What attracts a particular child to chess and/or brings out a special talent for the game? There is no single answer - as the case of K.K. Karanja amply demonstrates.
In the fall of 1980, when K.K. was six, his parents were planning a trip to their native Kenya. As a treat for the child, they took him to a toy store to let him select some things to play with while they were gone. Much to their surprise, since neither parent knew anything about the game, he picked a chess set.
''The rules were on the box, and while we were gone he taught himself to play ,'' recalls K.K.'s father, Edward, a philosophy professor at City College of New York.
The elder Karanja learned the rules too, but quickly found that he could not beat his son. So, looking for stiffer competition, he turned to the chess club at K.K.'s school, the Hunter College Elementary School. There it was suggested that the youngster compete in the Greater New York Primary Championship during Christmas vacation.
K.K. not only competed, but won with a 4-0 score. This caught the attention of the American Chess Foundation, which arranged for him to take lessons with US Master Larry D. Evans under its youth program. That, in turn, led to more successes, including first place in the 1981 New York City Scholastics.
Last spring K.K., by then in third grade, went to Bloomington, Minn. for the National Elementary Championships, and scored 6-2 to win the third grade-and-under championship. Upon his return he got so much attention that a simultaneous exhibition was arranged, and although the opposition turned out to be mostly adults, he still won all 50 games.
This year, despite moving up to the sixth grade-and-under category, K.K. finished in a nine-way tie for fifth place with a score of 61/2-11/2. He has two more shots at the top prize, too, and seems certain to be a leading contender in both 1984 and 1985.
Edward Karanja is very high on chess as both a mental exercise and a teacher of the lessons of life.
''It's a game involving discipline and mental stimulation,'' he says. ''It teaches you about winning and losing, and how losing can be good sometimes. That's a hard concept, and a good one to learn.''