Levitan twins keep climbing the chess ladder

  • LukeSport17Jan
Chess-playing twins, Caleb and Judah Levitan (9), have both had busy starts to the year. A couple of days ago, the two boys represented Johannesburg Metro in the South African Junior Chess Championships on the East Rand, where Johannesburg Metro claimed the team prize in the under-10 category, with Caleb (on board one) and Judah (on board two) also winning individual prizes for best performance on their respective boards.
by LUKE ALFRED | Jan 16, 2020

“They won 67-and-a-half points out of a potential 70 in winning the team prize,” says their proud dad, Shaun. “That’s a record in the under-10 division in these championships.”

Shaun was a handy player while at school, captaining the junior chess team, but the twins have left him way behind, he says with a blend of pride and ruefulness that is a father’s special prerogative. “The game has moved on so quickly, computers have such incredible processing power nowadays that your talents get accelerated by playing puzzles and getting drawn against opponents of similar strength on chess.com,” he says.

Starting the year in such fine form is useful to the twins, who began playing chess as six-year-olds three-and-a-half years ago. At this level, the age categories in the sport increase by increments of two years, and both are now at their almost-oldest in the under-10 category because they turn 10 in June.

Both were, of course, a year younger in the under-10 category last year, but in 2020, they will use their extra year of experience to potentially qualify for three overseas tournaments, the most prestigious of which is in the World Cadets in the Georgian Black Sea resort of Batumi in October. “They’re competitive – as parents we try and keep the competition healthy,” says Shaun. “They do niggle each other, as all siblings do, but they’ve been great for each other in the sense that if one doesn’t solve a problem, the other one is always there to help.”

There was a coda to the SA Junior Champs in that during the tournament, Caleb and Judah played with 103 others in a simultaneous match against visiting Armenian super grandmaster, Levon Aronian, who walked around a room simultaneously playing against 105 others. “After six-and-a-half hours, Caleb asked Aronian if he’d accept a draw,” says Shaun. “In turn, he asked Caleb what his next move was going to be. Caleb told him what it was, and after that Aronian was happy to grant the draw.”

“They were in awe of this Armenian grandmaster,” he says. “If they weren’t sure that they wanted to become grandmasters before, they’re now pretty sure of what they want and will need to become what is called ‘candidate masters’ first.

“They have very aggressive chess goals set by their coach. We’re hoping that this is going to be a big year.”

The twins’ burgeoning chess careers have literally changed the way the Levitans function as a family. Sleep is important, as is diet and exercise. Their fruit and vegetable intake is high, and they are strong cross-country runners for their age, Shaun pointing out that most of the world’s top players now have personal trainers.

The twins missed 16 days of school at King David in Sandton in 2019, with the figure for this year likely to be the same or possibly even higher. “They’re still nine years old, so they like their burgers and pizzas,” says dad. “But that’s not tournament-friendly, so we have to be careful what they eat. At the higher levels it all becomes a case of concentrating and sitting still for long periods.”

Only so much can be learned online if you are a chess player nowadays, sooner or later you have to confront a real-life opponent made of flesh and blood. The two played in New Delhi in one of their first-ever overseas tournaments two years ago and found it a daunting prospect, what with the international scene being so much larger – and more brutal – than the parochial local one.

Overseas tournaments can have their compensations. Last year, for example, Caleb played against (and beat) Spain’s Manuel Alvarez Escudero, a mere 89 years his senior, at the VIII Open de Chamartin in Madrid.

Consider that Escudero, born in 1930, would have been nine when the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, the age Caleb was when the two played, and 45 when the fascist reign of Francisco Franco came to an end in 1975. According to Shaun, Escudero was pleasantly surprised – and perhaps slightly perplexed – that he had been beaten by one so young.

The next three to four years are vital for the twins, who play piano and fervently support Liverpool when they aren’t trying to outwit their opponents on the board. The time-period is significant, says Shaun, because it is only at age 13 that the human brain has developed sufficiently for talk of becoming a grandmaster to start looking like more than idle chatter.

South Africa has only ever had one grandmaster before, a player out of Mitchells Plain by the name of Kenny Solomon. In the Levitan twins, Caleb and Judah, the country might be well on the way to having two more.

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