Greg Bruce goes in search of something interesting about chess.
A few weeks ago, like every other magazine writer in the world, I was tasked with finding a story to cash in on the massive success of The Queen's Gambit - the show that's made chess cool again, despite filling the majority of its running time with close-ups of its star resting her chin elegantly on her hands.
My big break arrived in the middle of the annual report by the president of the New Zealand Chess Federation, where I discovered the winner of this year's New Zealand Junior Open (for players up to 20 years old) was 10.
We all love a good child prodigy story and chess is full of them. Beth Harmon, the fictional central character in The Queen's Gambit is one and so are many of the game's leading real-life players. They arrive at the table barely tall enough to see the pieces, quickly begin humiliating experienced adults, are touted as the next big thing - and sometimes become it. Legendary one-time world champion and troubled genius Bobby Fischer was a child prodigy, so was current world champion Magnus Carlsen, so is Alireza Firouzja who, aged 16, beat Carlsen in a blitz tournament earlier this year and is now seen as one of his biggest rivals.
Increasingly, the modern game is a place for the young. Indian prodigy Vaibhav Suri, 23, who was once the world's highest-rated 12-year-old and who achieved grand master status at 15, was quoted recently as saying: "If you are not a [grand master] by 13, 14 or maybe slightly later, it will be quite difficult to have a chess career."
Nobody knows how many people play chess but estimates typically settle somewhere in the hundreds of millions. The leading chess website, chess.com, has 33 million members and, on the day of writing alone, the site claimed to have added 105,727 new members. Whatever the total number, only 1723 players are currently grandmasters and only one New Zealander has ever reached that level. Could 10-year-old New Zealand junior champion Isabelle Ning become the second?
The photographer and I met Ning and her coach Ewen Green on a Wednesday night, at the Auckland Chess Club in Mt Eden, where she has one of her two weekly lessons, the other being a weekly group lesson with Bulgarian grandmaster Dejan Bojkov.
I'm not sure why the photographer decided to play her. Ostensibly, it was to make the board look better for the photos but there are faster and less humiliating ways to do that.
He talked a good game. If confidence equalled success, he would have adjudged himself the winner after every move, of which there were not many.
"Check!" he said confidently, only a few moves in.
"Well, you're going to be checkmated soon," she replied.
He moved again, poorly. She looked at the board closely. She said: "Hmmmm."
"Pressure's on!" he said confidently and without evidence.
"It's not," she said. "I'm finding the quickest way to checkmate."
She moved. He moved again. Almost before his hand left his piece, she said: "Yay! Checkmate!"
"Goodnight nurse," Green added.
The photographer took a couple of seconds to figure out what had happened but quickly rallied. "That was the aim though," he said. "I wanted to lose as quickly as possible."
Even in failure, he could see only success. Perception is everything, except when it comes to the scoreboard.
The chess community's fear of this article was palpable from my first contact with its administrators and seemed to revolve around a terror of chess players being depicted as mad, or as flawed geniuses, or both. The fact The Queen's Gambit portrayed its chess-prodigy protagonist as an addict seemed to work them into a particular frenzy. "Most chess players are perfectly ordinary people," one of them wrote, in reply to an accusation I hadn't made.
But if chess has an image problem, it's less to do with the media's depiction of flawed geniuses than the game's lack of them. By far the biggest chess celebrity of the past 50 years is Bobby Fischer, the archetypal flawed genius. Fischer died 12 years ago, having effectively quit top-level chess after his 1972 World Championship win against Boris Spassky ignited a worldwide surge of interest in the game. The only other time chess has attracted anything like global attention was during the politically loaded Cold War end-games of the 1980s between Russia's media-friendly radical reformist Garry Kasparov and his conservative compatriot Anatoly Karpov.
Today's world champion is bland, blond, practically invincible Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, 30, a child prodigy who won his first world title at 22 and is sufficiently conventionally attractive for a modelling contract but is otherwise as appealing as a game against an AI. The only vaguely interesting article I've been able to find on him is a Vice story headlined "Magnus Carlsen, World Chess Champion, Is Kind of a Dick".
