The Olympics are on! At least they seem to be, coronavirus willing. But one downside of the games, from Air Mail Pilot’s perspective, is that you pretty much have to be a teenager or older to compete. So here, instead of yet another profile of some ancient gymnast, is a story about a 12-year-old chess prodigy who could be good enough to win an Olympic medal. Except that the Olympics don’t include chess. But anyway …
His name is Shreyas Royal. He lives in London and has been playing chess since he was three. Earlier this month, at a tournament in Budapest, Hungary, he defeated an adult grand master, which is a big deal because, short of being a world champion, grand master is the highest title you can earn in chess—sort of like a black belt in martial arts, but even rarer because as of last September there were only 1,721 grand masters in the whole world.
Shreyas’s showing in Budapest earned him the title of FIDE master, two levels below grand master (FIDE, short for Fédération Internationale des Échecs, is the international chess governing body). Shreyas told The Times of London that he expects to become a grand master by the time he’s 14. The youngest-ever grand master is a 12-year-old from New Jersey, but he has a leg up on Shreyas because he started playing at two and a half.
Shreyas’s father, Jitendra Singh, taught him the game after noticing that the then toddler was already good at adding and subtracting and had a talent for remembering car models. (Father and son have different last names because Shreyas’ parents picked his on the advice of a numerologist, which is someone who believes certain numbers, like the number of letters in a name, can affect the course of people’s lives. Air Mail Pilot does not endorse this belief system, but won’t object if it gets readers more interested in math.)
Within two months, Shreyas was regularly whupping his dad in chess. While that would thrill most three-year-olds of Air Mail Pilot’s acquaintance, it took Shreyas a while longer to get really excited about the game. “I wasn’t instantly hooked,” he told The Times. “It took me some time, but I was curious. I started playing with other children at school, and I started winning. And that got me hooked. And playing chess has also helped me to develop a few other skills, like being more patient and sitting still.”
You’d think a kid who brags about sitting still would be the apple of any teacher’s eye, but unfortunately for London’s classroom educators, Shreyas’s parents took him out of regular elementary school in favor of private tutoring so that he can focus more intently on chess, practicing two or three hours every weekday and five or six hours on Saturdays and Sundays. “Because of chess he doesn’t play video games,” Shreyas’s dad claimed—proudly or chillingly, depending on your point of view.
“It’s not so lonely,” Shreyas insisted of home schooling. He explained that the only thing he misses about regular school is teachers who weren’t paying constant attention to him so that he could, on occasion, do nothing. Air Mail Pilot, a big believer in daydreaming and woolgathering, wishes him future opportunities to do nothing at least once in a while. Someone tell his parents it might even help his game.
While most 12-year-olds busied themselves with video games and pulling pranks (or playing chess, like Shreyas Royal), at that age, Travis Ludlow was learning to fly his first plane.
Now 18 years old, Travis has just returned from his first solo trip flying around the world, making him the youngest person to ever do so, and earning him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
After 44 days and 24,900 miles, Travis landed at his last stop, the Netherlands, earlier this month. “It’s a strange feeling—here I am, I’ve arrived and I’ve got nothing to worry about tomorrow. It’s weird,” Travis told the BBC.
Raised in Buckinghamshire, U.K., Travis is used to breaking records and impressing his peers. He earned his black belt in kickboxing at the age of 12, and completed a triathlon a few years later. But flying quickly became the priority.
“He came to me at the age of 10 with this crazy idea,” Travis’s father told The Times of London. “He flew a glider on his 14th birthday and it just escalated. There are no pilots in the family, Travis is the only one. That’s where his heart is.”
At 14, Travis became the country’s youngest glider pilot, and at 17 the youngest certified private licensed pilot. And Travis put the work in, having logged more than 400 flying hours before embarking on his round-the-world adventure.
The route Travis chose took him soaring across northern Europe, Asia, eastern Russia, and Alaska. He then flew down to California and across the Grand Canyon and landed in New York on July 1—but not before flying around the Statue of Liberty.
It wasn’t all straightforward. The most harrowing moment in the journey happened in Montana, when a “mountain wave”—a threatening downwind—pulled him towards a mountainside. “I had warnings going off everywhere, with terrain alarms and then the stall alarm as I pulled up to correct the situation,” Travis wrote in an online update to those following his route. “I had pulled up, my nose point upwards, and I was still dropping. I dropped over 2,100ft in five seconds.”
The young pilot also nearly ran out of fuel while flying across the China-Russia border. On another occasion he hit freezing rain and had to take shelter, landing in Russia’s remote Kamchatka province. “Manily has a population of less than 500 and definitely no hotels,” Travis wrote, “but the people are lovely and the hospitality is wonderful, Russian-style.”
Now, Travis is back home, and for a brief moment, at least, testing out what it’s like just being a regular teenager. “Travis wants a Nando’s so we’ll take him there,” his father told The Times. (Nando’s is a fast-food chain that’s popular in the U.K.) “We’re just going to be pleased to have him back.”
Let’s say you’ve got a pet goldfish—we’ll call it Bubbles. And Bubbles is thriving, happy as could be in the well-appointed aquarium you’ve provided. Good. (No need to play this scenario out to the end.)
But somewhere along the way, as your life with Bubbles unspools, you might be struck by an idea, and it’s an impulse you should definitely fight: do not take it upon yourself to release Bubbles into the wild. You wouldn’t be doing the environment any favors, and probably not Bubbles, either.
According to an article in The Guardian, the buy-and-release impulse on the part of certain pet owners has created a population of some 50,000 non-indigenous goldfish in the bodies of water in and around Burnsville, Minnesota.
“Please don’t release your pet goldfish into ponds and lakes!” the city was forced to tweet. “They grow bigger than you think and contribute to poor water quality by mucking up the bottom sediments and uprooting plants.” Turns out good old Bubbles, removed from that glass tank, is an invasive species.
And it’s not just a Burnsville, Minnesota, problem. Similar warnings have been issued in the state of Washington, as well as in Australia and Canada. In Virginia, officials recently felt compelled to announce that “pet owners should never release their aquatic organisms into the wild.” When a local angler lands a three-pound, nine-ounce, 16-inch-long goldfish, as one did there recently, you tend to say things like that.
But back to Burnsville and what the city tweeted. It’s hard not to wonder how big “bigger than you think” is. Maybe this big: in 2013, the newspaper noted, researchers trawling Lake Tahoe netted a goldfish that was nearly a foot and a half long and weighed over four pounds.
Now, just imagine the one that got away!