Children and chess

If you want to see democracy at work, the ''melting pot'' theory in action, and the destruction of some widely held stereotypes, a good place to start is at the National Elementary Chess Championships.

There were no special privileges for any of the 278 children ranging from kindergarten through sixth grade who competed in the two-day, eight-round event in this suburb of Memphis. It was strictly every player for himself or herself, with equality of rights, opportunity, and treatment for all.

As for the ''melting pot'' aspect, all you have to do is look at the results. The winner was Ilya Gurevich, a fifth grader whose family emigrated from the Soviet Union. The last-round opponent who came within an eyelash of upsetting him was Stanley Kim, a 12-year-old of Korean descent. Co-champion in the third grade-and-under category was Alex Chang, an amazing six-year-old whose parents come from Taiwan. Other top players included second-generation representatives of Kenya and Hong Kong, while one coach came from Sri Lanka and another from Yugoslavia.

Then there are the stereotypes. It might surprise some people that the team champion was P.S. 27 of Indianapolis, a core city school whose players were almost all black - but that information would hardly raise any eyebrows in chess circles. Indeed, P.S. 27 was only following in the footsteps of the defending champion Frederick Douglass School from inner city Philadelphia and the Sanborn School of Salinas, Calif., which won the 1981 title with a team made up primarily of the children of migrant Chicano farm workers.

All this doesn't mean that Middle America and/or the ''intellectual establishment'' don't have their innings too, however. The Hunter College School , which is located in Manhattan's upper West Side and caters to gifted children, finished second and produced several outstanding individuals including the top girl competitor, nine-year-old Jessica Ambats. And the Abraham Lincoln School from suburban Minneapolis won four straight team titles from 1977 through 1980.

Another popular misconception is that youngsters who play games like chess are mostly ''bookworm'' types who wouldn't know the 50-yard line from left field. Some are indeed outstanding students, but others are just average in their schoolwork. Meanwhile, many are active in a wide variety of sports and other pursuits. In other words, they're pretty much like any group of kids, and when they gather together at an event like this, you find them doing just the things you'd expect - horsing around, playing video games, watching TV, etc.

And what kind of chess players are they? Again all kinds, ranging from novices to budding superstars already capable of giving even masters all they can handle. The Whiz Kid from Kiev

Gurevich is the prime example of the latter group. Ilya was about to turn eight when his family came from Kiev to Worcester, Mass., in early 1980. He already knew some chess basics, but his exceptional talent didn't really surface until he began playing in tournaments in this country.

Not only has Ilya dominated children's events, he has become a force at even the top adult levels. In open competition he has already defeated one national master and three candidate masters.

Strictly in terms of superior chess strength at a very young age, in fact, Gurevich and several other youngsters of recent years surpass even Bobby Fischer.

Fischer astounded the world when he achieved the coveted rank of master at the age of 13 years and 5 months in 1956, but since then four boys have lowered that standard. The current record-holder is Stuart Rachels of Birmingham, Ala., who did it at the amazing age of 11 years, 10 months in 1981.

Now Gurevich is threatening to lower the barrier again.Already a candidate master on the latest official list put out by the United States Chess Federation (USCF), the 11-year-old prodigy can replace Rachels as the youngest-ever master by achieving it any time between now and early December.

Even if he succeeds, though, Ilya could be challenged by a new wave of still-younger rivals. One who wasn't here, for instance, is Evan Turtel of New York, who last year at nine became the youngest player ever to defeat a rated master in an official game. And who knows how far a youngster like Alex Chang may go - or for that matter any of the thousands of other potentially talented boys and girls out there. The Orient Express

The astonishing play of six-year-old phenoms like Chang and Oliver Tai plus that valiant near-miss by Kim pointed up the strong Asian influence at the tournament.

Kim, a sixth-grader from Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., is a highly rated player whose fine play came as no surprise, but the other two boys were relative unknowns.

Chang stormed through the first seven rounds in spectacular fashion, winning six games to rank with the leaders. The Richwood, West Va., first-grader did lose in the last round, but his 6-2 tally was still enough to share primary division honors with third-grader Nicolai Parker of New York.

Tai, a first-grader at the host Auburndale School, had the local populace excited with a 3-1 first-day performance. He couldn't keep it up on the second day, but his play was still most impressive for his age.

One thing all three have in common is that they learned to play at age five. This is no prerequisite to later mastery (Fischer and many other top players learned much later), but it certainly can't hurt.

Kim's father, who knew little more than the moves, taught them to Stanley ''to develop his mind.'' Other children gave him a few pointers, and soon he was on his way.

''When he was still five, he entered a primary tournament, won five out of eight games, and got a small trophy,'' his father recalled. ''That made him very happy.''

It also attracted the attention of well known teacher Sunil Weeramantry, who has helped Stanley to reach his current spot among the nation's top players in his age bracket.

Chang, whose non-chessplaying parents moved to this country from Taiwan in 1972, learned the game from a sister.

''One day he saw some other children with a trophy and said, 'Oh, Mommy, that trophy is beautiful,'' his mother recalled.''He kept asking me if he could join the club. I thought maybe he was too young, but they said OK - and pretty soon he was beating a lot of them.''

Tai, whose family is from Hong Kong, also learned from an older sister, joined a chess club at school, and quickly showed exceptional talent. This year he won the Memphis city title in his age group and finished second in the state. The ''Most Active Woman''

As for girls, there were 26 competing here, and while that may seem a small number, a total of nearly 10 percent of the field actually represents a strong turnout compared to those in many chess events. Obviously there's still a lot of room for progress in getting girls interested in the game, but still there have been some significant strides in recent years.

Jessica Ambats is one good example. Like many of the children here, she doesn't come from a chess-oriented family, and in fact is a more or less typical , all-around youngster. Thanks to early exposure to the game at Hunter, though, Jessica started competing in tournaments at age six, and by last year had reached the point where she played an amazing 146 official USCF-rated games. According to the federation's records, this made her the most active female player in the nation - adult or child - for 1982.

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