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Daniel Naroditsky is a difficult guy to get a hold of.

“He’s currently travelling in Europe,” his father informs me over the phone, before clarifying that he’ll be returning home to the San Francisco Bay Area for only a short stint. I book the earliest appointment and am set to speak with Daniel as soon as his plane touches down from Budapest.

In the meantime, I settle down with his book, Mastering Positional Chess. It is like trying to read about an Enigma machine, the text punctuated by weird symbols and codes. Phrases like the “Berlin Wall Variation” and “Bishop Sacrifice” are scattered throughout. To me, it all seems like an encrypted hitman assignment. I mean, “sacrificing a bishop?” Are we talking about bumping off a member of the Catholic clergy here?

Just to be clear, the Daniel Naroditsky I am talking about is, at 14, the youngest published chess author in history. He is, in fact, one of those kids who occasionally has a movie made about his early life: he is a chess prodigy.

To clarify even further, I have always found chess fascinating, even though I have never actually played the game. I mean, let’s face it, to play it well requires great intellectual prowess. Sure, it’s been labelled the game of choice for dweebs, geeks, nerds and spazzes, but those labels were probably started by folks insecure with their own IQ. Those who are in the know understand that the world’s greatest board game is the game of kings.

After all, even director Guy Ritchie – royalty of British celluloid cool – is obsessed with chess. Ritchie’s ex, Madonna, is game too. Add to this mix chess fiends like Will Smith, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bono and pretty boy Jude Law, and you’ve got yourself a nice little clique. So, hell, if the “lame game” is good enough for them, I say bugger off, chess-haters.

However, if celebrity endorsements aren’t enough to sway you, consider this: our prodigy Daniel Naroditsky gets to jet set all over the world. There are few good opportunities to play in America so he travels abroad to compete in tournaments reserved for the best of the best. But for Daniel, who’s been on the All-American Team five years in a row, it’s not so much the place but the players. The stronger the opponents, the better he gets. And Europe is ground-zero for chess geniuses. The best player on the planet is 19-year-old Norwegian wunderkind Magnus Carlsen.

Daniel travels like a rock star but works like a pro: tournaments are a psychological grind. There are usually two games per day, each one lasting about four hours. (And yes, bathroom breaks are allowed.) Daniel studies his opponents and uses their weaknesses to his advantage.

“A strong player can anticipate an opponent in almost any position,” he tells me, adding that he can foresee as many as seven moves. The masters, or “the big of the bigs,” as he calls them, can stop an opponent in their tracks. Grandmasters can see up to 10 moves into the future.

Besides playing up to eight hours a day at weekend tournaments, Daniel has two-hour training sessions twice weekly via the internet with his coach (who lives abroad), and he studies classic chess games for three hours a day (sometimes twice that). When travelling, his entourage consists of his mother, Lena, who accompanies him on trips to Europe, and father Vladimir who travels with him on long weekends.

“He’s like a professional athlete,” explains Vladimir, who introduced Daniel to chess at six-and-a-half so that he would have an “intellectually stimulating” game partner.

Chess has been played for generations in Daniel’s family, but his quick grasp of the game nevertheless came as a shocker. According to his parents, it took only a few months for him to learn the rules, and soon after he was playing in his first tournament. He won all five games and quickly progressed to playing with adults. In 2007, in Turkey, Daniel was crowned World Youth Chess Champion (Under-12 Boys category) after beating a whiz kid from Russia in only 27 moves.

“As soon as I was introduced to chess, I felt a connection between me and the board,” Daniel confesses.

His hero Garry Kasparov became, at age 22, the youngest undisputed World Chess Champion in 1985. (A couple decades later he ran in the Russian presidential election. Yes, chess has a completely different level of respect in good old Russia.) Daniel calls Kasparov “the greatest player to have ever played chess.”

Kasparov is one of the big of the bigs – a chess Grandmaster. At Daniel’s present rate, he expects to reach that status in three or four years. To me, a Grandmaster sounds like a character straight out of Harry Potter. When I ask if Grandmasters are given a special flying cloak or magic ring, Daniel tells me that, unfortunately, no, but the prospect sounds very interesting. He does reveal, however, that for him chess is a war.

“It’s an endless battle and there are never-ending possibilities on every move,” he enthuses, while adding, “It’s a bloodless war.”

So, cloak or no cloak, after a few days at home, Daniel Naroditsky will fly off to wage another bloodless campaign and I’ll be at home trying to make sense of all the hieroglyphics in his book.

Words by:
Illustration by: SIMON LÉVEILLÉ