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Twin chess champs – at 7

  • JackSportChess
When Shaun Levitan decided to teach his six-year-old twin boys how to play chess, he had no idea that they were natural chess champions.
by JACK MILNER | Apr 26, 2018

Judah and Caleb, Grade 2 pupils at King David Primary Sandton, took an immediate fancy to the game. Less than 18 months later, they are the highest rated seven-year-olds in the country.

Shaun took the plunge because they were the same age as he was when he learned how to play chess. “They quickly learned the moves and the rules, then started to understand the strategy of the game,” said Shaun. “The benefits of having a twin brother with the same interest is that they started to play against each other – often.”

The boys were improving fast. Shaun contacted Clyde Wolpe, a former South African chess champion and coach, and asked him to work with the twins.

When they first started the lessons, they were the youngest kids in the class. They felt intimidated when asked to suggest a move for a game because they thought the older kids would laugh. Within six months, they were the best two in the class and they now beat all the others.

As things stand, Caleb is the higher ranked of the pair with a rating of 1 175, but Judah is not far behind on 1 020 points. But it is worth noting that Caleb performs at his best when he has his brother sitting next to him. In fact, the pair devote as much time to analysing each other’s games as they spend on their own.

The twins learned to record their own moves using chess notation before they could even write properly.

In June 2017, at the age of six, they played their first rated tournament. They were placed first and second in a draw of 30 children. They went on to earn their provincial colours after being selected to play for the Under-8 Johannesburg Metro A team in the SA Junior Chess Championships.

This annual event is one of the premier junior sporting events in the country where 2 500 children, representing their regions, play in teams against one another.

This year’s event took place in January. Caleb played Board 1 (the strongest board) and Judah played Board 3.

Both boys were undefeated over seven rounds and Johannesburg Metro won the Under-8A Championship division with a clean sweep against all other regions, and each won best player on their boards

The tournament everybody wants to play in is the SA Junior Closed Chess Championships. At this prestigious chess event, the top 30 youngsters are selected, with the top 22 getting automatic places. The others play off in a wild-card competition for the final places. Caleb got in automatically, but Judah narrowly missed the cut. He played in the wild-card tournament, finishing in the top three, and joined his brother at the boards.

This year, the tournament was played in Benoni and during the event Caleb and Judah played 11 rounds of chess over six days. They sat side by side, occupying Boards 1 and 2 throughout the tournament, and dominated the event. They remained undefeated and their results confirmed them as the top two chess players in their age group in the country. For this, they became the only two recipients of their National Junior Chess Colours.

They will now be invited to represent South Africa at the Commonwealth Chess Championships in India, at the Africa Youth Chess Championships in Kenya and at the World Cadets Championships in Spain.

The one they could miss out on is the Commonwealth Chess Championships in New Delhi as it would mean missing too much school time. But the other two are definite possibilities.

“At this stage, we’re not sure what their level really is,” said Shaun. But to be competitive in Spain, they would need to get their rating up to about 1 600.”

Their highlight was playing in a chess simultaneous exhibition against super grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura. Nakamura played against 100 kids at the same time and after four hours, only 20 players were left. Caleb was one of them. “It was getting later and later, and Caleb was exhausted, but he kept going. After four-and-a-half hours, we forced him to resign,” said Shaun.

Despite their brain power and ability to focus for long periods, these youngsters are not only chess players; they play sports and have piano lessons as well. Right now, though, chess – and school – are their main focus.

“Eventually, I want to be a grandmaster like Magnus Carlsen, (the 27-year-old world champion from Norway) and Nakamura,” said Judah. “When I play,  I need to plan my end game. I try to get a win, otherwise I try to find a way to force a draw.

“I never look at my opponent because he could try to do something to distract me. I don’t care what he’s doing.”

Caleb said he was excited to learn chess. “When my dad taught me, I learned a new culture. My goal is to be the best chess player in the world. My heroes are Magnus Carlsen, Bobby Fischer, my dad and my brother. “When I play, I keep telling myself I’m going to win. I want to dominate in the game and with my brother next to me. I also hope he’s going to win.”

But what the twins are also learning to do with their coach is play “blindfold chess”, where the players do not see the positions of the pieces or touch them. This forces players to maintain a mental model of the positions of the pieces. Moves are communicated via a recognised chess notation.

That would be hard enough for older players, but it’s a remarkable feat for a seven-year-old.

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