Are these Britain’s brainiest children – or have they just got the pushiest mothers?
Meet three children who took part in a search for UK’s ultimate child genius
By Tanith Carey

PUBLISHED: 01:02 GMT, 11 June 2013 | UPDATED: 01:02 GMT, 11 June 2013

At the tender age of nine, Josh Altman has grown used to being referred to as a prodigy. As the number five chess player in the world under the age of ten, he regularly annihilates adult players, and the shelves of his North London living room are lined with more than 50 medals and trophies.

As he moves chess pieces on the board with lightning-fast precision, this angelic-looking little boy certainly seems exceptionally bright.

But the cleverest child in Britain? His mother, Hillary — who describes herself as about ‘as hard core a chess mum as they come’ — seems to think so.

Pint-sized genius: Josh Altman is one of the best chess players in the world for his age

Indeed, she feels privately educated Josh needs more recognition of what she refers to as his ‘delicate gift’.

To that end, Hillary, 48, entered her little boy for the Child Genius competition, a four-part series starting this week on Channel 4 in which under-11s compete to be crowned Britain’s brainiest child.

And that’s when things started to go awry. In the first episode of the series, Josh, then just eight, was so tiny that he needed a step to help him get up to the lone podium in the library of Queen Mary’s University in London.

Facing a severe-looking quizmaster, the boy looks petrified and stumbles when faced with puzzles such as: ‘What is the next number in the sequence 243, 27, 9, 3 and 3?’

It is hardly surprising that he faltered. As his mother admits, he woke up on the morning of the competition ‘filled with nerves’ and promptly threw up all over the back of the car.

After his poor performance, it is heartbreaking to see his chocolate-button eyes fill with tears and his lip quiver as he desperately tries to get out of taking part in the next round, advanced maths. ‘I think I am not going to stay this afternoon. I think I might be a bit too ill,’ he tells a researcher, his eyes searching desperately around the room for an escape.

But Tiger Mother Hillary is having none of it. While he writhes uncomfortably on the seat next to her, she informs him it’s all in his mind. ‘I think something got in your head, not in your throat,’ she says, adding that he ‘won’t feel good about himself’ unless he gives it another try.

If there is concern about children being reduced to quivering wrecks by Simon Cowell’s judging panel on Britain’s Got Talent, then spare a thought for the mites taking part in this programme.

Bright young thing: Rosa Maria Merheb shows off her achievements

More than 1,500 proud parents applied on behalf of their offspring, who were then given intelligence tests by Mensa to see if they were bright enough to make it onto the show.

The youngsters then embark upon four days of intense testing, consisting of Mastermind-style rounds ranging from challenges like spelling words such as Triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13) to lengthy mental arithmetic problems.

At the end of each day, the five children with the lowest scores are sent home.

The series, which consists of four episodes, each focusing on a different day’s tests, is set to a background of plucky violins and quirky xylophone bongs, presumably to make it seem ‘fun’.

But the truth is, this is car-crash TV and this time it’s the children who don’t have their seat belts on. 

Take ten-year-old Hugo, a fanatical train-spotter. For intelligence, he is classed in the top 0.4 per cent of the population, and has a photographic memory, which means he has learned the entire rail network.

He is already planning a career in aeronautics and has given lessons at his private school on subjects such as plate tectonics.

The programme makers take care to show that Hugo fits the usual oddball stereotype associated with child geniuses.

‘With stupid people — not as clever as me people — I get frustrated if they can’t work it out, because of course I know the answer and I feel I have to point it out to them,’ he says.

Elsewhere, he is seen yelling at his toy trains to go faster, going train-spotting with his father and threatening to smash two mobile phones.

Even his parents Mark and Michelle, from Ashstead, Surrey, are seen despairing of him, describing their son as ‘hard work’ and ‘in the top five per cent of irritating children’.

Insisting they just want Hugo to be ‘normal’ instead of living ‘in an intellectual tower’, they admit they’ve made him take up the trumpet in the hope it might improve his chances of getting a girlfriend one day.

Another child thrust into the limelight on the show is Shrinidhi Prakash, the sweetly naïve Under-12 World Scrabble Champion.

Phenomenally bright, with a love of literature and economics, she is repeatedly shown ‘sniffing’ her favourite books — because she loves the smell.

‘Sometimes you get a bit of trouble making friends. Psychologically, it is taxing being really clever, I guess,’ she says. ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks. Books are friends to me. I have 200.’ You can only dread to think how well that confession will go down with the other 11-year-olds in Shrinidhi’s school.

Channel 4 claims the programme aims to make it ‘cool to be clever’, but the effect is just the opposite. It’s all designed to make the rest of us, whose children perhaps don’t shine as much in the classroom, feel OK that our offspring aren’t geniuses after all.

If anything, it’s worse than programmes like Britain’s Got Talent, because those children are only performing acts.

On Child Genius, the contestants are children who have been defined by their academic achievements — and who now have to put their entire identities on the line.

Used to being the top of the class at everything, few have any experience of failure. And while that might be a good thing, national TV seems an odd place for primary-age children to be shown experiencing it for the first time.

But what of the parents — mostly middle-class and intelligent — who enter their children? Clearly, the fact their offspring are already top of the class isn’t enough for them.

Some claim they entered their child in order to challenge them, or to help them meet other gifted children who would understand them better than their peers. Others are more honest.

As one mother says of her son: ‘He doesn’t mind if he wins. I do.’ 

Chess champion Josh’s mum Hillary is clearly as invested in her son’s victories as he is. As she says: ‘It’s great to win. It’s an exciting moment for a mother.’

No surprise, then, when she manages to persuade him to return for another round in the afternoon — advanced mental maths — although again with limited success.

‘Josh, it’s much more than a test,’ she asserts afterwards, adding that it’s perhaps time to get back to the chessboard to follow through on her five-year plan for him to become a grandmaster.

After all, she has drawn up a tight schedule. In the past, she has awarded Josh a gold star on a chart every time he chalks up another hour’s chess practice.

She has worked out he needs 10,000 hours in all — more than 50 a week — in order to claim the title of chess grandmaster by the target age of 13.

As his manager, American-born Hillary gave up her own high-flying career in urban development for former President Bill Clinton’s administration to devote herself to Josh’s career. 

Full story here.

Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar
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