Southbridge’s Sam Sevian, 13, is youngest US chess grandmaster
Sam Sevian, the youngest American-born chess grandmaster, is amused when asked to go from his Southbridge home to Harvard Square and play the chess wizards there. A few side wagers on the Harry Potter-looking 13-year-old could yield a very merry Christmas.
It turns out that he already has been there, incognito, with his ball cap pulled down low and his father in tow. But when Sevian immediately started making complex moves, the chess expert there got suspicious.
"Are you Sam?" gasped one flustered player. "Holy [expletive]. Don't do this again."
Sevian didn't take anyone's money. Money is not what drives this prodigy.
"My ultimate goal is to become world champion," he says.
The United States has not had a world chess champion since Bobby Fischer in 1972-75.
Searching for Sam Sevian is both easy and impossible. It's both checkers and chess. His family lives in an apartment in Southbridge, 10 minutes off the Mass. Pike. But his mind is complex, his personality sweet but shy.
It's not easy being Sam Sevian.
He is as guarded as his king.
"It's hard for him to open up," says his father, Armen. "Sometimes I can't even reach my own son, what he wants, what he thinks."
Armen is a principal scientist at IPG Photonics in Oxford who came to America from Armenia in 1996. A chess expert himself, he started teaching his son chess at age 4.
Sam is always multitasking. He studies chess problems 6-9 hours a day and sometimes mumbles moves in his sleep. Recently he woke up crying from a bad dream in which he lost a game to an opponent he had already beaten.
He was born in Corning, N.Y., but he was not a happy baby. According to his father, he never smiled until he was 2.
"When he finally did, we went, 'Whew,' " says Armen.
The family moved to Florida, then California, where Sam really became obsessed with chess.
Before the age of 10, he was already the youngest master in US Chess Federation history.
His natural affinity for chess surprised even him. As a 10-year-old at a chess school in Los Angeles, he shouted, "I'm winning — I'm crushing you," during an impromptu blitz match against an international master, Greg Shahade.
"I was excited I was going to win," says Sevian. "I didn't think I was a high-rated player and he made a blunder."
But he didn't really celebrate when he became the youngest US grandmaster in history (and sixth-youngest in the world) in St. Louis Nov. 23 at the tender age of 13 years, 10 months, 27 days. It was a stunning accomplishment that shattered Ray Robson's previous US record by more than a year. Even the great Fischer was 15 years, 6 months, 1 day old before he became a grandmaster. That's a full 19 months older than Sevian.
That night, the overwhelmed youngster went to bed exhausted while his father partied.
"I was happy when I became grandmaster, but you know there are a lot of people who get to that stage at a young age," says Sevian. "But not every one of them progressed to the top of the rankings."
Staying on schedule
Some grandmasters level out and never get better. The elite become world champions like Fischer, whose games against the Soviet Union's Boris Spassky epitomized the Cold War. Unfortunately, Fischer later became a recluse and then re-emerged with rants against the US and Jewish people.
Sevian applauds Fischer for putting chess on the map in America and for his brilliant play. He dismisses his bizarre later years.
"I don't think I'll grow into a weird personality," he says.
The teenager has youth on his side, but not time.
"During a game, I'm trying to exhaust all the possibilities," he says. "There's calculations where I make a move, then I have to see what he makes, frame by frame by frame in my head. This takes a lot of time for me."
That is where chess games can be lost.
"You have to work fast, and it's very easy to make a blunder," he says.
Sevian's family moved to Massachusetts in July 2013 to make the travel to Europe for tournaments easier. He is home-schooled because of his extensive travel schedule for tournaments.
In some ways, he is a normal teenager. He watches sports on TV, and he loves cheeseburgers and Philly cheese steaks. Patrice Bergeron is his favorite Bruin, and he loves hockey fights. His favorite player on the Celtics was Rajon Rondo. English studies are no fun, but he loves math. The next girl he kisses will be his first.
"I'm probably different," he says. "Most my friends are chess players and I contact them on computers. I don't see many friends face to face. Usually during tournaments I see them. It's OK."
