Whiz kids vie for national chess honors

When Alex Chang was 5, he saw some other children with a chess trophy and begged his mother to let him join his school club. She thought he was too young , but decided to humor him. A year later as a first-grader the Richwood, W.Va., youngster of Taiwanese descent was national co-champion in the third-grade-and-under division.

This year as a grizzled seven-year-old veteran, Alex opted out of his own age group, played in the sixth-grade-and-under section, and finished in an amazing tie for third place with a 6-1 score.

With Evan Turtel, it was a chance lesson from a baby sitter that got things started. ''It was a fluke, really,'' says his father, Spencer, of Melville, N.Y. ''The sitter had nothing to do one night, so she taught him the moves. After about two weeks, he was beating her.''

That was in 1977, when Evan was 5. Four years later he became the youngest player ever to defeat a rated master in an official game. Now he's 12 and almost a master himself, as well as this year's national elementary champion via a perfect 7-0 score.

K. K. Karanja's career in the game was launched when his non-chess-playing parents were planning a trip to their native Kenya and took him to a store to let him pick out some things to play with while they were gone. To their surprise, the six-year-old youngster - who also knew nothing about the game - chose a chess set. ''The rules were on the box, and while we were gone he taught himself to play,'' his father recalls.

Now, like Alex and Evan, K. K. also holds a national title (he won the primary championship in 1982), and for the last two years he has been a top contender in the Open tournament.

These were just three of the 358 children from kindergarten age through sixth grade who convened in East Syracuse, N.Y., earlier this year for the National Elementary Championships. The youngsters represented all areas of the country as well as a variety of backgrounds and cultures, and many of them had fascinating stories of one sort or another.

For instance, there was Nickolai Parker, a nine-year-old New Yorker who actually began learning chess, in a sense, as a baby. ''We gave him chess pieces for crib toys,'' his father, Howard, said. ''That way, when it came time for him to learn to play, it didn't seem as though we were imposing the game on him. To him it was just a game that his toys were playing.''

The novel idea certainly worked in this particular case anyway. Nickolai learned to play at age 21/2 and by now has already tied for a national championship (he shared 1983 primary honors with Alex Chang) and played in several international matches for the ''Collins Kids,'' a US all-star team organized by chess teacher Jack Collins of New York.

Another young champion is Oliver Tai, a multitalented seven-year-old from Memphis who juggles an intense schedule that includes both piano and violin lessons as well as chess. Oliver, whose family is from Hong Kong, made a big stir as a first-grader a year ago when the national tournament was held in his home area, winning a lot of games early before eventually fading back in the second day. Now a year older and possessing considerably more stamina, he went all the way in Syracuse to capture top primary honors with six wins and one draw in the seven-round tournament.

By the end of the weekend, though, even players as young as Oliver Tai and Alex Chang were probably looking over their shoulders at five-year-old Morgan Pehme of New York. This youngster, playing in his first major tournament, outscored most of his older rivals with 41/2 points to cop two trophies - one for 31st place in the 122-player primary section and another as the top kindergarten student.

Meanwhile, a little further up the age scale there are such truly phenomenal young talents as Stuart Rachels of Birmingham, Ala., and Ilya Gurevich of Worcester, Mass.

Stuart holds the distinction of being the youngest player ever to achieve the rank of master in the official US Chess Federation ratings - a level he attained in 1981 at the age of 11 years and 10 months. Now 14, he is already one of the nation's top 20-and-under players and a force to be reckoned with in any competition.

Ilya, whose family emigrated to this country from Kiev in the Soviet Union when he was 8, was the 1983 national elementary champion as a fifth-grader but skipped the tournament this year, as he now plays almost exclusively in adult events.

Earlier this year, Ilya just missed in a bid to beat out Rachels's timetable for ''youngest master ever'' honors, and had to settle for being the second-youngest when he reached his goal at age 12 last spring.

Both boys, by the way, achieved the master rank at an earlier age than did Bobby Fischer, who was almost 131/2 when he made it in 1956. And the way young Gurevich played in the recent New England Open, defeating a succession of that area's top masters, including many-time champion John Curdo, it would be difficult to argue against the proposition that he is at this point the strongest 12-year-old player ever.

