A little kid walks into a scholastic chess tournament in St. Petersburg one day. He’s unrated, so he probably plays on one of the bottom boards. He loses two games and then goes home. According to the tournament report he finished second-to-last, tying with two other kids who also withdrew after two losses. He earned an official USCF rating of 120.
Neither of the other two kids he tied with were ever heard from again (at least in U.S. chess). However, for some reason this kid kept playing. A month later he came back and played in another beginner tournament. This time he scored 4 points out of 5, losing only to a 435 player, and increased his rating to 438. Ray Robson was on his way.
It’s amazing to me to think that if Robson had quit after that first tournament — something that was very possible, that most scholastic players would have done in his shoes — then American chess history would be different. He is now a grandmaster, and the 13th highest-rated player in the U.S. He is surely a future U.S. champion, assuming that he keeps playing.
When I go to tournaments with lots of kids running around, I confess that they get on my nerves sometimes. They make so much noise, there are so many of them, and I know that 90 percent of them will quit in a few months or years.
But Robson’s history is a good reminder that every child matters and every game matters. See that player on board 146 in the beginner’s section, the one who is barely tall enough to see over his pieces? Take a good look, because one day you might see him on board 1 in the national championship.
Anyway, I thought you all might find it interesting to see a little slice of history, as it occurred in October 2001 in St. Petersburg, Florida.
It’s equally mind-blowing, to me, to take a look at Robson’s rating progress since that first tournament:
I strongly suspect that Robson owns the all-time U.S. record for largest lifetime rating improvement. His lifetime improvement of 2577 is almost unbeatable (for anybody except him) because I don’t think you can get a published rating below 100, and it’s extremely hard to get a rating over 2700. To break Robson’s record, Hikaru Nakamura would have to attain a rating of 3262. Samuel Sevian would have to reach 2894. I would have to get to 3804.
By the way, you might wonder what became of the other 34 children who played in Robson’s first tournament. I clicked on every one of them. It turns out that two of them are still active in tournament chess: the third-place and fifth-place finishers, Adam Miller and Philip Bauer. Of the two, Adam Miller has been a little bit more successful. He tied for fifth place earlier this month at the national K-12 championship, in the 12th-grade section. His rating history is also pretty impressive:
This is pretty darned good. He basically improved in a straight line for almost ten years before he hit a ceiling at 2100. If you looked at this graph, you would say this kid was a prodigy. And yet Robson just blows him away!
It kind of puts things into perspective. There’s talent, which almost every kid has and blossoms with a little bit of encouragement and patience, if you can just keep them from quitting. And then there’s TALENT, which is mysterious and ineffable and rare.