting wrong, Karsten Müller, and surprisingly unbalanced and one-sided. How simple-minded are you? Or is this ideological propaganda, as usual in these times? Judit Polgar was an aritificial product, no comparsion to Bobby Fischer in his way and time.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 6/3/2022 01:36
@AgainAgain I think a prodigy is

1. Young
2. Extremely talented in a field
3. Active in a field

The people who left chess instead of pursuing it further may have been young and extremely talented, but they have never engaged into the activity with full commitment, so they didn't become prodigies.
arzi arzi 6/3/2022 06:28
AgainAgain:"But I am sure that there are many who was more talented, but chose not to pursue chess..."

In my opinion, this article deals mainly with the prodigy of chess, and does not compare the abilities of genius children in different fields. How do you compare the talented child in painting with the other talented child in music? It can not be done.
AgainAgain AgainAgain 6/2/2022 01:26
Nice article, even though it mostly talks about players who reached a high level early. So this would be the most talented who achieved results comparable to their talent.
But I am sure that there are many who was more talented, but chose not to pursue chess for one reason or for another. It would be quite difficult to find them though...
lajosarpad lajosarpad 6/2/2022 10:43
The only reliable criteria to compare prodigies who lived prior or since ratings in my opinion is to look into how they fared against top players. However, we need to consider the differences between historical periods, as in the 19th century it was much more difficult to travel across continents and the chess world was much less organized than today, so players - especially young players - had much less opportunities to play against top players. Maybe we could define the criteria as follows:

1. Before the age A
2. The person played at least T games against top players
3. And earned a total of P points from a number of G games (points being calculated in classical format, 1 point for a win, 0.5 point for a draw and 0 point for a loss, even if the tournament had a different scoring type, such as the Bilbao scoring)

The result of P / G would yield the prodigy score. I have not specified A, T, P and G on purpose, as it is a perfectly valid thing to debate/discuss their optimal value. Also, we need a clear definition of how we define who a top player is, maybe chessmetrics is a viable option.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 6/1/2022 10:39
Ajeeb007, you have a bit of a point, but it's not quite fair. Polgar, Radjabov and Carlsen probably would have been prodigies like Capablanca even without better training facilities, but how could they prove it? Nowadays, talent is not enough; you also need hard work to keep up with knowledge of all parts of the game - which needs training on a level uncomparable to what was necessary at the times of Capablanca's youth.
Moreover, Capablanca got the chance to play a match (and win it!) against the Cuban champion Corzo while others of his age (only just 13) often were not even allowed to adher chess clubs. Not bad compared to training facilities given to other great players of that era.

Great to see the comment section open again. I hope that will also be possible for other 'riskfree' articles like the endgame and endgame study articles.
Ajeeb007 Ajeeb007 6/1/2022 05:45
I don't see Polgar, Radjabov or Carlsen as true prodigies. They were all manufactured with a lot of resources put into their development at a young age. Capablanca was a true prodigy, as was Morphy. Like the word "genius", the term "prodigy" is much overused today.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 6/1/2022 03:16
Really great article with fantastic photos! I opt for Judit Polgar as greatest prodigy of all time...
arzi arzi 6/1/2022 03:05
The absolute strength? Playing lots of games and gaining points against the strong opponents. That seem to be a good way to measure the players strength, the absolute strength.

Btw, has Frederic happened a small inconspicuous mistake because the comment area is open again?
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