When Awonder Liang, a 9-year-old from Madison, became the youngest American to become a chess master on Saturday, an official with the United States Chess Federation put it in perspective when he said the great Bobby Fischer didn't reach that level until he was 15.
"Those guys don't come around very often. What Awonder Liang accomplished is very rare," said Walter Brown, a rater with the USCF who certified that Liang has earned more than 2,200 points — the barrier for master status — while playing at a tournament in Dayton, Ohio.
Liang, a fourth-grader, reached master status 9 years, 11 months and 14 days after he was born. Brown said that surpassed Californian Samuel Sevian, who was one week older when he set the previous record in 2010, Brown said.
Like the American Fischer, Soviet greats Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov were 15 when they reached master status. Another Soviet great, Boris Spassky, who lost to Fischer in the "Match of the Century" in Iceland in 1972, was in his late teens when he became a chess master, and Joshua Waitzkin, a former two-time U.S. junior champion and the subject of the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer," was 13.
Points toward master status are earned most quickly by beating better competition. Liang became a chess prodigy when he defeated a grandmaster, the highest rated player in the game, when he was 8. He is the youngest to accomplish that feat in a sanctioned tournament game with standard time limits.
Liang is coached by his father, Will, who came to Madison 30 years ago from China. He also has drawn the interest of Kasparov, who noticed Liang even before he won his age group at the World Youth Chess Championships in Brazil in November 2011. Liang was sixth among 9-year-olds at the championships in Slovenia last year.
"Awonder is absolutely tenacious. He takes no prisoners," said Mike Nietman, the president of the Wisconsin Chess Association and a member of the USCF executive board.
"He is always looking at all the possibilities," added Nietman, who is from Madison. "For someone basically 10 years old, it's amazing how he can sort through all the bad plans and find the right plan with the best of them."
Brown said Liang is already the 10th-rated player overall in Wisconsin. Only one state junior, Alexander Velikanov, 15, Milwaukee, is ranked higher than him.
Liang's path to the next level, international master, and, ultimately, grandmaster, is full of potholes. Besides school and other distractions facing kids his age, Liang faces tough competition during a period when every move by every player is dissected on the Internet.
"There are no secrets. It's an awful lot different than when Fischer did it," said Brown. "You have to really work at it and have the desire and be able to handle some setbacks."
Liang's family needs some financial assistance to help pay for the all the travel involved with his competitions. A stipend from a national chess group as well as money from fundraisers held by the Wisconsin Chess Association and other groups have helped Liang and his father get to events, Nietman said.
Referring to everyone who has provided financial help, Will Liang wrote in an email he sent to Nietman, "Awonder could not have done this without your gracious support."
Brown said Liang certainly has the ability to go as far as he wants to go. "It's much like in athletics when kids move on from high school to college and then from college to the pros. The selection process gets tighter and tighter. You need to be special. He is."
[Editor's note: Madison chess prodigy Awonder Liang’s exact age when he attained the rank of chess master was off slightly in this story, which has been corrected. Awonder was 9 years, 11 months and 14 days old when he was declared the youngest chess master in America.]