His typical day begins at 9 a.m. with schoolwork, then he heads to the gym. He works out on the treadmill or plays basketball. In the summer he swims.
"You have to have stamina for the long games," he says.
In the afternoon, it's all chess. There could be as much as nine hours of work a day.
"I use chess books and a computer," he says. "It's not really playing, it's solving positions."
Just for fun, he plays a blindfolded blitz game against his father, with his back to the chessboard, and rapidly calls out his moves without hesitation, as if he is drawing bingo numbers. He wins easily.
A very long shot
Despite the support and the success, Armen worries that his son will have trouble making a living. Chess so far has been a break-even proposition.
"We had conversations that maybe we should just drop chess and take up math or science," says Armen. "But he shuts down. He says, 'You're hurting me.' He doesn't like that."
Sam doesn't like being called a genius, either.
"I don't like the word," he says. "There are many more events that I have to prove myself."
And becoming a world chess champion is such a long shot.
"I think it's much harder to be a world champion in chess than being Michael Jordan," says Armen.
Former world champion Garry Kasparov says the odds are staggering.
"I would be extremely cautious to say this is his destiny," says the man who was the No. 1 player in the world for 20 years. "To be world champion, you need so many qualities all together. Is it possible? Yes."
There have been only 16 players crowned world chess champion since 1886, according to Kasparov, and historically there have been about 1,500 grandmasters. Sevian is ranked No. 1 among players under 14, according to the FIDE World Chess Federation.
"The face of American chess?" says Kasparov. "Absolutely. Under 15, he's definitely the best in the world, that's for sure."
Could he beat reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen, 24, of Norway?
"Maybe. Maybe yes," says Sevian, who turns 14 Friday.
For two long weekends a year, Kasparov conducts training sessions with Sevian and a handful of other prodigies in "Young Stars — Team USA," a program established jointly by the Kasparov Chess Foundation and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. Kasparov has been working with Sevian for three years and has also assigned him a tutor, former Soviet champion Alexander Chernin, who lives in Budapest. Sevian also spars on Skype with his former coach, Andranik Matikozyan, who coached Sevian for free from age 8.
Last Saturday, while Christmas revelers dodged multiple Elmos, Minnie Mouses, Santa Clauses, and Spidermen in Times Square, Sevian presented six of his recent games to Kasparov, his former second, Michael Khodarkovsky, and a few gifted protégés in a conference room on the 40th floor of a midtown office building.
His voice was soft and he never looked at his idol during his two-hour presentation, preferring to keep his eyes glued on the chessboard.
The game Sevian showed included some high-risk moves that required, according to Kasparov, "mind-boggling calculations."
"They were very attractive wins with sacrifices — beautiful games — but the level of resistance was low," says Kasparov.
Kasparov also expressed concern for Sevian's time management.
"If it happens all the time, even the nerves of steel could be worn out," he says.
His advice: "Control the lines. Imagine it's a tree and there are many branches. So you have to control it.
"So far, at certain points, it controls him, so the current takes him and he doesn't control the trip. That's often why he gets into time trouble. There are so many lines and so many tempting opportunities. He sees a lot, but better sometimes to see less but be more precise."
Sevian's gentle demeanor conceals a killer instinct.
"He plays extremely aggressive chess," says Kasparov. "Sometimes it's too aggressive, like in tennis, a powerful serve and rush to the net. We want to make sure he becomes more universal, because facing strong opposition will require other qualities."
Kasparov says the next three years will be crucial.
"He's definitely going to rise to the top, but how far, I cannot foresee right now," he says.
Meanwhile, Sevian is grateful for the support.
"It's nice to just show my games to him, analyze my games with him, and understand how his brain works," he says.
He'll spend Christmas in Massachusetts with his parents and younger sister, and cram for the crucial January tournament in the Netherlands.
Asked what he wants for his birthday, he sounded like any other 14-year-old boy.
"Anything but clothes," he says.