Playing passers-by pays off for Latvia's little street chess champ

Visitors to Riga this summer have been issued with an unusual challenge as they walk the streets of the Old Town - an invitation to immediate one-on-one combat that will more than likely see them crushed within five minutes.

Luckily, the combat is entirely mental and the issuer of the challenge is no street tough but a polite eight-year-old boy named Mikelis.

A few weeks ago social media circulated pictures of Mikelis Vingris sitting at a table in the street with a sign inviting passers-by to a five-minute game of chess for the very reasonable price of 1 euro.  

The image was popular, perhaps because it showed such a different picture to the popularly assumed notion that boys are interested in little more than video games and cartoons.

But life pitting his wits against all-comers four times his age on the streets has paid off for Mikelis, who won a bronze medal this year in his age group at the world chess championships. 

His proud father and also a keen player, Janis Vingris, says that Mikelis showed an early interest in chess and learned the rules while still at kindergarten and naturally gravitated to a school that specialised in chess.

By this summer it was decided that the talented youngster had already reached the level at which could take on strangers on the streets. Occasionally a strong player will sit across the table for a speed chess blitz, but usually the victor is Mikelis. Either way, he gets better with each game.

"It's mainly a way of earning a bit of pocket money. Most people aren't very good players so it's not very strenuous training," says Janis.

Initially it was thought that only tourists could be tempted to a game against the young master, but according to Janis, locals are also taking up the challenge.

And the fact that Mikelis looks so young and innocent makes opponents less terrified of taking him on.

"When he's a teenager, people won't be so keen to play against him, but now he's eight they come and play. I've noticed people talking to each other already - they are surprised how strong he is and a bit afraid. When he's bigger, I think people won't come to play," says Janis. 

According to Mikelis' coach at Riga Chess School, Aivars Stašāns, the youngster definitely has talent and trains alongside players five and six years older than himself. And while he loses much more frequently against other dedicated players, he shows commendable application.

"He was playing in the 8-year-old age group, but the fact that he won the third place in the fast-track tournament this year was somewhat unexpected. I had hoped for 15th place. I have had young students before, but getting third place in the world is a first."

After winning third place in the world championship, Mikelis will enjoy newfound respect among his classmates, says Stašāns. And if he continues to work hard during his teenage years he will undoubtedly become one of Latvia's main chess hopes.

As for Mikelis himself, his aim is clear. Speaking after the tournament in Belarus at which he took the bronze medal, he told LTV:

"I would like to be a world champion. I would be able to participate in a lot of tournaments. I could make a lot of money. There are cash prizes." 

Having emptied the purses of many a passing tourist this year, Mikelis seems well on his way to both ambitions.

Chess has a distinguished history in Latvia, being the home of former world champion Mihails Tāls, whose statue can be seen in Vermanes park. One of the great chess strategists in history, Aron Nimzowitsch, was born in Riga too.

As previously reported by LSM current Finance Minister Dana Reizniece-Ozola is an accomplished player herself who last year managed a sensational win against the world women's number one player.

Earlier this year Riga hosted the European Women's Chess Championships.

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