Max Lu is the latest prodigy to break the record for youngest US Chess master.
When Max Lu first walked into an afterschool chess class at Pear Tree Point School—an elite private school surrounded by a short stonewall lined with neatly trimmed bushes— he hardly knew the first thing about chess. Like just about any child enamored with animals and who should happen to encounter a chess set, Max took a special liking to the knight. “I like animals a lot,” the fourth-grader recalled of his first experience with chess at the after-school program in Darien, Connecticut back in September 2011, when he was just five-years-old going on six. “I associated the knight with a horse.” But he didn’t know how the “horse”—or any of the other pieces, for that matter—maneu vered, recalled Max’s former after-school chess program instructor, Alex Eydelman, president of the National Educational Chess Association, an organization that provides chess instruction in schools in Connecticut and New York State. “I taught him how the pieces are moving,” Eydelman said in an accent that hearkens back to his native Russia. Max said he used to like the knight so much that Eydelman had to prod him to move other pieces. After that, his game took off. “He picked up very quickly,” Eydelman said. “He very quickly started beating everyone.” “Everyone,” of course, meant all the other kids in the program, which Max’s father, David, said he quickly “outgrew.” But it wouldn’t be long—less than four years, in fact—before the term “everyone” would come to encompass Eydelman, a US Chess candidate master, too. “I was playing black and he just strangled me,” Eydelman recalled of the round two game he played against Max in a quad hosted this past August by the of Fairfield County Chess Club in Norwalk, Connecticut. “He played really solid chess,” Eydelman said. “I did some inaccuracies, and he capitalized on that.”
Max didn’t view the defeat of the master who taught him the game as a big deal. “It’s just as you get better, if you stay with it, you’re going to start beating people like him,” Max said. “Or you’re not going to lose to him.” Such is the unexcitable Whitby School fourthgrader from Connecticut, who this past fall became the youngest master in United States chess history—a feat he accomplished this past fall just weeks after he beat Eydelman. Those who know Max say his progress stems from a combination of dedication, talent and strong parental support. “I would describe Max as a very mature player,” said National Master Andrew Ng, a Princeton computer science major and founder of Chesscademy who has been serving as one of Max’s coaches—and acting as a “big brother figure,” according to Max’s father—for about three years. “His approach to the game suggests that he has been playing chess for far longer than he has,” Ng said. “Out of all my students, Max has shown the most promise through his natural talent and dedication.” For perspective on the steep incline of Max’s chess trajectory, consider the fact that chess powerhouse Webster University’s GM Ray Robson—who began playing chess with his father at age three and went on to become America’s youngest grandmaster at age 14— only crossed the 2200 master level threshold when he was 12 years old. GM Samuel Sevian—who in 2014 broke Robson’s record and became America’s youngest grandmaster at age 13—broke the record for the youngest US Chess master in 2010, when he attained the master title about a week shy of his 10th birthday. Sevian began playing at age 5. Then along came Awonder Liang, who also began playing at age 5, and who broke Sevian’s record and became a master about two weeks shy of his 10th birthday in 2013. But Lu bested them all this past September, when he reached master nearly a full month before his 10th birthday. Theoretically, that could set Max up to become America’s next youngest grandmaster. “He certainly has the talent to become a grandmaster and I see him having a big impact on the growing American chess scene,” Ng said. Like Ng, Eydelman, who kept tabs on Max’s rise over the years, credits Max’s rapid ascent to his dedication to the game. But dedication is only part of the equation Max has also had access to training from some of the best in the business. In addition to Ng, Max has gotten training from IM David Pruess—who says he worked with Max on “every aspect of chess, from tactics to strategy to endgames to openings, to study techniques, and self-analysis.” Pruess says Max’s ability to do serious work is “unlike what I’ve seen with other kids his age.” “Thanks to his improved play, he’s also getting to play more and more strong players, and learn from them,” Pruess said. “His improvement remains steady.” From the earliest days of his introduction to chess, Maximillian Lu has always taken a studious approach toward the game. He says it all began when Eydelman used to “help” another player in the after-school pro - gram. Max said that made him “upset.” But it also prompted him to start to read chess books in order to discover new ways to win. The books included two classics by Murray Chandler—Chess Tactics for Kids: 50 Tricky Tactics to outwit your opponent, and How to Beat Your Dad at Chess. “They were helping so I continued to read them,” Max said. He’s no longer upset about how Eydelman used to help his opponent. In fact—in another sign of his maturity—he says he thinks Eydelman was helping his opponent on purpose to make Max a better player. Eydelman doesn’t recall doing such a thing but doesn’t rule out that something similar could have happened. “Maybe,” he said when asked if he had helped one of Max’s opponents to make Max better. “Kids, they remember more things than we do, so I guess.” Max’s book study continued to pay off. “You could see the impact,” his father, David, recalls of charting his son’s rating progress. Still, Max would make two- or three-move “tactical blunders,” his father said. “We really focused on just trying to work on the process and let the rating take care of itself,” David Lu said. “If you keep working on a thing, things click and you sort of move to another level.” David Lu said one of the most interesting aspects of his son’s career is that he focused on his weak point. “It really helps with the process of growing as a chess player,” David Lu said. He also credits his son’s coaches with encour - aging him to continue to do more active learning as opposed to passive learning. “They kind of challenged him to do the work and the analysis so that when you learn, actually you understand it better than just being fed stuff,” David Lu said. “So going over grand - master games and reading annotations was pretty helpful but it’s something you kind of have to do on your own.” As Max’s rating continued to soar, he didn’t really focus on it. “The rating just was like showing what I needed to work on,” Max said. Eydelman credits his parents with making sure Max got plenty of rated game experience. “His dad and mom, they travelled with him,” Eydelman said. “They took him to different events, the Marshall Chess Club, local tour naments.” Indeed, records show Max has played an average of about one chess event per week, mostly in Connecticut and New York but also at tournaments in Florida, Tennessee, the United Arab Emirates and Canada. Eydelman said the exposure that such travel afforded Lu to other players, particularly those from European countries where chess is embedded deep within the nation’s culture, helped improve his game. “It helps usually when you play with European players,” Eydelman said. “European players play really well. “Even the kids, they are—like me, I’m origi - nally from Russia—if you play Russian kids or Ukrainian kids, even from the Middle East, they are very strong,” Eydelman said. “They come home from school, they just play and study. No video games for them.” Max doesn’t go overboard with his chess studies. “I study about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how much homework I have,” Max said of his daily routine. Before a tournament, he will study between one and two hours. And on weekends. “I think what I’m doing now, it’s fine,” Max said of his chess study regimen. He watches videos from the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He is a big fan of the videos that feature GM Maurice Ashley. “He sort of makes the videos like a sports game,” Max said. In terms of books, Max reads Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors.