Alireza Firouzja recently threatened to win the Tata Steel Masters at the age of 16, and even though he hit the wall of Carlsen, Caruana and Anand he still starts February with an extraordinary 2726 rating. He’s clearly one of the best 16-year-old chess players of all time, but in this new 2-part article French FM Joachim Iglesias looks at the other contenders. In Part 1 he looks chronologically at players from Mikhail Botvinnik to Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Judit Polgar.
by Joachim Iglesias
In this two-part article we’re going to take a look at the sixteen best 16-year-old players in the history of chess. From Mikhail Botvinnik to Alireza Firouzja, you’ll see that even if “no-one’s serious at 17” (Rimbaud) they can be at 16 in chess!
As with any selection, there is of course an element of subjectivity.
Among the notable absentees are child prodigies from an era when there were few tournaments and they only experienced their first great successes in their twenties.
Paul Morphy, born in 1837, won his first US Championship in 1857, at the age of 20. It was his first major tournament
Jose-Raul Capablanca, born in 1888, won a match against the Cuban Champion when he was 13, but he only gained international recognition by defeating Frank Marshall in 1909
Samuel Reshevsky was a child star, but his career only really began with his victory in the National Open in Tulsa in 1931 - he was 20 years old at the time
Among the players from the more recent past who don’t feature here Anatoly Karpov and Vishy Anand are the greatest champions.
And now let's look at the sixteen best 16-year-olds in chess history, in chronological order:
Misha learned to play chess at the age of 12. The man who was to become the patriarch of Soviet chess started to be talked about at 14 years old, when he beat the World Champion Jose-Raul Capablanca in a simul. Two years later, in 1927, Botvinnik finished 5th in the world’s strongest national contest, the USSR Championship. He won a miniature with Black against theoretician Vladimir Makogonov:
Young Misha concentrated his pieces on the kingside, putting maximum pressure on White, who cracked: 23.g4?? fxg4! 24.Qxe4 and here not 24...gxf3 25.Qxf3, which would prolong the contest, but 24...gxh3! and White resigned, since 25.Bh1 h2+ 26.Kg2 Qh3 is mate.
Mikhail would once again finish 5th in the USSR Championship at the age of 18 before winning it as a 20-year-old. He went on to be World Champion from 1948 to 1957, 1958 to 1960 and 1961 to 1963.
Boris Vasilievich Spassky was spotted very early on by the Soviet Chess Federation, which awarded him a monthly scholarship from the age of 11 and allowed him to play his first major tournament abroad in 1953.
The young Borya celebrated turning 16 during a tournament in Bucharest where he finished 4th out of 20 players, behind Alexander Tolush (Spassky’s coach) and future World Champions Tigran Petrosian and Vasily Smyslov and tied with GMs Laszlo Szabo and Isaac Boleslavsky. That performance made Spassky an International Master, a title that was much harder to achieve at the time than it is to become a grandmaster today.
The icing on the cake was that Boris won the tournament’s beauty price thanks to his magnificent win over Smyslov, who four years later would become World Champion:
33.Nxg7! The main idea is 33...Kxg7 34.Rg3+ Kf8 35.Rxf7+!! with mate-in-2. The player who was going to win the famous Zurich Candidates Tournament a few months later tried 33...Rxd6 but resigned after 34.Nxe6, since after 34…Rxd2 35.Rg3+ it’s mate next move.
Spassky dethroned Petrosian as the youngest grandmaster in history in 1955, at the age of 18. Petrosian had become a grandmaster at 23. Boris Spassky was World Champion from 1969 to 1972.
Robert James Fischer was only 13 when he won the Game of the Century against Donald Byrne. He became US Champion for the first time in 1957, at 14 years of age.
In 1958, at the age of 15, Bobby became the youngest grandmaster of all time, beating Spassky’s record by three years. We’re so used to seeing 13 or 14-year-old grandmasters nowadays that it’s hard to see what the fuss was about at the time. You should know, however, that if not for Fischer, Spassky’s record would have lasted for 25 years, until 1980, when Garry Kasparov became a grandmaster at the age of 17! And Fischer’s record was only beaten 33 years later, in 1991, when Judit Polgar became a grandmaster a month quicker than Fischer.
In 1959 Bobby Fischer competed in the Bled-Zagreb Candidates Tournament. Mikhail Tal won that 8-player quadruple round-robin, thus winning the right to face Mikhail Botvinnik. 16-year-old Bobby tied for 5th place with Svetozar Gligoric, ahead of Fridrik Olafsson and Pal Benko. In the first round he beat Paul Keres, who would finish 2nd.
Keres was the favourite to win the Candidates and the great theoretician sacrificed his queen with 11.Bxf6!? Nxf6 12.e5! Bb7 13.exf6! – the only move that could justify the previous two - 13...Bxf3 14.Bxf3 Bxf6 15.Bxa8
White has a temporary material advantage despite being a queen down, but Bobby shut out the bishop on a8 with 15…d5!?, inviting White to sacrifice: 16.Bxd5 Bxd4 17.Rxd4 exd5 18.Nxd5 Qc5 19.Re1+ Kf8 20.c3
The position is more or less equal, but the youngster dominated his opponent and ended the game with a nice Epaulette mate:
Instead of resigning, Keres played 53.Rc4, allowing 53…Qe5# – mate on the board!
Bobby Fischer was World Champion from 1972 until 1975.
Alexander Nikitin, Garik’s first coach, brought him to the famous Botvinnik school when the future star was only 10 years old. In addition to Nikitin’s coaching, Garry could take advantage of lessons from the former World Champion as well as those of Mark Dvoretsky.
Thanks to coaching from the world’s best chess school, Garik was able to play his first major international tournament outside of the USSR at the age of only 16. Of the 16 players in Banja Luka in 1979 all were grandmasters except for Kasparov and another talent born in 1953, Guillermo Garcia, who went on to become a grandmaster. Among the big names we find former World Champion Tigran Petrosian, Ulf Andersson, Jan Smejkal, Walter Browne…
Garik won the tournament with an unbeaten 11.5/15, two points ahead of second place!
Kasparov may not yet have had the “thousand eyes” that English GM Tony Miles remarked upon, but he was already a “monster” in tactical positions. Here’s the end of his game against GM Slavoljub Marjanovic:
Black was counting on 26.exf6 Qc6 and, even if White has the advantage, nothing is decided yet. Kasparov instead played with power and precision: 26.Qxh5! Qc6 27.f3 Be7 28.Bh7+! Kf8 29.Qf5+ Ke8 30.Bg6+ Kd8 31.Rd1+
If 31…Kc7 then 32.e6+! is decisive. The grandmaster preferred to give up his queen with 31…Qd5 and resigned a few moves later.
Thanks to that tournament Kasparov obtained a first rating of 2595, 15th place on the January 1st 1980 FIDE rating list. Garry Kasparov was World Champion from 1985 until 2000 and the world no. 1 for over 21 years.
Joël surprised the chess world by winning the World Junior Championship (Under 20) when he was only 15 years old! The Frenchman finished ahead of Vassily Ivanchuk (19 years old), Boris Gelfand (20) and Gregory Serper (19), and 32 years later the record still stands. Joël became a grandmaster in 1990 (nowadays he would have become a grandmaster for winning the World Juniors) and in July of that year, at the age of 17, he was no. 54 in the world, with a 2570 rating.
Joël was only 15 years old when he defeated the very strong English Grandmaster John Nunn in great style.
In this typical King’s Indian position the most played moves were 13.c5, 13.Rc1 and 13.b4, with White attacking at full strength on the queenside and hoping to be quicker than Black will be on the kingside. After having kept up with the latest theory, Lautier unleashed a move that was almost a novelty at the time and would go on to be one of the main variations - 13.g4!, with the aim of slowing down the black initiative.
A few moves later and the kingside was perfectly blockaded. Or was it?
Black can’t wait around: if White gets to play one more prophylactic move like Kh2 he’ll have his hands free on the queenside. The Englishman sacrificed with 18...Nxg5! but Lautier didn’t respond with the naïve 19.hxg5?, after which Black would have uncorked 19...Nxd5! with major complications, but 19.Kh2! After 19...Nh7 20.Kxh3 Black didn’t have enough play against the fearless white king.
The end was aesthetically pleasing:
In time trouble 39.Rxf7?? would have been a terrible mistake, since Black has a perpetual on the 2nd rank! Joël instead chose the most efficient and beautiful win: 39.Qg1!!. If Black takes the queen with check, 39…Rxg1+, he’ll have to give it back with check on the next move and transpose into a resignable ending. Nunn played 39…Bf2, but after 40.Rxf7 Rxg1+ 41.Kh2 Black resigned since the checks will quickly run out.
Joël Lautier reached the world no. 13 spot in 1995 and obtained his peak rating of 2687 in 2002. He quit chess in 2005, no longer having any chance of achieving the goal he’d set himself: to become World Champion.
Gata didn’t wait until the Banter Blitz Cup in order to become a Famous F*cking Legend. On the July 1990 rating list, at the age of 16 years and one month, Gata was already the world no. 8. It was therefore no surprise when he won the Tilburg 1990 supertournament, tying for first place with Vassily Ivanchuk ahead of Boris Gelfand, Nigel Short, Jan Timman, Ulf Andersson, Predrag Nikolic and Yasser Seirawan.
The following year he gave a real positional lesson to none other than Anatoly Karpov:
The position after 12.Kxd2 should have been perfect for the former World Champion. Facing a kid, Karpov was playing for two results, right?
Karpov went on to play the imprecise 19.Bc3? and Kamsky brilliantly punished him with 19...Na7! threatening Ba4. After 20.Bd2, Gata didn’t repeat moves but played 20...Nb5! provoking the weakening 21.e5. The following moves by Black would have pleased Nimzowitsch and Petrosian: Gata went on to play Bc6, Na7, Bd5 and Nc6, with a perfect blockade on the light squares.
On move 48 Gata sacrificed a pawn in order to create a passed pawn:
48...g5!! 49.hxg5 h4+ with an advantage despite being a pawn down.
It all ended with a little combination à la Capablanca:
56...Rg2+ 57.Kf1 Rxe2! 58.Kxe2 Bc4 59.d5!? exd5 60.Kd2 Bxd3 61.Kxd3 d4! with an easily won ending.
In 1996 Anatoly Karpov took revenge by beating Gata Kamsky in the FIDE World Championship match. After that defeat Gata didn’t play again until 2004, but would still go on to win the 2007 World Cup.
Kramnik won the Dortmund Open (not the closed grandmaster tournament) in 1992. Garry Kasparov said in an interview in New in Chess:
The most talented of all the players I have seen here is Vladimir Kramnik. In terms of talent he is definitely No. 1. I have never said this before, but I think he is the only one who plays as well as I did at the same age. I have always smiled regarding the talent of Judit Polgar, and laughed regarding Gata Kamsky, and I do not believe the other players of the Dortmund Festival. But 16-year-old Kramnik is already playing big-time chess. His is a genuine chess talent. There are many players, but they don't play chess, they move the pieces. Whereas Kramnik plays chess. (Quoted in the book “Kramnik, My Life and Games”)
Kramnik made real chess history at the Manila Olympiad in June 1992. Russia owed its first victory since the collapse of the USSR in large part to the young Vladimir, who achieved the best result of the tournament, with 8.5/9 and a 2958 performance. The competition ended on the day of Vova’s 17th birthday.
During that Olympiad he easily converted his advantage in an ending against the formidable GM Yasser Seirawan:
With Black Kramnik played 27...Kf8! since the exchange of knights doesn’t allow an easy draw. For example: 28.Nxc5 Rxc5 29.Rd6 Ra5!. Seirawan played 28.Rd6 and Kramnik responded precisely with 28...Ne4! 29.Rxa6 Rxc4 30.Kf1 Rc2! with a clear advantage. White was helpless until the end:
59...f4! 60.Ra1 g2! 61. Kf2 Kh2 White resigns.
Vladimir Kramnik was World Champion from 2000 to 2007.
Known as the Queen of Chess and the best female player of all time, Judit Polgar for a long time – and even still – could claim to be the greatest “talent” in the history of chess! (even if she would challenge the word “talent”). On January 1st 1989, at 12 and a half, she was 57th in the world with a 2555 rating, a record that will probably never be broken. In 1991 she finally dethroned Bobby Fischer as the youngest grandmaster of all time, 33 years after that record was set! Judit was 15 years and 4 months old.
At 16 years old, she was the joint winner of the Hastings supertournament, tied with Evgeny Bareev and above the strong grandmasters Jon Speelman, Matthew Sadler, John Nunn, Mikhail Gurevich and Lev Polugaevsky.
Here’s how she destroyed the very strong Grandmaster Alexander Chernin when she was only 14 years old, in 1990:
22...Rxg2+! 23.Rxg2 Bxh3 24.Ne4 Ne5!! The point, and the only move that doesn’t lose! 25.Nxe5 Bxe5 and White is helpless.
Chernin couldn’t find anything better than 26.Ng5, but after 26...Bxg2+ 27.Kxg2 Qxg5+ Black was attacking with a material advantage. White resigned two moves later.
Judit Polgar reached world no. 8, with a peak rating of 2735.
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