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Young Knights

A rivalry is growing between several Massachusetts chess stars, each of whom could become a top-rated, even professional-level player. That is, if they don't lose interest once they get out of middle school.

(Photo by Liz Linder)

After a full day of competition, the state championship is hanging in the balance of one battle. Andrew Wang and James Lung are squared off, mano a mano – as mano as 10-year-old boys can be, anyway – renewing a budding rivalry between two of the best young players in Massachusetts. Andrew has beaten James before, and this day, each player has led his team into the final round (team chess features four players per side). But Andrew’s grip looks tenuous as their struggle stretches well into its second hour. People are clustered around this game, since the rest of the day’s matches are done. If Wang bests his rival, the Sage School in Foxborough will win the 2006 state K-6 championship, avenging a loss the year before. If James wins, his school, Lexington’s Harrington Elementary School, will again be the winner. If they draw, the title will go to a third school.

The arena, which happens to be the Natick High School cafeteria, is boisterous – for chess. Which is to say that people can be heard whispering, and at one point, Andrew distinctly hears someone say: "It’s a draw." Indeed, it looks as if neither player can win. Both boys are down to two pawns and a king, though Andrew also has a bishop. And he is sure he can find a way to win. Still, he is running out of time – tournament chess gives each player a two-hour limit, and Andrew has only five minutes remaining. But five minutes of clock time, which stops after each move, can be an eternity in chess, and so he keeps plugging away. Then he sees his edge: He can use his bishop to protect one of his pawns from James’s king and use that pawn to get his queen back. Once Andrew gets his pawn in position, James concede defeat.

There is, of course, no exultation. Chess is a blood sport, but all the bloodshed happens in the brain – which may explain why chess players always seem to be holding their heads in their hands. Think of it as the intellectual version of hockey: You bash each other’s brains out, and when you’re done, you shake hands and go home.

Chess, a sport of kings, in some ways is really a sport of kids. Close to half of the members of the MetroWest Chess Club, the biggest in New England, are not yet 18. Outside of gymnastics, chess is probably the only sport where a 4-foot-6, 60-pounder like Andrew Wang can routinely compete with – and defeat – adults.

There was a huge surge in interest in the game in the United States after Bobby Fischer won the world championship in 1972. But today, the game seems almost quaint. There are only about 80,000 members in the US Chess Federation, roughly the same number as in the mid-’90s, but four times the pre-Fischer level – and about 1,000 members in the Massachusetts state association. The numbers have also been propped up over the years by two waves of newcomers – Eastern Europeans, primarily Russians, who came to the United States after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and more recently, Asian immigrants and their kids.

Andrew’s father, Frank Wang, was born in Taiwan but grew up in Montreal before immigrating to the United States in 1989. His mother, Tiffany Wang, came from Taiwan to study harp that year at the New England Conservatory. En-Kuang Lung, James’s father, arrived in 1978, while his mother, Florence Lung, came here in 1971; they are also both originally from Taiwan. The two other top rising seventh-graders in the state are Winston Huang, whose parents left Shanghai almost 30 years ago, and Zaroug Jaleel, whose parents emigrated from southern India, living in Wales before moving to the United States in 1995. The only thing these four families seem to have in common, besides roots in other countries, is the fact that they see chess as an activity that will help their children in school.

That and the fact that, right now, these four boys happen to be engaged in a fierce battle for domination. Any one of them might one day become a grandmaster – the game’s highest rank. And it could happen before they are old enough to drive to their own matches.

A few weeks ago at the 2007 Massachusetts Open state championship chess tournament, Andrew hit a milestone. Having played against adult opponents, his official chess rating, a number that reflects a player’s record against other rated players, reached "expert" level when it leapt from 1951 to more than 2000. Grandmaster (2500) is the game’s only rating that’s given for life, and there are currently only about 1,000 grandmasters in the world.

Though he is just 11 – he’ll be 12 in a few days – Andrew is already the highest-rated "14 and under" player in Massachusetts, where the state chess association breaks kids’ tournaments into high school, 14 and under, 11 and under, and 8 and under categories. The US Chess Federation has championships for every grade starting in kindergarten, and records are also kept by age. Andrew Wang is the third-highest-rated 11-year-old in the country.

