CLEARWATER — Ray Robson was 3 when his dad, Gary, brought home a checkers-chess set. He had bought it for a few dollars at a Sarasota Kmart, thinking he and his son could leave the chess part for later.
Ray was drawn instantly to the chess pieces, Gary wrote, the "horses and castles and teepee-shaped objects" that slid in funny ways across the board. Ray would squat flat-footed on the tiled floor in their condo, moving the pieces, playing games he made himself.
"Every single afternoon, I'd walk through the door and my 3-year-old son would look up from the kitchen floor," Gary wrote in his self-published book, Chess Child.
"Baba," Ray asked, "do you want to play chess?"
• • •
Ray Robson has taken that passion for chess and run with it like nobody else in Florida or the United States. Ever. Two weeks before his 15th birthday, Ray became America's youngest grandmaster, beating a record once set by Bobby Fischer.
I went to check out this child prodigy last week. When I met the Robsons, much of their home was out of place. Gary, 45, his wife, Yee-chen, 43, and Ray, 15, had just moved from Largo to a home on Anna Avenue, closer to Yee-chen's Chinese classes at Safety Harbor Middle School.
Ray had been playing Uno with his cousins before I asked him to play a game of chess. Ray found two plastic baggies of double-weighted chess pieces. Gary found a vinyl rollup chess board signed by world champion chessmaster Garry Kasparov that had been stuffed in a box in the garage.
Ray sat at the dining room table, barefoot, his thin wrist tucked under his chin. He shuffled his ivory-colored pieces between his fingers, then slid his pawn two rows forward.
I slid my pawn to match his. He moved his knight, then I did, too. He looked at me with a nervous laugh.
"I'm wondering," he said, "how long you're going to be copying me."
• • •
During his first year of chess, Ray played Gary in hundreds of games. Ray always lost, Gary said, but grew more determined after each checkmate. At age 4, for the first time, Ray won.
Gary began studying more, not wanting to lose again, but Ray was focused. Gary would get home from work and Ray would be sitting at the chess board. Ray won a second time, and a third, and so on, until Gary stopped counting.
Ray began reading second-hand chess books, starting with Fred Reinfeld's Chess in a Nutshell. He played at least six games a day.
At age 6, when Ray was a first-grader at Country Day Montessori, he entered his first chess tournament. He lost both games.
"He knew that he'd be better prepared for the next one," Gary wrote. "He'd see to that himself."
• • •
Our game's first capture was Ray's pawn, which I took on the third move. Ray silently slid another pawn forward.
I moved my bishop across the board, creating an open path to his king. Check. He stared at the board, like he knew it was coming, and slid a pawn into its path.
I had expected I knew how this game would end. But with no pieces lost and my attack under way, I thought I just might be able to win.
• • •
When the Robsons went on errand runs, Ray brought along a chess book. The games were spelled out in chess notation, each piece and square and capture squeezed into symbols. Ray read them like novels, visualizing the chess board in his head.
Gary began driving Ray to tournaments every weekend in Boca Raton and Gainesville and Fort Lauderdale and Cocoa Beach. Ray kept winning. By 2003, when Ray was 8, he had become the nation's best second-grade player.
At a tournament in Miami, when Ray began to face older and bigger opponents, his skill started to stutter. He was intimidated. Gary reminded him how they used to play, how he had crushed him every game, and how Ray had come back, had gotten better, had begun to win.
"If he could beat me," Gary wrote, "he could easily see himself beating anyone."
• • •
Ray saw my blunder. I had underestimated his position, trapping my knight to one side, and allowed him the first crucial piece.
Gary, an adjunct linguistics professor for St. Petersburg College, paused in the kitchen to watch. "Who's winning?" he asked with a laugh. Ray's eyes searched the board. He advanced his knight and castled his king, securing it behind a wall of pawns. I could do nothing but shuffle in place.
Ray was gracious but driven; not bragging, but not letting up, either. He rubbed his face, looking from piece to piece, then slid his queen into attack.
• • •
Gary and Ray began traveling more and more. The Nationals in Chicago. The World Youth Championship in Crete, Greece. The Super Nationals in Nashville.
Ray was winning against expert chess masters now, shocking some of the smartest minds in chess. At one invitational in Chicago, after Ray beat a 39-year-old Canadian competing to become international master, the man knocked his king over, stared at the ceiling and began to mutter to himself.
In August, Ray entered the Arctic Chess Challenge in Tromso, Norway. His win there secured him the first of three norms needed to reach the highest rank in chess: grandmaster. He won a second later that month in Skokie, Ill.
In October, at the Pan-American Junior Championship in Montevideo, Uruguay, Ray beat seven opponents, including a Brazilian grandmaster, to win his third norm and gain the title of grandmaster.
• • •
About 15 minutes had passed since setup when Ray, on his 20th move, backed my king into a corner. I had nowhere else to go. Checkmate.
Before clearing the board, Ray reset the pieces and began replaying the game, the moves playing out in his head. He finished a few seconds later, held his chin in his hand and smiled.
I told him his memory was amazing. He didn't boast, didn't brag, just curled his feet into the carpet and let out a nervous laugh.
"Thanks," he said, then waited for the next game.
Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.