In a 1922 photograph, a boy faces three seated men. Each man looks down at a different chess set, plotting his next move. But nine-year-old Sammy Reshevsky, whose left hand rests on a white queen, stares intently across the table, many steps ahead.
Reshevsky, a chess sensation from Poland, came to the United States in 1920. While his curls and little sailor suit charmed crowds, the Orthodox Jewish boy stunned rivals with his abilities and complete confidence. “Chess was, for me, a natural function, like breathing,” Reshevsky later wrote. He drew acclaim for his prowess during simultaneous exhibitions, in which he played up to 75 games at a time.
In Washington, D.C., the pint-sized phenomenon visited the Capitol and the White House. In the House Office Building, he played a simultaneous exhibition against Representatives James Collier of Mississippi, Roy Fitzgerald of Ohio, and Meyer London of New York, the three best players in Congress. “The congressmen wrinkled their foreheads and used all their skill trying to defeat the boy,” The Christian Science Monitor reported, but Reshevsky won all three simultaneous games in 50 minutes. Afterward, he played a raucous ballgame with a clerk in the hallway.
Six months later, the wonder kid found himself in some hot water: While playing five simultaneous matches to benefit a national Hebrew orphanage in the Bronx, he was taken into custody and his parents were accused of improper guardianship. It turned out that Reshevsky had never gone to school. Although the child welfare charges were dismissed, Reshevsky temporarily stopped playing chess and hit the books instead.
Four years later, another young sensation came to the capital. Francis Kau, a pupil at McKinley High School in Honolulu, traveled to the mainland for the fourth annual National Marbles Tournament. In addition to marbles, Kau was a champion at Ping-Pong and top spinning.
At the age of 14, Kau traveled alone across the Pacific. He sported a cream-colored sweater with “lana-kila,” meaning “victory,” painted on the back. Sponsored by the Honolulu Rotary Club, the “mib,” or marble, champ of the Hawaiian Islands competed in the tournament’s Western League. Kau sounded self-assured, but lacked Reshevsky’s complete confidence: “I am the champion marble shooter of the Hawaiian Islands,” he said. “And I am going to be the champion marble shooter of America and all its possessions, I hope.”
Armed with his favorite agate marble, Kau visited Washington, D.C., for a week as a guest of the Hawaiian Delegate, William Jarrett, and the Chinese Embassy. On an overcast June day, Kau showed Jarrett how to shoot marbles. A photograph shows the two crouching on the ground. Hat in hand, Jarrett smiles while Kau positions himself to shoot, one marble already sitting on the slick pavement. After the lesson, the young man, looking slightly weary, continued his travels to the tournament in Atlantic City.
The marble tournament gave competitors the opportunity to tour nearby Valley Forge, and to experience Atlantic City customs like a net fish haul, yacht outings on the ocean, and rollchair rides on the boardwalk. Each player was accompanied by a reporter. Ultimately, the 1926 marble champion was Willis Harper, an 11-year-old Kentucky boy “who learned his marbles playing with rounded lumps of coal outside the mine where his father works,” the Washington Post reported.
Although Kau didn’t win, he enjoyed touring the country. Having never seen a train before, he got a whole Pullman section to himself. The contestant saw snow for the first time when the train passed through the Rockies. He saw the Great Salt Lake in Utah and cowboys in Cheyenne, Wyoming. And he learned that in some games, kids have even more skills than Members of Congress.
Sources: Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 1922; Indianapolis Star, October 24, 1922; Washington Post, October 24, 1922 and July 3, 1926; Rockford Register-Gazette, June 3, 1926; Louisville Courier-Journal, June 15, 1926; Winston-Salem Journal, June 26, 1926; New York Times, April 7, 1992; Samuel Reshevsky, Reshevsky on Chess: The U.S. Champion Tells How He Wins (New York: Chess Review, 1948).Follow @USHouseHistory