11 Child Prodigies and the Amazing Things They'd Done by Age 11

Classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart playing piano at the court of Francis I as a child.
Classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart playing piano at the court of Francis I as a child.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Enjoy being humbled (humiliated?) by these 11 amazing child prodigies—some from history and some doing their prodigy thing in the here and now.

1. Judit Polgar // Chess Grandmaster

Judit Polgar in 1993 at age 17.
Judit Polgar in 1993 at age 17.
Ruediger Fessel/Bongarts/Getty Images

Hungarian chess grandmaster Judit Polgar (1976-) began playing in tournaments at the age of 6 and, by age 11, she had defeated her first grandmaster, Vlatko Kovacevic. She became the best female chess player in history and was named a grandmaster at age 15 in 1991 (at the time, the youngest ever).

2. Willie Mosconi // Billiards Champion

American professional billiards player Willie Mosconi (1913-1993), at the age of 6 and standing on a box, played an exhibition match against the reigning world billiards champion in front of a packed house. He lost that match, but it earned him some major attention. By the age of 11, Mosconi was the juvenile champion and regularly held popular trick shot exhibitions. He picked up the awesome nickname "Mr. Pocket Billiards" and won more World Straight Pool Championships (15) than anyone. He was also Paul Newman's pool mentor as he prepared for his role in the 1961 movie, The Hustler.

3. Priyanshi Somani // Human Calculator

Indian mental calculator Priyanshi Somani (1998-) took home the overall title at the Mental Calculation World Cup in 2010 when she was just 11 years old. Her specialty? Square roots from six-digit numbers up to eight significant digits (Somani placed first). A couple other events at the MCWC: addition of 10 numbers of 10 digits each (Somani placed second) and multiplication of two numbers of eight digits (Somani placed second). And yes, her competitors were adults.

4. Blaise Pascal // Mathematician

French mathematician and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) wrote a treatise on vibrating bodies at the age of 9 and scrawled his first proof on a wall with a piece of coal when he was 11. He is probably best remembered for Pascal's theorem, which he threw out there at age 16. Oh, and he also invented the mechanical calculator.

5. Wolfgang Mozart // Composer

Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) at the age of 11.
Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the age of 11.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is the child prodigy poster child. He began playing the harpsichord at age 3 and learned to play his first piece of music three days before his fifth birthday. He was composing his own music at 5 and, at 6, embarked on a three-and-a-half year European tour with his father and older sister, who was not too shabby of a musician herself.

6. Kim Ung-Yong // Actual Genius

Korean mega-genius Kim Ung-Yong (1962-) could have conversations at six months, could read in Japanese, Korean, German, and English by the age of 4 and could perform complex calculus by the time he was 5. From the ages of 3 to 6, he sat in on University physics courses. At one time, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized Kim as having the world's highest IQ, which was estimated to be over 210. Yowza.

7. Pablo Picasso // Artist

Spanish painter Pablo Picasso in his studio, circa the 1920s.
Spanish painter Pablo Picasso in his studio, circa the 1920s.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) showed his talents for art at a very early age. His mother claims (as mothers often do) that his first words were "piz, piz"—short for "lapis" (Spanish for "pencil"). But there is non-mom-derived evidence of his prodigious talent: Picasso drew "Picador" when he was just 8 years old.

8. Anna Paquin // Actor

A young Anna Paquin.
Newsmakers

Actress Anna Paquin (1982-) won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her debut acting performance in The Piano when she was just 11 years old. Since then, she's won numerous other awards, including a Golden Globe for True Blood.

9. Wayne Gretzky // Hockey Player

Canadian hockey star Wayne Gretzky (1961-) was playing against 10-year-olds when he was only 6. The uniforms intended for the 10-year-olds were far too large for the undersized Gretzky, who tucked his sweater into the right side of his pants: a tradition he continued throughout his hockey career. When he was 10, he scored an incredible 378 goals and added 139 assists in just one season.

10. John Stuart Mill // Philosopher

Philosopher John Stuart Mill, circa 1858.
Philosopher John Stuart Mill, circa 1858.
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) learned Greek at age 3 and had read all of Herodotus's Histories and was quite familiar with Plato’s Dialogues by the age of 8. He was also more than competent in Latin and Greek and had read through most of the major Latin and Greek works, in their original languages, by the age of 10.

