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Chess prodigy Ray Robson winning in Corus Chess tournament

January 20, 2010 |  4:03 pm

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To this point, my blog posts have centered on Hikaru Nakamura, the reigning U.S. chess champion who is in the hunt to win the elite Corus Chess tournament in the Netherlands and solidify his status as one of the world's top players.

But there's another American here who is also on the verge of a breakthrough: 15-year-old Ray Robson.
Corus is split into three tiers. The world's best are in the top group. Robson is in the third section, but is tied for first place. After four rounds he hasn't lost a game, winning three and drawing one.

For decades, American chess has waited for the next Bobby Fischer. Most prodigies flame out. They give up the game altogether or peak at a level far below Bobby's. Is Robson the real thing? Hard to know. He earned the grandmaster title at 14 -- a younger age than Bobby. And he is flourishing in one of the elite tournaments in international chess.

I asked Jack Peters, the Sunday chess columnist for the L.A. Times, to assess Robson's potential.
"Unlimited,'' he said in an e-mail.

But Jack went on to emphasize that talent alone won't cut it.

"I think literally millions of people have all the talent needed to become world champion,'' he said. What distinguishes the best players is work ethic, resourcefulness and a competitive spirit, he continued. "Robson might be able to do all three. We'll just have to wait and see."

After he won his fourth round, Ray left the stage to analyze the game. He was exploring alternative moves and a small crowd gathered to kibitz. An older spectator who is also a strong player told Ray a certain move was a mistake.

"You can't do this,'' the man said.

"Yes I can,'' Ray said, evenly.

"You can do anything you want,'' the man continued. "It doesn't mean it's good.''

"It is good,'' Ray said.

I liked how he didn't retreat. He's still an adolescent -- rail thin and shy. But in that quick exchange he showed a certain mental toughness.

Afterward, I sat down with Ray to talk about his chess. He said he is open to becoming a chess professional. Living near Clearwater, Fla., he says he is playing more overseas, where the competition is tougher and tournament conditions are more hospitable.

American tournaments are feats of endurance as much as chess brilliance. The players grind out multiple games a day, vying for small cash prizes. European tournaments unfolds at a more civilized pace.

Ray plays actively. When he has the white pieces, he likes to start by pushing a pawn two squares up the king file. Pawn-to-king-four often leads to sharp, dynamic games, which Ray said suits his playing style (Fischer also favored pawn-to-king-four). But he conceded he needs to become a more versatile opening player.

He was modest about his grandmaster title, resisting comparisons to Fischer.

"I don't think it's a good comparison,'' Ray said. "In his time it was a lot harder to get the GM title. When he got it he was so much younger than anyone else. Now, there are a lot of players who got it even younger than me. So his accomplishment was definitely better.''

Grandmasters are indeed multiplying. In the 1970s America had 10. Now the number is 67, according to the U.S. Chess Federation. Computers are one reason. A young player can find strong competition over the Internet any time of the day. And with a $50 computer chess program, anyone can get a sophisticated evaluation of his game. So, it's easier to improve.

The other day I bumped into Nigel Short, a British grandmaster who once competed for the world title. We spoke about the proliferation of grandmasters.

Young players, said Short, "have an incredibly strong learning tool. This makes an enormous difference. So the whole process of learning has accelerated. The GM title itself is a bit of nonsense, really. It has long since ceased to mean anything.''

Which brings us back to Jack's point.

We'll have to wait and see.

--Peter Nicholas in Wijk Aan Zee, Netherlands

Photo: Ray Robson, left, is about to start Round 4 at the 2010 Corus Chess tournament.

Credit: Peter Nicholas / Los Angeles Times


 

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