Cannon Farragut, an 8-year-old Hunter’s Green resident, recently captured a Florida State Chess Championship. Is there a national championship on the horizon for this chess wunderkind?

Chess began with a key on a laptop keyboard being plucked loose and set aside.

Then another. And another.

By the time William Farragut discovered what was happening and could stop Cannon, his then-4-year-old son, every key on his laptop had been removed.

“I was furious,” William says. So, as a solution for his uber-curious son, William bought Cannon his own, cheaper laptop. He loaded it with math and science programs, and randomly ran across a chess app and installed that, too.

“I was being totally stereotypical, but chess is for smart kids, right?” William asks.

Within a month, it was the only thing Cannon was playing. By watching videos of matches, he learned not only how the pieces move, but how to “weaponize” those moves by stringing them together and outsmarting the opposition.

His father was stunned.

Four years later, Cannon, now 8, is the Arnold Denker Florida State Champion in the 1800-under division. High-level chess players don’t generally compete in age groups, they compete against others in the same ratings group. Cannon toppled adults 3-4 times his age on his way to the championship at the 1800-&-Under level (more on this below).

In November, he will represent the U.S. at the World Youth Championships in Spain.

Then, in December, he’ll travel to the National Scholastic Chess Championships in Orlando, where the very best players in the country will be on hand to prove their rankings. Cannon is currently ranked in the Top 20 in the U.S. in his age group, but is in the top 10 of everyone in the 1800-&-Under rating group in the entire U.S.

Can he win a national championship?

“I think I can win,” Cannon says.

On a typical Tuesday night. Cannon breezes through the meeting room at Compton Park, which is filled with dozens of young New Tampa chess players, members of the invite-only Champions Chess Club coached by Tampa Palms residents Mark Ritter and his wife Tania Kranich-Ritter, a former New York State champion.

Cannon is happy, polite, affable. Even during his matches, he looks around the room, smiling, rising from his seat to walk around and watch some of his clubmates. On occasion, he’ll also practice his jump shot form, as Cannon also is a skilled basketball player.

But Mark, an internationally rated chess master and one of only five Level 5-rated coaches in the country, and Tania, who coached teams at Tampa Palms Elementary and Liberty Middle School to national championships in 2005 and 2006, respectively, were skeptical when Cannon, then 5, showed up at the club hoping to join.

“When I first came in, they almost pushed me away,’’ William says, laughing.

Cannon hid behind his father’s legs. The club was mostly older kids, Tania told William, with players from 3rd grade to high school, with ratings ranging from 500 to 2100.

William tried to explain that he thought Cannon had something, and Mark told him every parent says that. But, since they had already made the trip, Mark agreed to sit down at the chess board with the youngster.

After five minutes, Mark looked at William, and said, “You know, there might be something here.”

Cannon then played one of the lower-rated players in the club, and lost. The tears flowed. When he and William left that day, Mark wasn’t sure he’d ever see them again.

Cannon did come back, however, and lost again, and cried again, a scenario that repeated itself several times the first few weeks. He was, however, getting better every visit. When he was six, he officially joined the club.

Mark says Cannon’s appetite for chess was voracious, and he devoured more and more instructional videos as his rating started climbing and the wins began piling up.

Even more pleasing was that Cannon slowly transformed from a shy kid into a social butterfly, making friends easily and becoming one of the club’s most popular members.

“Cannon’s growing social skills emphasize a much-overlooked benefit of chess,” says Mark. “While most of the focus remains on improving one’s game and rating — too much in my opinion — important social behaviors, such as sportsmanship, communication and interaction, are part of the package, too.”

Cannon has rapidly evolved from a kid plucking the keys off his father’s computer keyboard to Florida’s best player among those with 1800-&-Under ratings, according to the U.S. Chess Federation ratings. As such, he rarely plays anyone who is not much older than he is, a fact that Cannon admits has created some awkward situations.

“I think they are more nervous than I am,” Cannon says. “I don’t think they want to lose to a kid.”

But, his recent Florida State title is certainly the biggest win of his career, at least so far.

“It is a big deal,” Cannon says. “This is like my first major tournament I won and that inspires me to keep going, so I can become a Grandmaster and beat Magnus Carlsen.”

Both are lofty goals — Cannon is currently rated at 1771; when you reach 2200, you become a Master, and at 2500 you are a Grandmaster. But,  Carlsen, the current World Champion, is a true chess prodigy with a rating greater than 2800.

Chess is a hard game that very few master. So, how has an 8-year-old managed to do it?

Tough to say, says Mark.

“Nobody’s answered that question,” he says. “His ability to see tactics and combinations that most players can’t is phenomenal. He has a natural ability for spatial relationships, pattern recognition, things like that. How do you define that? It’s just wiring.”

Well, there’s wiring and then there’s hard work. Cannon is a dedicated student of the game. He describes the chessboard as a picture, or a puzzle. He says he sees what to do in his mind, “which is telling me what to do, like connecting the dots. Where the line starts is my first move.”

Cannon’s tendency to move too quickly at times is one of his few weaknesses. When he sees a dot to connect, he does so, with supreme confidence, even if it only took him a few minutes to notice. Sometimes, he admits that there was a better move out there.

That didn’t stop him in Jacksonville, however, when he won his State title. That victory netted Cannon $800 and a trophy (photo) almost as tall as he is. He loves his trophy. The money, he says, “I’m giving to my mom and dad so they can have some of it.”

That should at least cover the cost of that laptop, new keys and all.

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