The Bay Area is packed with brainiacs; there are the obvious ones - Steve Jobs, Jerry Yang, the Google guys. But what about the lesser-known, yet enormously talented ones?
Daniel Naroditsky ranks first in the world in chess for boys ages 12 and under. Chester Santos holds the USA Memory Championship title. And Leyan Lo won the most recent national Rubik's Cube competition.
How did these people develop their obsessions? What does it take to dominate a game?
Daniel Naroditsky received an 800-page music encyclopedia when he turned 7. As he flipped through the book, he spotted an error: A composer's birthday was one year off. None of the dozen adults in the room, including Daniel's mother, a professional pianist, had heard of the composer. They checked an alternate source and confirmed the mistake.
A few years later, Daniel was traveling to a chess tournament four hours away. He was bored, opened his father's computer and read through all of the countries and their capitals. He became very frustrated afterward when he couldn't recall three of the countries.
Daniel's phenomenal memory is just one of several driving forces behind his recent world victory in chess for boys ages 12 and under. Other factors include intelligence, discipline, talent, time and money.
I met Daniel recently at his father Vladimir's office at the Vega Capital Group, a boutique investment firm in downtown San Francisco. I'd heard so much about his accomplishments that I forgot how young he'd look. When I greeted him and his brother Alan, 17, they didn't smile and barely spoke.
"How's your spring break?" I asked.
They haven't had a vacation, Vladimir replied. Daniel, a sixth-grade student at Crystal Springs Upland School in Hillsborough, just returned from an adult chess tournament in Reno. He came to a draw with a 42-year-old grandmaster and tied two others for second place. Daniel was leaving for another tournament in Oklahoma in two days.
Daniel studies chess at least 24 hours a week. He plays 20-minute games, records every move of his tournaments and analyzes previous games for mistakes. He pores over the 1,000 chess books in his personal library, and sometimes Vladimir reads him chess books in Russian, their native language. They can spend two hours talking about one page.
"It's like reading a graduate-level science textbook," says Vladimir, who used to play chess competitively in his home country of Ukraine. "We'll talk about what the grandmaster thinks, his mistakes, and what Daniel thinks is the next move. He'll often predict it."
A good chess book can take a year to read, and Daniel often rereads them. He memorizes the strategies down to player names, game dates and the page numbers of the book they're described in. Daniel also types notes on his computer and is writing an advanced chess textbook. "I was thinking about new ways to improve," he explains. Daniel's previous book, which he wrote at age 10, was about the history of the world.
On top of independent study, Daniel trains with three chess instructors, including two grandmasters, eight hours a week. Last August, his family took in his Russian grandmaster coach for a month to give him 10-hour-a-day lessons.
Michael Aigner, a Stanford-trained engineer and chess master who's coached Daniel for 18 months says, "Daniel's one of smartest, if not the smartest, person I've ever met."
Vladimir estimates that they spend up to $60,000 a year on chess for Daniel and Alan, who ranks as one of the top 100 chess players in America. Ninety percent of the money goes toward Daniel, who travels every month for tournaments. The family has sacrificed vacations and a bigger house. But Daniel says he isn't pressured by the cost; he just plays for fun.
Daniel's rigorous training begs the question: Who's the driving force behind his chess? Vladimir, Aigner and Daniel insist it is all Daniel. No one can be forced to achieve at his level, they say. Vladimir is always reading books on how to raise prodigies, and opts for what he considers to be a more relaxed philosophy, refusing to subject Daniel to IQ tests or grade skipping.
"He has enough pressure on the inside," Vladimir says. "We don't want to add more unless necessary."
Leyan Lo spent most of his free time as a freshman at Caltech jumping around to Dance Dance Revolution, devouring Manga and folding origami. All that changed when his friend Tyson Mao decided to create a campus Rubik's Cube club in October 2003. Lo wanted to support Mao, so he picked up the puzzle. Nearly three years later, he went on to capture the 2006 U.S. title for the game at the most recent national competition.
How did Lo get to be so good? Procrastination. Lo would often cube for hours a day, working late into the night to avoid homework and problem sets. Even now, he brings his cube everywhere except for the bathroom.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Lo attends a competition in a windowless classroom in the basement of Moffitt Library at UC Berkeley. When I arrive, Lo isn't practicing as many other are, nor is he socializing with other competitors. He's asleep.
"One of Leyan's trademarks (is) being able to fall asleep anywhere, at any time, within five minutes," his friend Shelley Chang tells me.
After Lo awakens, the 24-year-old, first-year physics doctoral student at Stanford attempts to teach me how to solve a cube. Lo grabs his puzzle, which he personally assembled so it spins more easily, and tells me that a beginner should start by creating a cross design on one face. But, I have to ensure that the legs of the cross have color stickers on their other side that match the center pieces on those sides.
