At age 10, he’s already an old pro

Los Angeles Times
May 5, 2011 Thursday
Home Edition

COLUMN ONE;
At age 10, he’s already an old pro;
Sam Sevian holds the title of youngest U.S. chess master — for now

by Scott Kraft

DATELINE: SANTA CLARA, CALIF.

The two chess masters hunched over their royal armies, lost in thought.

On one side, playing white, was 10-year-old Sam Sevian, who a few
months ago became the youngest chess master in the history of the U.S.
Chess Federation.

His opponent, playing black, was David Adelberg, 14, who had been
crowned Arizona’s youngest chess master when he was 12.

Sam had lost a match to David two years earlier. This time, he vowed,
would be different.

The windowless hotel meeting room in Agoura Hills, filled with dozens
of players, was as silent as a church sanctuary.

Sam and David came out playing the Scheveningen variation of the
Sicilian defense, a favorite of the grandmaster Garry Kasparov, one of
their idols.

As the match entered its fourth hour, Sam decided to stir things up.
For 40 minutes, he studied his position, brown sneakers suspended
above the carpet, fists pressed against his chestnut-colored hair,
lips moving silently.

Finally, Sam made his move: a bishop sacrifice.

Sam’s father, Armen, smelling of the cigarette he’d smoked on the
balcony, caught his son’s eye with an expression that silently asked:
How’s it going? Sam shrugged his shoulders and raised his palms: Who
knows?

But Sam’s chess coach, standing nearby, watched with a small smile of
satisfaction. “What he’s doing is very complicated, very complicated,”
he said. “But it might work.”

::

The title of chess master is awarded to players who reach a threshold
of points, earned in official tournament competition and based on
their performance as well as the strength of their opponents.

The average age of chess masters has been steadily falling for years,
but recently, that pace has quickened. To win a tournament in Reno
last year, Jesse Kraai, a 28-year-old grandmaster from the Bay Area,
played four of his six matches against children; the average age was
13.

“Today, you have 7- and 8-year-olds who are training better than Bobby
Fischer did a generation before,” said David Pruess, content manager
for chess.com, a global chess website with 3 million members. He holds
the international master ranking, one step higher than master and one
below grandmaster.

This bounty of prodigal talent has had an unintended side effect: The
half-life of a newly minted chess star has shrunk “to a year or two,
tops,” said Pruess, 29. “It’s easy for a kid on his way up, full of
confidence bordering on arrogance, to forget that he’s become a target
for even younger players.”

Pruess, in a column last year, detailed his own loss to David Adelberg
and good-naturedly warned the youngster that he’d better start
preparing “for the 10-year-olds who will soon be coming to get him!”

That was prescient. Young David’s nemesis turned out to be Sam Sevian,
a fourth-grader from Santa Clara who, in December, became a chess
master at the age of 9 years, 11 months and 11 days.

(Sam followed in the footsteps of Fischer, who earned the title of
youngest chess master in 1956, at the age of 13 years, 3 months and 29
days.)

Sam is the pre-pubescent embodiment of the single-minded passion for
chess that H.G. Wells once described as “a desire that dieth not, and
a fire that is not quenched.”

He lives with his obsession, and his parents and younger sister, in a
modest two-bedroom condominium near San Jose International Airport.

A professional chess board sits on the coffee table in the small
living room; chess books, in English and Russian, are stacked on the
side tables.

Sam and Isabelle, 8, share a bedroom with three single beds; one is
for their grandmother, who often visits from Armenia.

He keeps his favorite inspirational reading material on the bedside
table: the fantasy adventure series “Percy Jackson & the Olympians,”
which features a 12-year-old demigod on a journey to prevent
apocalyptic wars between three Greek gods.

In some ways, Sam is a typical kid. He rides his bike inside the gated
condo complex and watches television when his parents allow it. (“Two
and a Half Men” is a favorite).

Most afternoons, though, are devoted to homework and chess. “I never
get tired of playing chess,” he said, “but I do get tired of studying
it.”

