Earlier this month 11-year-old Shadman Khan got a chess chance of a lifetime: to compete against one of the world’s top-ranked chess players. The Success Academy Harlem East sixth-grader was one of 23 players to simultaneously face off across American Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana at the Liberty Science Center’s “Evening of Chess and Magic” charity event on November 9.
The 23-year-old Caruana is the center’s visiting Grandmaster in Residence, and the evening’s event raised money for its youth chess program. An Italian-American, he has been competing since he was 5. At age 14, he became the youngest grandmaster in the history of Italy and the United States. Caruana is now what we in the chess world call a “Super Grandmaster,” an unofficial title for someone holding a rating over 2700, which is exceptionally high.
I chose Shadman to play Caruana because he is one of the team’s highest-rated players, and his tactical vision is impressive. I knew Shadman would learn a lot from playing Caruana. When younger players have the opportunity to play grandmasters, they learn that their mistakes are punished quickly!
Going into the event, Shadman and I spent time practicing a variation of what is called a Sicilian Defense — a series of moves that Caruana usually uses to open a game. I also advised Shadman to keep his position as complex as possible for as long as possible, hoping to force Caruana to make a mistake as he played all 23 opponents at the same time. As the grandmaster strode from table to table, he quickly moved to shrink his opponents’ thinking time and muddle their decision making, defeating all 23. Nonetheless, I was so proud of Shadman as he put his best foot forward in attempt to trip up one of the world’s greatest players.
Chess teaches our scholars so much: that you must weigh options before drawing conclusions, that improvement requires hard work, and that you must take responsibility for each move you make. Shadman is a great example of a chess scholar who always seeks to learn from each game he plays, and I know that playing against Caruana – an opportunity made possible by John and Laura Overdeck – was a memorable learning experience for him.
Below, Shadman discusses the match against Caruana and what he enjoys about chess.
What was it like to play against the No. 2 player in the world?
I was very nervous, at first. But I had to calm down and realize that it was an honor just to play him. Most kids don’t get to play someone like Caruana.
He was playing other kids at the same time, so I tried to throw him off. But about 10 minutes in, I made a bad move and he took advantage of it. I lost the game, but I wasn’t upset because I still got to play him—most people are not going to have that opportunity.
What did you know about Caruana when you heard you were going to play against him?
I didn’t know him that well, but Mr. Gaspard, my coach, gave me some tips. He said I needed to have a strategy and that I should be aggressive in my opening because he’s known for playing aggressively, too, and sacrificing pieces.
When did you start playing chess?
When I first came to Success Academy in second grade, I didn’t know what to do outside of school. Chess seemed interesting to me, so I decided to try it out as an elective. In third grade, I started playing in the after-school chess club. Since then, I’ve played in local and national tournaments.
Why do you enjoy chess?
Chess makes you mentally tough. It’s complicated, so you have to think through all your moves before you make them. But I like the challenge, and going to competitions with my friends. I think chess helps me with my academics—tests can get tough, but I have to think through solutions and plan ahead, just like I do when I play.
Do you hope to become a professional chess player yourself?
I don’t know exactly what I’ll do in the future. It’s tough because I also really like playing soccer, but I know I’ll keep playing chess for now.