Frank Wang began teaching his son to play chess when Andrew was 4. Andrew’s father played chess growing up, and he still maintains a rating close to 2200. Andrew’s 10-year-old sister, Clara, is also a talented player, rated in the top 30 girls under 13 nationally.

With both nature and nurture firmly on his side, it’s clear that Andrew has a very good brain. He’s a straight-A student, even in the academically challenging environment of the Sage School, a small, private school for academically gifted kids. He’s the best in his grade at Latin. He also likes reading, particularly the teen-oriented fantasy novels of Tamora Pierce and science-fiction books by Orson Scott Card. Andrew also has read all five volumes of Garry Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors, a history of the World Chess Championships. But he especially likes math, at which he is something of a prodigy (he was doing multiplication at age 3) and which he says he prefers even to chess. And, in an embarrassment of talents, Andrew may be still better at playing the piano then either math or chess.

But Andrew isn’t a stay-inside kind of kid. He also likes tennis and sailing, picking on his younger sister, and playing "toe tag" with friends after chess practice. The rules: "You stand in a foursquare, and you try to jump on the other person’s toes without getting tagged yourself. If you’re tagged three times, you’re out. And you can’t run away," Andrew explains. He’s a playful boy – when I visited his home, a split-level on a lake in Sharon, he disappeared shortly after I arrived. I looked down the hall at his room and saw a shadow. I approached, and he shot me with a foam bullet, then laughed as I fell against the door and called for a Band-Aid.

Andrew’s room doesn’t quite look like what you’d expect. There aren’t posters of Kasparov or Fischer vs. Spassky. But he does have his three consecutive US Chess Federation All-America Chess Team certificates framed and hung on his wall. And over by his desk is the huge trophy he got for winning the fourth-grade national junior chess championships in 2004.

James Lung comes from a different kind of chess-playing family. En-Kuang Lung is a casual player who is not rated, but all four of his children play, and they’re a big part of the chess revival in their town, Lexington. There’s Genesis, 15, Christine, 13, James, and Timothy, 10. (Another baby is due at the end of this month.) "Chess is a good tool – it forces you to concentrate," says Lung. "And it calms them down."

James is the one most interested in chess in the Lung family, which is perhaps why he also seems to be the most talented – he’s rated 15th in the nation for 11-year olds, despite a recent slump in his rating (such bumps are not uncommon for younger players). After the 2006 state team championship match he lost to Andrew, he went on to anchor his school’s team and win the 2006 national K-5 team championships.

James is a slender lad who likes soccer. He plays the cello well enough to have qualified for the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra last year, but decided to wait a year before joining to see if he could get into a more-advanced ensemble. James also has a remarkable memory. "I like quotes," he says, and he can rattle off even long ones, like most of the Gettysburg Address, which he’s memorizing for fun. In school, he competes on the Science Bowl team and says he likes both history and chemistry experiments that end in explosions.

He also remembers every move of his first chess game. It helps that his father "fool’s mated" him – a chess term for quick checkmates – during each of his first few games. James thought it was cool that the games were so quick. Later, when he knew more about chess, he thought it was cool that he could beat his dad.

James keenly wants to beat Andrew Wang, and Andrew knows it. Their rivalry makes each boy work harder at chess, and it helped create a rivalry between the Sage School and Harrington Elementary School in the Hurvitz Cup, the State Scholastic Chess Team Championship. Even though the two boys are now too old to play at that level, they both help out their old teams by encouraging younger players and even coaching – in Andrew’s case, when Sage’s coach died unexpectedly in March, the week before this year’s tournament.

Meanwhile, they have other competition. James’s friend and teammate, 12-year-old Zaroug Jaleel, beat Andrew the only time they played. So did Winston Huang, a 12-year-old who lives in Newton and started playing chess a mere 2½ years ago; he is rated above the 1900 mark.