Then he starts telling me things like, "Orient the edge. Orient the corners. Position the edge. Position the corners." I'm obviously lost, so I quickly change the topic. I can always figure out the solution later because there are a gazillion Rubik's cube solutions online. In fact, that's how Lo gets all of his solutions: He surfs the Web, converses in chat rooms and talks to friends. It's all about pattern memorization and algorithm execution. Not too difficult. I could solve one, maybe in a few decades.
Lo says his addictive personality is a major reason for his success. Aside from obsessions with DDR and the cube, his most recent hobby is typing. He and his cubing friends reprogrammed their keyboards into the more ergonomically friendly Dvorak layout and took typing lessons and tests until they perfected their techniques. His friends have mostly stopped the tests, so Lo's given it up, too. It's not enticing when there's no competition.
At today's contest, Lo bounces down the stars to the front of the room where five other cubers and their corresponding judges are lined up. Giant timers are perched in front of each contestant. A judge hands Lo a 4-by-4 cube that's been pre-scrambled to a set pattern. Lo studies the cube for a few seconds, puts it down, touches the timer pad, grabs the cube and twirls away. 65.5 seconds later, Lo drops the cube on the table and hits the timer. The audience barely notices because they're working on the Square One, 7-by-7 cubes, pyraminxes and other puzzles I've never seen.
Lo got the fastest solve for the regular Rubik's Cube, but finishes second in the tournament overall. It doesn't bother him, he says, because he did his best. There's also no cash prize. And maybe it's because he, like his friend Mao - the former world-record holder for the blindfold solve and a contestant on Season 2 of "Beauty and the Geek" - doesn't think it means much.
Mao explains, "Just because (Lo) can solve it fast doesn't mean he's smart or anything. It just means he enjoys it and has put a lot of time into it."
Not that many others can do what he's done.
Imagine this: Adam Sandler is holding puffy, white pillows and saying, "What's up dude? Look at these pillows. They're crazy."
Razor blades start jutting out of the pillows and begin to slice off his arm. He shrieks, "This is crazy!"
This scenario could be straight out of a cheesy horror movie, but when Chester Santos conjures it up, he recalls the following playing cards: 10 of hearts, queen of spades and seven of diamonds. The technique of linking cards to people, objects and actions enables Santos to memorize the order of a card deck in 2 minutes and 27 seconds, helping him win this year's USA Memory Championship.
Santos, a 31-year old computer engineer with eyes the size of quarters and a sincere manner, first heard about the competition on ABC's "20/20." He figured he could beat the champion, so he started competing in 2003. Santos placed third four times, not that most of his friends knew anything about it.
"I knew him for years before I realized he was involved," says Santos' friend Mark Reichstadt. "When he started telling me about it, I was amazed. He's a very understated person."
Santos earliest recollections are of his father, who left his family before Santos was 1. He'd dream about his dad.
"I'd always ask my mom, 'Who is this guy?' She'd tell me I was imagining stuff," Santos said. His mother remarried before he was 2, and the couple told him his stepfather was his biological dad.
Santos, who grew up in Hanford, a working-class suburb 40 miles south of Fresno, was at the top of his high school class until his junior year, when his mother and stepfather divorced. Santos' grades plummeted, especially after discovering his stepfather wasn't his biological dad. He ended up going to Fresno City College before transferring to UC Berkeley to study psychology. He rarely did homework or went to class.
"His textbooks would remain wrapped in cellophane for the entire semester," recalls Alex McIntyre, Santos' roommate for two years. Santos would cram for 36 hours before exams.
"He'd always come back after test was over, laugh, and say he'd made a mockery of the test," McIntyre said. "Then he'd sleep for 18 hours."
After earning a 3.7 GPA at Cal (he lost points for attendance), Santos spent a year in law school. He got jaded, dropped out and picked up another bachelor's and a master's degree in computer programming before going to work for Sun Microsystems and Wells Fargo.
When it came time for the memory competitions, Santos approached them with a relaxed attitude, training for 30 minutes a day for a few weeks. But, this year he had a new girlfriend.
"She found out about the opportunities I'd have if I won. She said, 'You're crazy. Why don't you train?' " said Santos.
So he spent an hour a day for about three months memorizing cards, poems and long sequences of numbers, matching the information to names, faces and objects.
Santos competes in memory mainly for the money. Nearly all winners have quit their jobs and gone into the memory business fulltime, coaching, writing books and landing television gigs.
In fact, Santos recently quit his $83,000-a-year computer engineering job at Wells Fargo in order to pursue memory consulting full time. He hopes to write a book, become the second American grandmaster memorizer and train for the World Memory Championships in Bahrain in October. He also wants to the most-well-known American memorizer.
But first, he needs more students for his memory seminars.
"I doubt that more than 100 people even have any idea that I'm teaching classes in S.F. now. I'm really hoping that you'll list my Web site somewhere in the article," Santos e-mails me. It's www.chestersantos.net.
[Via SF Gate]