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Chess prodigy Caleb Levitan becomes a candidate master

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Twelve-year-old King David Sandton Primary School student Caleb Levitan is the first chess player in South Africa to achieve the title of Candidate Master by recording a FIDE rating of 2000 (others have attained the title in other ways).

Levitan surpassed the 2000 rating by gaining 123 points playing in the grandmaster section of the Czech Open in Pardubice, Czech Republic, in July. “I think he had the lowest rating of anybody in the category that he played there, and he performed phenomenally well,” says Levitan’s dad, Shaun. “He performed at the strength of a 2200-rated player.” Levitan previously gained 40 points at the African Youth Chess Championships in Zambia, and 74 points at the 45th AGRIA International Chess festival in Hungary.

“Every time you play in a FIDE-rated tournament, depending on the strengths of your opponent and the results of that game, you gain or lose rating points,” says Shaun. “If you look at Caleb’s age and his trajectory, he’s doing incredibly well, and we look forward to him potentially getting his rating to 2100, which will be the next milestone. If he achieves that, he will receive a FIDE master title, but that’s the goal for next year, I guess.”

Levitan’s goal is to become a grandmaster, for which he will need at least 2400 points.

Though there are almost 2 000 grandmasters in the world, most of whom are from Russia, South Africa has one chess grandmaster, Kenny Solomon, who became the country’s first grandmaster after winning the African Chess Championship in December 2014 at the age of 35.

Levitan’s brother, Judah, also aims to become a grandmaster one day. Both Levitan and Judah played board 1 for the South African A and B teams respectively at the recent Youth Olympiad held in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan, during October.

“What’s phenomenal is that they were selected to play for the South African team at the Olympiad,” says Shaun. “When you look at the people they played against, they were by far the youngest. The world sends their best junior teams. In this instance, junior means anybody who’s 16 and under.”

The South Africa A team recorded their best performance in the past 10 years, Shaun says. “But it was tough. What was interesting for us is that we were there over Yom Kippur. We had to get permission not to play on those days. Even though the tournament was in a city called Nakhchivan, we had to fly to Baku so that we could daven at Chabad of Baku over Yom Kippur, and then fly back to resume the tournament. It was actually quite special, because you’re in a strange country and yet, you’re going off to daven, fast, and celebrate Yom Kippur properly.”

Describing Chabad of Baku as “amazing and fantastic”, Shaun says Azerbaijan has strong ties with Israel. “So, there’s respect for Jewish people. At one point, we were literally 5km from the Iranian border. It’s not as though the neighbours are fans, but the country itself was great. There’s a lot of religious tolerance. Caleb plays all his tournaments with a yarmulke on his head. He’s unfazed by the political affiliations of his opponents. There’s a lot of Jewish pride, we take it seriously in terms of making sure that we play in a very multicultural team, in which all races are represented. Most religions are represented, and the boys are proudly Jewish.”

During a ceremony that took place last Thursday, 3 November, Levitan and his family found out that he had been nominated for Amayanga-Yanga (Young Athlete of the Year) at the prestigious Gauteng Sports Awards to be held on 28 January next year. The other two nominees are volleyball player Andile Dlamini and life-saver Grace Prince.

“There were a lot of potential nominees, but he was shortlisted for the top three, I think, because he has achieved the title of candidate master and played board 1 for South Africa,” says Shaun. “He stood out as really excelling within his particular sport.”

Levitan is the eighteenth best chess player in South Africa, according to the International Chess Federation’s list and no one younger than him sits higher on the this list.

“Every year, Caleb seems to add about 100 or so points to his rating,” says his dad. “He’s one of the strongest players in the country. We don’t see him as a kid anymore playing in an age group. Now, he’s playing with adults who are of any age, any strength. His coaches still consider him to be underrated because the rating is a proxy for your strength. But your rating can grow only when you play other players. In South Africa, we don’t get the opportunity to play as many of these tournaments, which means that the strength of the rating doesn’t always reflect the player’s strength, which is the case with Caleb. There isn’t anyone close in his and Judah’s respective age groups. In terms of absolute levels, I think Judah could be in the top 80 in South Africa.”

Shaun doesn’t want to put pressure on his sons, but says there’s no reason to believe that they have reached anywhere near their potential. “They’re by far the youngest, they’re already pushing established players, and they’re working hard at chess. I think that’s not necessarily the case for a lot of other players. In many instances, they’re working professionals, they’ve got other responsibilities, but Judah and Caleb have the ability to keep focusing on growth and learning. We know where the growth areas are. They can see the progress they’ve achieved, and they’re so excited to continue moving along that path. Can they reach the higher echelons? Absolutely. How high can they go? Their coaches believe that they have what it takes one day to represent South Africa in the men’s team Olympiad which effectively means being in the top 10 in South Africa.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Peter grobbelasr

    Feb 18, 2024 at 11:19 am

    But who are his coaches?

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