The Magic of Logic (3)

Are chess super-talents generally smarter than regular kids?

The Friedel Chronicles
7 min readOct 5, 2019
Gukesh, in January 2019 in Chennai, India, being honoured for having received the full Chess Grandmaster title a day earlier. He became the second-youngest grandmaster in chess history.

Remember my story, The Magic of Logic (2), where I described a logical puzzle I gave my grandson Enders on his sixth birthday? He and many other young and generally very talented kids have been subjected to this and other logical problems. The above picture shows Gukesh in January this year at a honorary ceremony celebrating his achievement of the full title of grandmaster in chess — which, believe me, is very hard. The lad was twelve years old and the second-youngest grandmaster in chess history. For a non-chess lay audience: that is like me saying this is a quantum physicist just days before he discovered the Higgs boson — similarly outrageous.

India is currently witnessing a chess boom like nowhere else in the world. I toured the south of the country in January this year (2019) and met half a dozen chess talents who had what it takes to become World Champions. None was over fourteen years old. I had a lot of fun giving them chess and, more importantly, logical puzzles.

This second photo is of Savitha Shri, the current Under-12 World Champion, and many-times national champion in her age group in India. Savitha was at the ceremony honouring Gukesh and people asked: “Is she ill, or sad, or something?” “No,” I said, “I just gave her a logical puzzle.” Which she duly solved correctly. And then asked for more. I call her Clevergirl.

Savitha is nowhere close to Gukesh in chess playing strength, but better than him with general logical problems. I was able to confirm this with my well-known Talent Test — a position I have used on all young World Champions and top contenders since Garry Kasparov in 1985 — he was 23 years old at the time.

The Friedel Talent test is a chess ending with the kings on c8 (white) and a7 (black), and pawns on b5, h2 (white) and on a6 and b7 (black). Of course the kids had to solve it without pieces on the board. Both Gukesh and Savitha did it in a minute or two, after which I gave them the real problem: move the white king to d8 in the initial position.

Generations of young talents have puzzled over this problem — and I have kept track of the solving times of dozens of them.

The second part is the real challenge: the white king is moved to the square d8 in the starting position. That makes things much more difficult. I narrated the history of this puzzle in the following video, when I was cornered by IM Sagar Shah (CEO of ChessBase India) at breakfast in Bangalore. Sagar set up his video camera and made me describe my talent test. Gukesh solved both problems in his mind in five or so minutes (and confessed he had seen something like it before), while Savitha stood there for half an hour trying to solve the second problem in her mind.

But back to general logic: above I am doing Enders’ weighing problem (explained there in full). Savitha was quicker than Gukesh, as he readily admitted in a YouTube interview. I have given this logical problem to a lot of chess super-talents as well as regular kids of similar age. This was done for a specific reason: I am trying to determine whether exceptional chess talents are better at working them out than normal kids their age, or equal, or perhaps worse. In this endeavour psychologist friends urged me to use one standard problem (and not an assortment) so I can reach a valid conclusion. I will report on the results when I have a larger sample — currently less than three dozen.

Recently we arranged a chess camp in Geneva for six very talented young players with former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik. In the breaks I gave the kids logical problems. In the above picture you see them puzzling over the weighing problem. In the background, talking to me, is fourteen-year-old grandmaster R. Praggnanandhaa who, a few days ago (October 2019) became the World Junior Champion in the under 18 section.

Above are two chess grandmasters, aged fifteen, trying to figure out how many times you must weigh. And here is a video of a 13-year-old International Master Leon Mendonca trying his hand at logic in the Geneva camp.

This is an interesting picture: the lad on the right is an absolute super-talent, grandmaster Nihal Sarin, fourteen year old, solving the puzzle in my house together with his second and teacher, grandmaster Srinath Narayanan, 25, in May this year (2019). Nihal is in my opinion scheduled to take part in World Championship fights in five years at the latest. Stupefying talent for chess.

This is a former junior World Chess Champion, Canadian Qiyu Zhao, and her parents, both professors, all working on Enders’ weighing problem.
This is Savitha giving Enders’ problem to a talented young German chess player, Cecilia, sister of Vincent Keymer, the greatest chess talent we have in Germany.
German pre-teen chess talent, Nikolai Nietche. On the left, also participating, is super-talent Alireza Firouzja who won the Iranian Championship at age 12 and earned the grandmaster title at the age of 14. He is currently the highest ranked Iranian player — another future contender for the World Championship.

On to non-chess kids: On my way to and from Qiyu’s family, on the train, I was seated across from two kids, (one on each trip), whom I had a lot of fun with.

Lilith, on the left, is nine years old. She was initially very upset that she had no Internet connection on her iPhone. I gave the sulking girl one logical problem after the other, and she spent well over an hour working on them — without pause or interruption. Occasionally her mother had to admonish her not to scream for joy when she had found a solution — that startled other passengers. Twelve-year-old Martin on the return journey was super-smart and solved my problems much faster than his 28-year-old brother Maximilian, with whom he was travelling. He, too, spent a full hour thinking…

This is Laila, a nine-year-old super-smart non-chess kid in Bangalore. She followed me around at a festive dinner, pestering me for “more puzzles” — with which she could confound her school-teacher aunt.
Two young kids, Max and Anne, nine and eleven, close relatives of mine in Bavaria, working on the problem. Max was one of the fastest solvers I have encountered.

Some grown-ups for a change? On the left is Christian, the sports editor of a major German news magazine, failing to solve the 27-coin part of the weighing problem. “That’s enough for me,” he said, and set off grumpily for his hotel in London, where we were attending a World Championship. Ten minutes later he came rushing back: “I have figured out!!” And indeed he had. On the right some random passenger on the plane. She has promised to try the problem on the Nigerian school children she is working with in Africa.

It has become clear to me: the standard problem I give my test candidates is very entertaining for kids and adults alike. Never once has anyone lost interest and turned away.

In closing an image of Enders at six solving the weighing problems — with grapes!

Enders is now seven, and I have sent most of the above chess talents a different puzzle I had devised with him:

Some months ago Enders said: “The day before yesterday I was six years old, and next year I will turn nine!” When was he born? You should give the exact day, month and year of his birth.

Nobody, except for Gukesh’s father, an ENT surgeon, has solved it so far. Like to try your luck?

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The Friedel Chronicles

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.