The arm position of the gentleman on the rear bench, third from the right, speaks volumes. He grabs his forehead with the palm of his hand, as if to check whether everything is still okay in his upper room. So incredible was what was happening before his eyes.
A young boy in a sailor suit stands in front of a group of older chess players and reaches for the board. At first glance, one thinks that the little boy has just disrupted or at least interrupted a very serious event. But where are the players’ opponents? Right, there is only one – this boy.
The photo was taken on May 16, 1920 in the Café de la Rotonde in the Parisian bohemian district of Montparnasse and appeared on the cover of the magazine “Le Miroir”. It shows an eight year old playing simultaneous chess against 20 players from the Paris chess club “Les Échecs du Palais Royal”.
The boy was announced as a child prodigy: In Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Brussels he had already played against well-known players, often challenging them in packs of 20 – like in Paris. The media celebrated the little one, they only had problems with his name: Schmulke? Shmulik? Samuel, Sammy? Rzeszewski or Rzeschewski?
From Łódź out into the world
The confusion had to do with the boy’s origins: as Szmul Rzeszewski, he was born in 1911 in Ozorków, north of Łódź, in what was then the Russian part of Poland, the sixth and youngest child of Orthodox Jews. Łódź was a flourishing industrial metropolis until the fighting of German and Russian troops at the beginning of the First World War set the area back decades.
Szmul was unable to attend school, his father taught him chess – and soon had to admit defeat himself. The boy played so hard that there were hardly any equal opponents at home. At the age of six or seven he caused a sensation with simultaneous performances in the region and in Warsaw. So he played against twelve players at the same time in the German officials’ home in Łódź and won almost all games.
The Polish-Soviet War from 1919 onwards encouraged the parents to decide that his talent would be better off further west in Europe. A doctor accompanied the family and organized Szmul’s performances, together they traveled to the big cities of Europe.
After the first foreign appearance in the “Kerkau-Palast” play café in Berlin, a psychologist examined the little Schmulke, as his parents called him: he could “read only with difficulty”, differentiate between four colors and only knew horses, dogs and cats in animals. To do this, he solved demanding mental arithmetic tasks and learned five rows with a total of 40 digits by heart in four minutes, which he was then able to reproduce correctly according to place and row.
The appearance in the Café de la Rotonde, which the photo shows, was his first in Paris. Samuel, as he was called here, played 20 games at the same time – and won all of them. The “better society” of Paris organized a charity tournament for him. Of 174 games in two months, he won 162 and lost 7. The family then traveled on to London and in November 1920 by ship to New York.
Winning streak in the USA
The chess prodigy had long been heard there. Because Sammy fascinated the international chess community, his biography is also described in detail on some special pages on chess history (e.g. here). Soon he faced 20 top players from the West Point Military Academy. And hit 19.
When a doctor recommended the milder climate of California to their father, who was in poor health, the Rzeszewskis continued their child prodigy tour in San Francisco and Los Angeles. After Sammy’s nocturnal appearance, however, the authorities stepped in in 1922 and accused the parents of violating their duty of care and upbringing by depriving the boy of schooling. His US tour ended impressively: 1491 of 1500 games won.
What was the secret behind the astonishing skills of the little checkmate king? “Such talents are not that unusual,” says André Schulz, author and expert on chess history at the German Chess Federation. “If they deal with it intensively, children can learn complicated things like chess quickly and now even teach them very well themselves on Internet platforms.” Youth World Championships already begin with U8, “most of these children play a lot better than most adults who are not so intensely involved with chess”. Therefore, one no longer speaks of “child prodigies”, explains the editor-in-chief of the news site ChessBase.
However, 100 years ago such a talent was extremely rare. In addition to Rzeszewski, Schulz thinks of the Cuban José Raúl Capablanca, born in 1888, who allegedly learned to play chess just by watching. And the Spaniard Arturo Pomar Salamanca in the thirties. Chess was by no means so popular back then, the simultaneous performances in particular caused astonishment, which is particularly exhausting for children.
“Simultaneous games are a bit like circus”
You wouldn’t do that anymore today. “Anyone who really wants to get high in chess has to start early – and invest a lot of time. Simultaneous games are a bit like circus and serve to earn money,” says the chess expert. “A serious tournament chess player doesn’t do that often. A show piece like that is hardly useful in a real competition.”
Even if there are now many more children with great talent – that is not yet a guarantee for future world elite, says Schulz: “As in the development of children and adolescents in general, puberty is also a decisive point in chess: If you are then interested in? completely different things in life, or do you stick to chess? “
Sammy stayed with it. After four years in the United States, Samuel Herman Rzeszewski officially became Samuel Reshevsky. With the support of sponsors, he attended Detroit High School and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1933 with a degree in accountant.
Then he turned back to chess. In 1936 he won his first US championship, later seven more times, and achieved spectacular victories in international tournaments. In 1948, he was one of the five candidates invited by the World Chess Federation Fide to play the world champion after the reigning man died unexpectedly.
Reshevsky was considered one of the world‘s best players – but he never became world champion. How close he was to the title in 1953 was only known decades later. After the death of the Soviet chess grandmaster David Bronstein, his last book “Secret Notes” was published in 2007 with explosive details.
Next child prodigy: Bobby Fischer
Rumors of collusion among Soviet players were common. Bronstein had never confirmed such pressure from state officials. His book suggests, however, that Reshevsky was the victim of a conspiracy at the 1953 candidates’ tournament in Zurich. According to this, the Soviet players should arrange themselves in such a way that the American won under no circumstances. In the end, the Russian Vasily Smyslow won, Reshevsky shared second place with the Soviet players Bronstein and Paul Keres.
After defeating world champion Mikhail Botvinnik in 1955, Reshevsky was also celebrated in Moscow, stormed by autograph hunters and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was introduced.
Reshevsky, she wrote “New York Times” 1992, was the top name in American chess from the day the child prodigy set foot on American soil – until January 8, 1958, when Bobby Fischer, 14, put him in the shade and became the youngest US chess master. With Fischer’s rise, Reshevsky was forgotten by the general public.
The performance of the former child prodigy was also remarkable in old age. When he was 72 years old, Samuel Reshevsky made his last world-class appearance in 1984: winning the Reykjavík Open. Eight years later he died in New York.