One afternoon before his rematch with David, Sam arrived home from
school and immediately went into his parents’ bedroom, where he sat
down at the family computer. He logged onto a chess website, looking
to challenge someone to a game of blitz chess.

In an official chess match, each player is allowed a set number of
hours to make all his moves and six-hour games are not uncommon.

In blitz chess, each player gets three to five minutes. Blitz chess
games aren’t official, but many players use them to hone their skills.

A 57-year-old international master from Serbia accepted Sam’s invitation.

Swiftly moving the pieces with his computer mouse, Sam finished off
his opponent like an afternoon snack. “That felt good,” he said.

Later, Sam logged onto a laptop on the kitchen table for a lesson,
over Skype, with his coach, Andranik Matikozyan, 32, an international
master who lives in Los Angeles.

They practiced opening moves and went over exercises to prepare for
the tournament.

Sam’s father, Armen, 39, is a physicist with a doctorate from the
University of North Carolina who works at a Silicon Valley company
that makes lasers.

He grew up in Armenia, where chess is a closely followed sport, and
was himself a strong player as a youngster.

Not so long ago, Sam and his father would spend evenings playing chess. No more.

“I don’t want to waste his time,” Armen Sevian said with a laugh.

Sam was born in New York, and the family followed his father’s job
changes to Florida, Los Angeles and, three years ago, to Santa Clara.

When Sam was 5, his father introduced him to the game.

“Most kids just move the pieces quickly,” Sevian said. “But Sam really
studied the board. From the first moment I watched him play, I
thought, ‘there you go.’ ”

When Sam was 7, and playing a tournament in Santa Monica, he met
Matikozyan. “I was amazed at how he was thinking 10, 15 moves ahead,”
the coach said.

This summer, Sam has been invited to a two-day master class with
Kasparov in New York.

In the fall, his father plans to take him to Brazil for the World
Youth Championships, sponsored by the World Chess Federation.

If Sam does well, he will earn more points toward his next goal,
becoming an international master.

His mother, Armine, worries that her son sometimes spends too much
time playing chess.

“The thing is, though, he likes to play,” she said. “Even in his free
time, he goes to the computer and plays. I don’t know … he’s not
like other children.”

Sam and his father made the drive on a Friday in March from their Bay
Area home to the Agoura Hills Renaissance Hotel for the three-day
Western Class Championships, a U.S. Chess Federation-sanctioned
tournament on the professional circuit.

The field included about a dozen masters such as Sam, seven
international masters and one grandmaster, the top chess rating, held
by about 1,300 players worldwide. Also on hand were an army of
less-accomplished players who aspire to become masters.

The first night, Sam played an international master to a draw, the
match ending just before midnight.

He slept nine hours in his hotel room, ate breakfast with his father
and returned to the tables for the Saturday morning match with David
Adelberg.

Their match seesawed back and forth for several hours and seemed
headed for a draw. But then Sam began introducing complications, the
first of which was the move to sacrifice a bishop. David recognized it
was a trap and declined to take it.

Soon David made a small slip in defending his position, and Sam
responded with an additional flurry of sacrificial moves, forcing
David to part with his queen to avoid being checkmated.

After five more anguished moves, only a few minutes remained on each
boy’s clock. David grimly studied the board as the seconds ticked
away.

Finally, he turned his king on its side and reached across the board
to shake Sam’s hand.

“Neither Andranik nor I really understood what he was up to at the
time,” Sam’s father would say later. “When he showed us, we realized
it was really a series of beautiful tactical combinations.”

David’s father, Dan Adelberg, an eye surgeon from Scottsdale, Ariz.,
later ascribed the loss to “one miscalculation, which certainly
happens in many chess games.”

In the hotel lobby, a few of Sam’s young chess friends came by to
offer congratulations.

“What do you want to do now?” his father said, suggesting they go to a
nearby restaurant for buffalo wings and talk over the match.

Sam gave a thumbs-up sign.

From: A. Papazian

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