A lack of flaws can itself be a flaw. It's all about perception.
Ning was precocious and cheeky but most of all she was happy. She stopped smiling only to laugh, which she did a lot, especially while playing. I watched her play two games - her evisceration of the photographer and another game against Green. Never had chess appeared so fun - vastly more appealing than it appears during the hours of dour pouting that make up The Queen's Gambit.
On her head, Ning was wearing a pair fluffy cat's ears. There are many photos of her online playing chess and holding prizes and awards and in every single one of them she's wearing the cat's ears. She started wearing them a year or so before she started playing chess and has never stopped. "I like cats," she says, "and I also like headbands." She's worn them in junior matches, senior matches, national championships, international championships and just for fun. She wore them, unbidden, to the interview for this story. She gave grandmaster Dejan Bojkov a pair last year and they had a photo taken together, in cat pose. In the final game of this year's New Zealand Open, she played 63-year-old New Zealand great, master Bob Smith. She wore the cat's ears, he wore reindeer antlers.
On chess.com her username is "Squishyminions". "I like Minions" she says, "and I like squishing my opponents." She describes a game from earlier this year, against a highly rated player several years her senior: "I went out and beat him up in a knight endgame," she says. "It wasn't that hard, but I liked the way that I slowly squished him … I squishy minioned him."
She opened her game against Green with an aggressive variation on the queen's gambit.
"It was supposed to be a Nimzo Indian," she said later, "but I played D4, C4, aka semi-queen's gambit." She said: "That's Isabelle language."
From there, they got into a closed position, from which Ning emerged stronger and from there she began to dominate her coach, whose face showed an ever-increasing amount of mock-concern.
"I don't want to do this move," she said, eventually, "but I want to do it at the same time."
"Sounds like life," Green said, "but go on."
She made the move.
"Okay," he said, "so queen takes or pawn takes? What do you think?"
"Just do eeny meeny," she replied.
"Eeny meeny is not an acceptable method," he replied. "It's been tried many times and always fails. Pawn takes, please."
He told her: "If you can't tell the difference between two moves, play one and assume you've played a good one, instead of sitting there going, 'Did I play the right one?' That's what the top players do and that's why they're top players."
She replied: "And then they're like, 'Okay, sure, I just did it! Yay!"
It became increasingly likely she wouldn't lose but it wasn't clear she'd be able to find a way to win.
"I don't know what's going on in his mind," she said at one point.
"Not a lot," he replied.
"As I expected," she said.
She began learning chess in 2016, aged 6, when her parents bought her a compendium of board games from Whitcoulls. She asked to play with them but they didn't know how, so they arranged for her to join a weekly group lesson with 12 other beginners. Four months later, she was the joint winner of the Auckland under-8 girls' title.
In the four years since, she has accumulated a string of age-group titles and prizes, travelled to international age-group tournaments and beaten a string of players both much older and more experienced than her. Earlier this year, aged 11, she was selected to play as part of the New Zealand women's team for the subsequently cancelled Chess Olympiad in Russia.
She is a member of Auckland Chess Centre, one of the most powerful clubs in New Zealand chess, where she's one of three girls Green says have been "beating up on experienced adult players" in the recent club champs. Asked how the adults take it, he says: "Most of them take it okay. They've gotten used to it."
She is already a champion and has achieved far beyond her years but, as with all prodigies, the assumption is that there must be more. What's next? Will she fulfill her potential, whatever that means? And then what? The level of expectation moves in lockstep with the prodigiousness of one's achievements. In The Queen's Gambit, Beth Harmon goes from child genius to world-beater because anything less would be disappointment.