Andrew says he likes knowing that other kids are gunning for him and thrives on the challenge of it; he says that Zaroug and Winston "got lucky" when they beat him. His mother, however, has a different view. "It hasn’t been easy for him to be top kid," she says. "All the other kids want him to lose, whether they’re playing him or not, and if a player beats him, everybody will go and high-five that player in front of him. I heard a player say, ‘Andrew is a monster, and we have to beat him.’ I think people forget that he is 11, that he’s a kid."

Any time a child becomes engaged in a competitive sport, parents make sacrifices, and chess demands plenty. The Lungs spend every other Tuesday evening with the MetroWest Chess Club in Natick, where matches can last until midnight. Weekends can be consumed by tournaments. There can be travel involved, to events like the national junior chess championships. "It’s so much time," says En-Kuang Lung.

Parents invest the time for plenty of reasons, but according to the limited academic research that’s been done on the game’s effects on kids, the discipline that playing chess every day teaches may be the most important thing any young player gets out of it. Some studies have also concluded that chess may help with cognitive development, improving reading, mathematics and science skills, not to mention IQ and test scores.

Christopher Chabris, a research associate in psychology at Harvard University and a competitive chess player once rated above 2300, notes that the National Science Foundation isn’t exactly doling out a lot of money to look at the real impact of chess on kids; there simply haven’t been many studies done. He also points out that it’s difficult to do controlled studies to measure the real impact chess has, since kids in studies know whether or not they’re playing. He thinks that chess probably helps most kids who play regularly, since being a good chess player demands regular study and a basic ability to sit still for a long period of time, both of which are skills that obviously come in handy in the classroom. But the data are not conclusive, Chabris warns, and chess is "not a magic bullet" for academic success.

Then again, these chess parents don’t need studies telling them what chess does for their kids. "From a parent’s perspective, I see certainly that if people take it seriously, they can improve their concentration and, additionally, learn how to handle disappointments. You’re not going to win every game," says Frank Wang. "You’re going to lose your fair share, sometimes more than your fair share. How do you turn yourself around? Additionally, if you play for a long time, there are going to be cycles where you don’t seem to be going anywhere with your game. That’s perseverance, and that’s actually a lifetime lesson you can draw on."

Even if chess does improve concentration in kids, it can only go so far. A case in point comes from one adult who has played three of the four boys. Derek Slater, who is 40, lives in Medway and is a longtime chess buff whose rating is above the 2100 mark. Slater’s observation that "young kids are always better than their rating" is perhaps explained by his having been beaten by Winston in January, though he has won against both Andrew and James in the last two years. But he thinks his win against Andrew in July 2005 may have been a function of timing. "He played really, really well until 10 p.m.," he says. "It was like he hit bedtime and his brain shut down, and I was able to escape."

Other than a lack of experience, kids’ tendency to lose focus is their biggest vulnerability, says Larry Christiansen, a chess coach, the author of several chess strategy books, and a pro player who is a three-time US champion. Christiansen, 51, became a master-rated player when he was 14; he coaches Andrew and Zaroug privately and is familiar with James’s and Winston’s records. All four boys are "very, very bright, extremely talented," he says, noting that they’re also all better than he was when he was their age.

But there is peril in predicting whether a great young chess player will become a great adult chess player, especially in America. Chess is not a money sport here, even though there is a professional league. (Boston’s team is called the Boston Blitz. Starring Christiansen, the team last year finished second – out of seven, though there are now 10 teams – to the New York Knights.) There’s also the threat of puberty, which can change a young chess player’s dreams from grandmaster to girls practically overnight.

Good young American players routinely start doing other things with their time during high school and college, in part as they turn their attention to preparing for careers. That may be happening right now with 19-year-old Dickinson College student Hikaru Nakamura, the youngest-ever American grandmaster, who achieved that rating at 15 years and 79 days of age. Nakamura, who is from New York, turned down a chess scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas to go to a school with a lower chess profile, looking to ratchet down his involvement in the game. Nakamura competed in the 2007 US chess championship, but didn’t play well enough to win.

"It’s hard to say if they’ll keep that intensity going," says Christiansen. "You never know."

For now, at least, Andrew Wang has that intensity. "I want to be a grandmaster."