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ENDURING SKILLS CAN COME IN CHILDHOOD

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Chess skills not only can be acquired very early, but also they endure longer than the physical skills essential to other sports.

This is to remind one of the late Samuel Reshevsky, who appeared in public exhibitions as a prodigy of 6 and was still a strong tournament player 70 years later.It might be of interest to recall what the late Sterling Talmage many years ago related to me. (After a lifetime career as a professor of geology at the University of New Mexico, Sterling, the eldest son of the celebrated Utah scientist James E. Talmage, returned to Utah and became an editorial writer for the Deseret News. Sterling Talmage's youngest son, John, who still lives in Salt Lake City, has long been a strong chess player. At one time, he also became an editorial writer for the Deseret News.)

Sterling Talmage remembered that when he was a young boy, his father brought him downtown to see 8-year-old Sammy playing an exhibition chess game in the front window of Auerbach's department store.

Auerbach's was located on the southwest corner of State Street and 300 South. A large crowd had gathered on the sidewalk to watch Sammy and his opponent play. (Sammy continued to give simultaneous exhibitions in Salt Lake City until he was almost 70.)

Back to chess skills: It is undeniable that skills lessen with age. A grandmaster in his 40s is on the decline. And only a handful of players are competitive at the highest levels in their 50s and beyond.

One of the marvels of our time is the 63-year-old Swiss grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi, who in January of this year was ranked 31st in the world.

In an 11-round international tournament in Zurich held this past summer - which included Gary Kasparov - Korchnoi was a serious contender for first place before he lost a crucial game in the ninth round.

During a break in the tournament, he disclosed to the syndicated chess columnist Shelby Lyman that he was a late arrival at competitive chess.

"I started playing chess seriously when I was 15 years old," Korchnoi said. "I was not a prodigy child."

He advised parents to wait until their children are 10 or 12. "Then it's OK to study seriously," he said. "But I think not earlier, though younger children can still enjoy chess."

The winner in Zurich was Kasparov, who finished a point and a half ahead of the field with an 81/2 to 21/2 score. In several games he transfixed the audience with his unique brand of creative and masterful play, which seems to be a whole level above that of other mortals.

One assumes that Gata Kamsky, the 18-year-old U.S. champion, never heard of Korchnoi's parental advice.

To recall recent exploits of the chess phenom is to be reminded of the great cubist artist Marcel Duchamp's rueful judgment: "Chess is a sport. A violent sport."

Kamsky's combativeness has a unique flavor. He is a man of his time, the epitome of a new breed of chess player.

Since the heyday of Bobby Fischer the ante in top-level chess has risen spectacularly. Today's championship matches have purses of millions of dollars. The number of gifted players pursuing the much brighter chess rainbow has increased four- or fivefold.

Few if any of his contemporaries can or wish to equal Kamsky's 14-hour days, seven-day weeks, physical conditioning and monastic existence.

But the chess world is replete with great talents and fierce competitors who work very hard and very professionally at the game.

Within a span of a few months, Kamsky unexpectedly has devastated both Viswanathan Anand and Vladimir Kramnick, the third and fourth best players in the world.

He is in a position to gain title shots at both Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov - albeit as an underdog, a role he seems to relish.