Small Wonder

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When he was nearly three years old, Nguyen Ngoc Truong Son would watch his mother and father playing chess in the family's ramshackle home in the Mekong Delta, and, like any toddler, pester them to let him play, too. Eventually they relented, assuming the pieces would soon wind up strewn around the kitchen, a plastic bishop stuffed into a teapot, the white king face down in a bowl of phó. To his parents' astonishment, Son did not treat the chess set as a plaything. He not only knew how to set up the board, which was crudely fashioned with a piece of plywood and a felt-tipped pen. He had, by careful observation, learned many of the complex rules of the game. Within a month, he was defeating his parents with ease. By age 4, Son was competing in national tournaments against kids many years older. By age 7, he was winning them. Now 12, he is Vietnam's youngest champion and a grand master in the making.
Son's parents—teachers with a combined income of less than $100 a month—are at a loss to explain why their otherwise ordinary child is a whiz at the ancient board game. "It's an inborn gift," says his father, Nguyen Ngoc Sinh, content to chalk it up to cosmic happenstance. "You couldn't train an ordinary three-year-old to play like that." Son, for his part, doesn't seem to think the question is worth pondering. To him, the nuance-filled strategies and logic of chess play is something that comes as naturally as chewing bubble gum. "I just see things on the board and know what to do," he says matter-of-factly while capturing a TIME reporter's queen in four moves. "It's just always made sense to me."
How a child prodigy like Son comes by his preternatural ability is not something that has made much sense to scientists. Only recently has science begun to probe the cultural and biological roots of wunderkinder. New research is showing what scientists have long suspected: that the brains of very smart children appear to function in

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