Friday, September 17, 2010

Skilled at the Chessboard, Keyboard and Blackboard

Published: August 28, 2010
Chess produces prodigies. So do mathematics and music. And while the relationship between chess and mathematics is clear, and many accomplished mathematicians are also skilled musicians, it is unusual to find a prodigy in all three areas.
Noam Elkies, who turned 44 on Wednesday, is that rare triple threat.
A Manhattan native, he graduated from Stuyvesant High School by age 15, and at the top of his class at Columbia University three years later. He earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard at 20. He became the youngest winner of the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition for undergraduates when he was 16. Ten years later, he became the youngest full professor in Harvard’s history.
When he was 21, he disproved a 200-year-old mathematical theory — Leonhard Euler’s conjecture for numbers raised to the fourth power. “I was somewhat lucky,” he said in an interview this year. “None of the techniques I used was new.”
He became a chess master at 20 after competing in fewer than 100 games. He then turned his focus to chess problems, which dovetailed with his interest in mathematics. In 1996, he won the World Chess Solving Championship the first time he entered.
He also began composing music when he was 3, though most of it, he said, was “musical babbling.” In recent years, he has composed more than 50 works and performed many of them at Harvard. He wrote one piece after a colleague “dared me to imagine what a new Brandenburg Concerto would sound like.”
His father is an engineer and his mother a piano teacher. His younger sister has a master’s degree in education from Harvard and plays the violin.
He has written extensively on chess and mathematics, and for several years offered a freshmen seminar on the topic. He has also composed many of his own chess problems.
The diagram at left is from 1984, when he was 18. The solution is 1 Bg6 Bc3 2 Kc3 d4 3 Kb4 g1/Q 4 e8/Q Bg8 5 Bh7 Kh7 6 Qh5. If 1 Bd7, then 1 ... Bc1 2 Ke2 g1/Q 3 e8/Q Kh7 4 Qh5 Bh6, and White does not win.
The diagram at right is from 1987. The solution is 1 g7 g2 2 g8/Q Rc2 3 Nf6 g1/Q 4 Qg1 Kg1 5 Ng4 c4 6 Ne3 Rf2 7 0-0-0 Kh2 8 Ng4, and White is winning. If White begins 1 0-0-0, Black can play 1 ... Rb8. Or, 1 Ng5, then 1 ... g2 2 Nf3 Kg3 3 g7 Rb8 4 Ng1 Rg8 5 Ra7 Kg4, and again White fails to win.
Another attempt that fails is 1 g7 g2 2 g8/Q Rc2 3 Kd1 Rf2 4 Qb8 Kh1. Or, 1 g7 g2 2 g8/Q Rc2 3 Ra2 Ra2 4 Qa2 Kh1, and White cannot win.

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