11. Gregory Smith // Nobel Prize Nominee

American smart kid Gregory Smith (1990-) could memorize and recite books by the time he was 14 months old and could add by 18 months. He went from second to eighth grade in one year and began high school at the age of 7, graduating with honors two years later. He entered Randolph-Macon college at 10 and majored in mathematics with minors in both history and biology before pursuing his masters at the University of Virginia. The also became an activist as a pre-teen for children's rights throughout the world and has made a serious impact. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times.

A version of this story first ran in 2011.

9 Royally Interesting Facts About King Cake

iStock
iStock

It’s Carnival season, and that means bakeries throughout New Orleans are whipping up those colorful creations known as King Cakes. And while today it’s primarily associated with Big Easy revelry, the King Cake has a long and checkered history that reaches back through the centuries. Here are a few facts about its origins, its history in America, and how exactly that plastic baby got in there.

1. The King Cake is believed to have Pagan origins.

The king cake is widely associated with the Christian festival of the Epiphany, which celebrates the three kings’ visit to the Christ child on January 6. Some historians, however, believe the cake dates back to Roman times, and specifically to the winter festival of Saturnalia. Bakers would put a fava bean—which back then was used for voting, and had spiritual significance—inside the cake, and whoever discovered it would be considered king for a day. Drinking and mayhem abounded. In the Middle Ages, Christian followers in France took up the ritual, replacing the fava bean with a porcelain replica engraved with a face.

2. The King Cake stirred up controversy during the French Revolution.

To bring the pastry into the Christian tradition, bakers got rid of the bean and replaced it with a crowned king’s head to symbolize the three kings who visited baby Jesus. Church officials approved of the change, though the issue became quite thorny in late 18th century France, when a disembodied king’s head was seen as provocation. In 1794, the mayor of Paris called on the “criminal patissiers” to end their “filthy orgies.” After they failed to comply, the mayor simply renamed the cake the “Gateau de Sans-Culottes,” after the lower-class sans-culottes revolutionaries.

3. The King Cake determined the early kings and queens of Mardi Gras.


A Mardi Gras King in 1952.

Two of the oldest Mardi Gras krewes (NOLA-talk for "crew," or a group that hosts major Mardi Gras events, like parades or balls) brought about the current cake tradition. The Rex Organization gave the festival its colors (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power) in 1872, but two years earlier, the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe brought out a King Cake with a gold bean hidden inside and served it up to the ladies in attendance. The finder was crowned queen of the ball. Other krewes adopted the practice as well, crowning the kings and queens by using a gold or silver bean. The practice soon expanded into households throughout New Orleans, where today the discovery of a coin, bean or baby trinket identifies the buyer of the next King Cake.

4. The King Cake's baby trinkets weren't originally intended to have religious significance.

Although today many view the baby trinkets found inside king cakes to symbolize the Christ child, that wasn’t what Donald Entringer—the owner of the renowned McKenzie’s Bakery in New Orleans, which started the tradition—had in mind. Entringer was instead looking for something a little bit different to put in his king cakes, which had become wildly popular in the city by the mid-1900s. One story has it that Entringer found the original figurines in a French Quarter shop. Another, courtesy of New Orleans food historian Poppy Tooker (via NPR’s The Salt), states that a traveling salesman with a surplus of figurines stopped by the bakery and suggested the idea. "He had a big overrun on them, and so he said to Entringer, 'How about using these in a king cake,'" said Tooker.

5. Bakeries are afraid of getting sued.

What to many is an offbeat tradition is, to others, a choking hazard. It’s unclear how many consumers have sued bakeries over the plastic babies and other trinkets baked inside king cakes, but apparently it’s enough that numerous bakeries have stopped including them altogether, or at least offer it on the side. Still, some bakeries remain unfazed—like Gambino’s, whose cinnamon-infused king cake comes with the warning, "1 plastic baby baked inside."