Perhaps the best recent example of our treatment of prodigies is Lydia Ko, who won far more tournaments, accolades and money before her 20th birthday than most professional golfers will win in their careers. Here are some headlines from the last two years: "How golfing prodigy Lydia Ko lost her way" (ESPN), "New Zealand golfer Lydia Ko's sad decline" (Sydney Morning Herald), "Petulant princess or misunderstood millionaire? The truth about what's wrong with Lydia Ko" (New Zealand Herald), "What is behind the decline and fall of former world golf No 1?" (Stuff). Ko is 23.
Green, 70, is a former New Zealand champion and a brilliant blindfolded player who once played 20 simultaneous games he never saw. He speaks six languages and reads three or four more. He exclusively coaches young people and he chooses them carefully. Many have gone on to become leading players. Puchen Wang was New Zealand junior champion at 11 and is now New Zealand's second-highest-rated player, behind only grandmaster Murray Chandler. Another Green protege, Bobby Cheng, finished second in the 2007 New Zealand Junior Open, aged 9, moved to Australia, won the world under-12 title, became a grandmaster and is now that country's second-ranked player.
Green has a list of criteria candidates must fulfill before he accepts them for coaching: a supportive family, talent, a good attitude, a willingness to learn, the dedication to work by themselves and a sense of humour. Ning, he says, has it all. Her potential, he says, is great.
"She's high up there," he says. "I've had a number of seriously talented kids and she's very close. She's near the top."
Asked if she might become a grandmaster, he says: "Oh, many, many, many, many try and some succeed. She is not incapable. But I'm not good enough to judge that sort of level. She certainly has the ability to go far in chess. Just how far, I'm not sure, because I haven't been there myself."
Ning's parents, when asked about their hopes for their daughter's chess career, answer simultaneously: "Nothing."
Her mother says: "She has an interest and passion for chess, so we just support her and see what happens."
In The Queen's Gambit, Beth Harmon learns to play by skipping school in favour of games against the janitor in the basement of the orphanage in which she lives. In bed at night, she practises in her head, visualising games on the roof in a tranquiliser-induced fug. We're not shown the amount of work she puts in, the implication being it's not the work that matters. That's part of the appeal - it looks like magic.
Ning has twice-weekly lessons, outside of which she practises by herself half an hour each weekday and a bit more on weekends. She also has weekly lessons in fencing, piano, art and ballet. She says she'd like to be world chess champion one day but she'd also like to invent helpful things - for example, a teleportation device that would eliminate the motion sickness she currently experiences travelling to chess tournaments.
Green says of her: "She's very self-aware without being self-conscious and genuinely capable of seeing others' points of view, as so many children are not."
It's hard to say how much of her success at chess is genius and how much is hard work. She says she can calculate about 10 moves ahead, if they're "forcing moves" - moves requiring a specific response from an opponent. Green says this is "far more than usual". In non-forcing situations, she says she might think ahead three or four moves, although each one of those moves involves multiple branches, thus making the calculation exponentially more complex. Green says grandmasters typically calculate only four or five moves ahead but the moves they consider are typically superior to everyone else's.
As their game drew on, Green said: "Do you want a draw?"
"No!" she replied. "You want a draw! I want to win. It's annoying, and I can't find a way to win. Ugh!"
"So what are you telling me?" he asked. "Are you telling me something?"
"Well," she said, "You're hoping I say, 'Would you like a draw?'" She looked hard at the board. She said: "Do you have the queen E8 defence? No, you don't have the queen E8 defence. Okay, so it's like a draw, right?
"Are you offering me a draw?" he asked.
"No," she said, "I thought you were offering me a draw."
"No," he said, "I'm not offering."
"You're not offering," she said. "You're begging for a draw."
Eventually, they agreed on a draw. When asked about it afterwards, Green said: "I semi-begged."
Later, I asked Green how much he thought Ning needed to practise in order to fulfill her potential.
He thought for a while, then said: "There is no real limit to practice." He paused, then he challenged the premise of the question, which was fair enough, because the question was flawed.
He said: "It pays to have a life."
I said: "To be better at chess? Or to be better at life?"
He said: "Both."