It is one of the curious facts of chess history that the most notable child prodigies have emerged from the Americas. First there was the Louisianan Paul Morphy; then the Cuban José Raúl Capablanca; and of course, Brooklyn's Bobby Fischer.
Samuel Reshevsky is, among the general public, less well-known than any of the above: yet he too was a coast-to-coast sensation in America as a performing prodigy, a fact we should recall in this, the year of the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Although he became America's best hope for a world chess champion, and remained so until the emergence of Bobby Fischer, he was born Szmul Rzeszewski on November 21, 1911, in the Polish town of Ozorków, one of six sons in a highly religious Hasidic family. Having astonished all the locals with his apparently god-given skills at chess, the eight-year-old was taken by his parents to the New World, where he became a sensation by taking on up to 80 opponents simultaneously and crushing almost all of them. He toured Hollywood, where, for the benefit of the cameras, he demolished Charlie Chaplin. Among other bizarre photo opportunities, he posed in boxing gloves with the five-year-old actor Jackie Coogan — who promptly punched the eight-year-old chess prodigy in the eye.
Eventually the US child protection authorities pounced, and ordered Reshevsky's parents — for whom young Szmul, now known as Sammy, was a meal ticket — to enrol him in a school. By then 12, he could neither read nor write, which made him an even more perplexing phenomenon. As he wrote in the introduction to his best games collection, "People stared at me, poked me; professors measured my cranium and psychoanalysed me[...]I was constantly being asked how I was able to play such strong chess as a child, but of course I did not know the answer. I sang because I liked to sing and I played chess because I liked to play chess. That was all I knew."