More and more each year, the girls are having their innings, too. There were 68 of them in Syracuse, or nearly 20 percent of the field - a significant increase over last year's figure and a very strong turnout compared with those in most chess events. It's obvious that there's still room for progress in getting girls interested in what has historically been a largely male pastime, but it's equally clear that there have already been some major strides in that direction.

The top female competitor in Syracuse was Angela Chang, Alex's 10-year-old sister, who matched his 6-1 score to share third place with her brother, K.K. Karanja, and five others in the Open section. ''I love to watch her play,'' says International Grandmaster and former US champion Arthur Bisguier. ''She looks just like a little dragon lady - sitting there ready to pounce and beat those boys!''

It's inevitable, of course, that Angela's fine play gets overshadowed a bit by the truly phenomenal skill of her younger brother, but judged just on its own merits, her result in this year's nationals was quite remarkable. Any fourth-grader scoring as well as she did has to be considered one of the leading contenders for top honors in either of the next two years - and if she could indeed win it all in 1985 or '86 she would become the first female ever to capture a national chess title of any sort in direct competition with males.

Another young lady with a chance for such a feat is 11-year-old Jessica Ambats of New York, who has done well in this event as both a fourth- and fifth-grader. She has also won a variety of trophies and prizes in both scholastic and adult tournaments as one of the most active female players in the nation over the last couple of years. Jessica was the only girl on the aforementioned ''Collins Kids'' team in its match with top young players from Iceland and Israel this past summer.

As in any competition, of course, there were only a relative handful of such youngsters battling it out in the top echelons, but just about all of the players seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, as well as obtaining a valuable learning experience throughout the two days of competition. Tournaments like this offer many side benefits - not the least of which is the opportunity to get to know other youngsters from all over the country and from various social, cultural, economic, and educational backgrounds.

They're also pretty good at breaking down stereotypes - as when PS 27 of Indianapolis, an inner-city school team made up almost entirely of black players , won the overall team championship in Memphis a year ago. With some of its top players gone on to junior high school, PS 27 was not able to defend successfully this year, but it still made a quite respectable third-place showing. Meanwhile Coach Bob Cotter explained what winning in '83 had meant to his youngsters.

''Most of these kids had pretty limited experience as far as things like travel and contacts with other regions and cultures were concerned,'' he said; ''but after winning the national championship they were invited to the White House to meet President Reagan, had a cultural-exchange trip to Japan, and have been to several cities in this country. It's been just a fantastic experience for them.''

Actually, the idea of an inner-city school winning a national chess title, while perhaps surprising to a layman, wouldn't raise any eyebrows among those close to the game. Indeed, PS 27 was only following in the footsteps of the Frederick Douglass School from inner-city Philadelphia, which won the 1982 title , and the Sanborn School of Salinas, Calif., which took 1981 honors with a team made up primarily of the children of migrant Chicano farm workers.

Over the years, in fact, there's been no consistent pattern, with schools representing all regions and all steps on the economic and social ladder taking turns at the top.

This year's tournament, for instance, produced a tie for team honors between Pojoaque Elementary of Santa Fe, N.M., and Pulaski Middle of Pulaski, Va., followed closely by defending champion PS 27 and the Hunter College Elementary School of New York, which is in Manhattan's Upper West Side and caters to gifted children. The top contenders in the primary section also represented a variety of backgrounds, with Hunter coming out on top, followed by Philadelphia's Frederick Douglass team, along with schools from White Plains, N.Y., and Auburndale, Tenn.

Another popular misconception is that children who excel in games like chess are mostly ''bookworm'' types who wouldn't know the 50-yard line from left field. Some are indeed outstanding students, and you'll undoubtedly find more musically gifted youngsters, computer whizzes, etc., in such a group than in a random sampling. But there are plenty of athletes, too, as well as boys and girls interested in a wide range of other activities.

In other words, they're not really that different from any other group of kids - a little more disciplined, perhaps, just as a group of dancers, figure skaters, or gymnasts might be, but still basically just kids.And when they gather at an event like the nationals, you find them doing exactly the sort of things you'd expect - horsing around, playing video games, watching TV, etc.

They all get serious pretty quickly when the tournament is under way, though, and clearly both the quality of play and the numbers involved are on the rise these days. Which raises the inevitable question: Is there another Bobby Fischer out there somewhere, or at least another potential world champion?

Only time will tell, of course, but with all these young phenoms aiming for the top, the chances are surely better now than they've ever been before.

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