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Record-setting chess prodigies are getting younger

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

So when I was 8 years old, I'm pretty sure my obsessions circled around hockey and "The Muppets," but other 8-year-olds are different. Take Ashwath Kaushik. Kaushik is obsessed with chess. Not only that - he is so good at it that he recently won a chess game against a 37-year-old grandmaster. This sets a new world record for youngest player to beat somebody of that level. And it leads to a question - how does an 8-year-old get so good so quickly? Mike Klein is the voice of ChessKid.com. He's also the voice that Kaushik heard nearly every day when he would practice online. And he's joining us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MIKE KLEIN: Thanks, Scott, for having me.

DETROW: So how does an 8-year-old get so good at chess that he's beating somebody at that grandmaster level with decades of experience?

KLEIN: In a word, technology. When I was 8 years old, chess was very much played exclusively in the over-the-board realm. And nowadays kids can log in, watch instructional videos, get games against top players all over the world any hour of any day. At any given moment, there's more than 200,000 people playing chess online on various chess websites, including ChessKid, and there's just no barriers to access to information or top-quality games.

DETROW: And my understanding is that this record was actually a pretty recent record when Ashwath broke it, and that another 8-year-old had recently set it. Like, how many younger kids are we talking about, at this point, are tapping into this online community and getting these advanced skills?

KLEIN: More kids than ever are playing from around the world, including from communities and countries that may not have historically had a strong chess culture, because, again, this leveling of access to all the information has made it so that, well, our longtime Norwegian world champion, that was nothing. When I was growing up, Norway was not a hotbed for chess. And India especially, where Ashwath was born, although he did grow up in Singapore, they have had such a resurgence of teenage talents. They've got four of the best 20 players in the world that are all teenagers right now. So that's kind of been a really nice thing to see is these different communities learning and availing themselves to the game.

DETROW: I know you've talked to Ashwath and his family. Could you tell us about how his parents are supporting their son, how they're encouraging this habit that he's very, very good at, clearly?

KLEIN: Yeah. In fact, the mom takes him to most international tournaments, which is a little bit of a departure. Often, we see chess dads as being the ones being the chaperones, but he travels internationally a lot. You know, he lives in Singapore, but he broke this record in Switzerland. Interestingly, he has not yet gone the way of home school. A lot of young chess talents, they give up on regular schooling because they're traveling so much, so kudos to Ashwath for still having a regular school life and somehow fitting in all of this chess. But Singapore is starting to develop a little bit of a chess culture, but ultimately, Europe is still the place to be for all aspiring players. So that's a pretty long-haul flight to be getting to Europe so often.

DETROW: While we have you and while people are listening to this conversation about chess and maybe thinking - should I give it another try? - what would you say to somebody who's trying to pick it up again but just intimidated?

KLEIN: Well, first of all, don't be because I can tell you that the average rating on ChessKid and on chess.com is much lower than the public thinks. Chess is a lot like golf, where you can play really poorly but have that great shot on 18, and that's what you come away with. And I want them to think of chess like that. Even if you only win a small percentage of your games, there's beauty in the game. And the more you get into the game, the more you'll realize what kind of moves and ideas and patterns give an aesthetic pleasure. And in some ways, I envy those people because, unlike me, a lifelong chess player, they should not have a lot of results-oriented focus. They should just have enjoyment focus. So there's players of every caliber, and I think that if they get back into it, they'll get some of the beauty out of the game.

DETROW: That's Mike Klein, the voice of ChessKid.com. Thank you so much.

KLEIN: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY BASH SONG, "SUGA SUGA (FT. FRANKIE J)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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