6. The French version of the King Cake comes with a paper crown.


iStock

In France, where the flaky, less colorful (but still quite tasty) galette de rois predates its American counterpart by a few centuries, bakers often include a paper crown with their cake, just to make the “king for a day” feel extra special. The trinkets they put inside are also more varied and intricate, and include everything from cars to coins to religious figurines. Some bakeries even have their own lines of collectible trinkets.

7. There's also the Rosca de Reyes, the Bolo Rei, and the Dreikönigskuchen.


"Roscón de Reyes" by Tamorlan - Self Made (Foto Propia).

Versions of the King Cake can be found throughout Europe and Latin America. The Spanish Rosca de Reyes and the Portugese Bolo Rei are usually topped with dried fruit and nuts, while the Swiss Dreikönigskuchen has balls of sweet dough surrounding the central cake. The Greek version, known as Vasilopita, resembles a coffee cake and is often served for breakfast.

8. The King Cake is no longer just a New Orleans tradition.

From New York to California, bakeries are serving up King Cakes in the New Orleans fashion, as well as the traditional French style. On Long Island, Mara’s Homemade makes their tri-colored cakes year round, while in Los Angeles you can find a galette de rois (topped with a nifty crown, no less) at Maison Richard. There are also lots of bakeries that deliver throughout the country, many offering customizable fillings from cream cheese to chocolate to fruits and nuts.

9. The New Orleans Pelicans have a King Cake baby mascot—and it is terrifying.

Every winter you can find this monstrosity at games, local supermarkets, and in your worst nightmares.

5 Wild Facts About Mall Madness

Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The mall, home of fashion brands, bookstores, and anchor locations like Sears, was a must-visit location for Americans in the 1980s and 1990s—and especially for teenagers. Teens also played Mall Madness, a board game from Milton Bradley introduced in 1988 that tried to capture the excitement of soft pretzels and high-interest credit card shopping in one convenient tabletop game. Navigating a two-story shopping mall, the player who successfully spends all of their disposable income to acquire six items from the shopping list and return to the parking lot wins.

If you’re nostalgic for this simulated spending spree, you're in luck: Hasbro will be bringing Mall Madness back in fall 2020. Until then, check out some facts about the game’s origins.

1. Mall Madness was the subject of a little controversy.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Milton Bradley put a focus on the tween demographic. Their Dream Phone tasked young players with finding the boy of their dreams; Mall Madness, which began as an analog game but quickly added an electronic voice component, served to portray tweens as frenzied shoppers. As a result, the game drew some criticism upon release for its objective—to spend as much money as possible—and for ostensibly portraying the tweens playing as “bargain-crazy, credit-happy fashion plates,” according to Adweek. Milton Bradley public relations manager Mark Morris argued that the game taught players “how to judiciously spend their money.”

2. The original Mall Madness may not be the same one you remember.

The electronic version of Mall Madness remains the most well-known version of the game, but Milton Bradley introduced a miniature version in 1988 that was portable and took the form of an audio cassette. With the game board folded in the case, it looks like a music tape. Opened, the tri-fold board resembles the original without the three-dimensional plastic mall pieces. It was one of six games the company promoted in the cassette packaging that year.

3. Mall Madness was not the only shopping game on the market.

At the same time Mall Madness was gaining in popularity, consumers could choose from two other shopping-themed board games: Let’s Go Shopping from the Pressman Toy Corporation and Meet Me At the Mall from Tyco. Let’s Go Shopping tasks girls with completing a fashion outfit, while Meet Me At the Mall rewards the player who amasses the most items before the mall closes.

4. There was a Hannah Montana version of Mall Madness.

In the midst of Hannah Montana madness in 2008, Hasbro—which acquired Milton Bradley—released a Miley Cyrus-themed version of the game. Players control fictional Disney Channel singing sensation Hannah Montana as she shops for items. There was also A Littlest Pet Shop version of the game, with the tokens reimagined as animals.

5. Mall Madness is a collector’s item.

Because, for the moment, Hasbro no longer produces Mall Madness, a jolt of nostalgia will cost you a few dollars. The game, which originally sold for $30, can fetch $70 or more on eBay and other secondhand sites.

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