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Chess power twins Caleb and Judah climb ranks in Panama

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South African chess prodigies, 11-year-old twins Judah and Caleb Levitan, are doing what they love – playing competitive chess in a country that has a thriving Jewish community: Panama.

As of Wednesday, 15 June, they had both won a combined total of seven out of eight matches in the country’s capital, Panama City, after four rounds of the World Schools Chess Championship (WSCC).

Taking place from 10 to 19 June at the Wyndham Panama Albrook Mall Hotel & Convention Center, this year’s edition of the tournament has 489 participants from 37 countries participating across six categories (from under seven to under 17, going up in increments of two). Each category consists of nine rounds.

The Levitans are competing as a part of South Africa’s six-person team in the Under-13 section of the championship.

On 11 June, Caleb and Judah both won in the first round of the Under-13 age group against Columbia and Costa Rica respectively.

Their father, Shaun, who sits on the Johannesburg Metro Chess Exco, has high hopes for his sons. “On top of that, it’s a fantastic learning experience,” he says. “I mean, what’s amazing is how Jewish Panama is. One doesn’t appreciate that when one walks into a mall over here, mezuzahs are on the doors. When you go into a Krispy Kreme, the doughnuts are kosher. It’s a thriving Jewish community.”

The twins were selected for the WSCC courtesy of winning the respective age groups they competed in at a South African junior closed chess championship this year. Judah played in the Under-12 section and won all his games, while Caleb played in the Under-16 section. “We decided that this year, we didn’t want them competing in the same section because what invariably happens is that they finish first and second,” says Shaun.

The boys have had a healthy and competitive rivalry ever since they got into chess. Their dad played the game, and taught it to them when they were six. “They were quite good at playing against each other, and then I called Clyde Wolpe, a previous South African chess champion. I took them to his office, and he asked them to play some moves against each other. He said, ‘Look, they’re not trying to take each other’s kings, so they understand the game. I’m happy to coach them.’”

Caleb says he likes chess because of “the aggressiveness, the attacking, and the defending. I also love winning. I’m very competitive”.

Judah relishes the strategy involved. “I also like how it’s played – the competition, the tournament format, and how you can make friends in chess from around the world,” he says.

They were successful in South Africa from a very early age, and have been the best in their age group every single year thereafter.

In August 2018, the then seven-year-olds tied for first place at the African Youth Chess Championship in Kisumu, Kenya, to become the first South Africans to win the Under-8 age group of that tournament.

At a tournament in Spain three months later, Caleb finished eleventh out of 135 children to break the South African record for any South African in a world competition.

Caleb and Judah were also recognised as the best Under-8 players in South Africa during the Junior Chess Championships prize-giving ceremony in Johannesburg.

They have played against American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura. In addition, Caleb has defeated Spain’s Manuel Alvarez Escudero, who is 89 years his senior, and drawn against Filipino-American chess grandmaster Wesley So – who recently ranked number two in the world at the time – and Armenian grandmaster Levon Aronian.

Caleb looks up to the latter because of “his attacking style, and he was very nice when I once met him”.

Judah’s role model is the reigning world chess champion, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, “because he worked hard to get to where he is, and he practices chess every day”.

Today, Caleb and Judah are respectively rated in the top 50 and top 100 chess players in South Africa. “It’s quite unprecedented to have kids so young having ratings so high,” says Shaun. “So, we are quite hopeful that they can go on to realise bigger potential.”

They practice every day. After all, their father proclaims the old philosophy, “If you spend 10 000 hours practising something, you’ll be a master of it.”

They do have a coach, but they have also learned to work by themselves. “When they were a bit younger, it was more difficult to expect that, but now kids of their age can be expected to work on their own chess, play their own games, and analyse their own games,” says Shaun.

Especially because of COVID-19, they also play chess online. “But pleasingly, a lot more over-the-board games have returned, and international tournaments have started to resume,” says Shaun.

A couple of weeks after returning home from Panama, the Levitans will be heading off to Lusaka, Zambia, to play in the African Youth Chess Championship. They have also been chosen for the South Africa team to play in the Under-16 World Youth Olympiad in Azerbaijan later this year.

Both hope to be grandmasters one day. That’s promising for South Africa, since the country doesn’t have such a chess player within its borders. Our only grandmaster is Kenny Solomon, who lives in Italy.

But aside from being a top player, what’s more important is “staying true to chess and keep doing chess as my job”, says Judah.

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