Chess is often considered the province of renaissance kings and modern-day grandmasters who seem as remote, single-minded, and totally absorbed in their pursuit as medieval monks. But chess can also be a game of schoolchildren, as the recent National Elementary Championship tournament here in Charlotte proved.
In fact, the youngsters gathered here seemed to break all the stereotypes. They defied categorizing as white, male, ``bookworm'' types from upper-class, urban families, as some people might have expected.
The four contestants who wound up battling for first place in the final round, for instance, were a black youngster of Kenyan ancestry; a girl from New York City; a Mexican-American boy from Arizona; and a precocious third-grader of Taiwanese parentage from West Virginia.
This diversity wasn't just to be found at the top, either. The nearly 500 competitors from all over the country represented the widest imaginable range of color, national origin, outside interests, economic status, and geographical location. There were plenty of girls, including some who fought it out in the top echelons all weekend. In fact one of them, Jessica Ambats, came within half a point of making history as the first female to win a national chess title at any level in direct competition with males.
The overall winner, with a perfect 7-0 score, was the amazing K. K. Karanja. This 11-year-old sixth-grader from New York City, whose parents come from Kenya, has been one of the nation's outstanding chess prodigies for several years. He won the national third-grade-and-under championship in 1982 and now has added the elementary title to his growing list of laurels, while also leading his Hunter Elementary School colleagues to the team championship.
Jessica Ambats, another Hunter sixth-grader, was also 6-0 entering the last round, as was eight-year-old Alex Chang of Richwood, W.Va. They battled to a draw and tied for second place at 61/2-1/2 each.
Rene Felix of Tucson, Ariz., was the only other competitor who entered the last round with a perfect score, and he gave K. K. Karanja all he could handle before finally losing. Still, his 6-1 result was nothing to be ashamed of, earning him a tie for fourth place and a handsome trophy.
These, of course, were just the top few out of the 311 players who competed in the Elementary category. Meanwhile, 162 others battled it out in the Primary section for kindergarten through third grade. And while the former event went pretty much according to form, with the highest-rated players dominating the top of the standings, the latter was full of upsets from beginning to end.
New Yorkers David Arnett and Matthew Goldman emerged as co-champions, playing a draw in their head-to-head confrontation and winning all the rest of their games. The Dalton School of New York City took team honors.
The youngsters, of course, are only part of the story, since there wouldn't be any tournaments without the teachers, coaches, tournament directors, organizers, and volunteers involved. And while only a few ever get much national recognition, all of them can take pride in the knowledge that through their efforts many youngsters who might otherwise find less productive pastimes are learning such basic lifetime lessons as discipline, logic, and good study habits -- and having a lot of fun at the same time. K. K. Karanja, Eleven-year-old champ
K. K., like many of his chess-playing contemporaries, got into the game by chance.
His parents were planning a trip to their native Kenya, and as a treat for the boy (who was then 6), they took him to a store to get some things to play with while they were gone. Much to their surprise, since no one in the family played the game, he picked a chess set.
``The rules were on the box, and while we were gone he taught himself to play,'' recalls the father, Edward, a philosophy professor at City College of New York.
K. K. joined the school chess club and in his first major test won the Greater New York Primary Championship.
Next came lessons from a master under the auspices of the American Chess Foundation, which helps talented young players develop their skills. By the time K. K. was in third grade, he won the National Primary Championship.
As a sixth-grader he has reached the point where he studies under International Grandmaster Lev Alburt, the current US champion.
How far is a youngster like this likely to go?
No one can really tell, of course, for there are so many factors, including motivation and the willingness to put in long hours of study. So far, though, K. K. has shown no signs of stopping -- or even of slowing down. Jessica Ambats, Dispelling a myth
Jessica, also a New Yorker, was even younger than champion K. K. Karanja when she learned the game.
``We bought a set when she was 4,'' recalls her mother, Diana. ``She caught on quickly, and we realized she was pretty good. When she was in kindergarten, we heard about a tournament and put her in it, and she came in fourth in the Primary section.''
Jessica, too, has been a key member of the Hunter chess club all through her elementary school days.
She also plays so frequently in adult events that in two of the last three years, United States Chess Federation (USCF) statistics have shown her to be the most active female tournament player -- adult or child -- in the entire country.
Furthermore, while women have made great strides of late, their average playing strength is still lower than that of men -- thus putting Jessica so high on this list that she was chosen to represent the United States in the female section of the 1985 World Cadet (under-16) Championships in Petah Tikva, Israel.
But don't try to typecast her as a one-dimensional, bookish youngster spending all of her waking hours studying the game. She has many other interests, including skiing, roller skating, and ping-pong. She also spends a lot of time with her computer and is a top student -- especially in math. Alex Chang, The eight-year-old whiz kid
Alex, at age 8, has to be the most amazing of all the chess whiz kids.
This boy, whose non-chess-playing parents moved to this country from Taiwan in 1972, learned the game at 4 or 5 from his older sister, Angela -- now a strong sixth-grade player in her own right.
As a kindergartner, he saw some other children with a chess trophy and begged his mother to let him join his school club, she recalls.
``I thought he was too young,'' she says. ``But the people running the chess club said OK, so I let him join -- and pretty soon he was beating a lot of them.''
A year later as a first-grader, the youngster was national co-champion in the third-grade-and-under category. And that was just the beginning!
In second grade, Alex opted out of the Primary section at the nationals in favor of the Elementary Championships for youngsters all the way up to sixth grade -- then proceeded to score 6-1 and tie for second place.
Now, as a ``grizzled veteran'' in third grade, he frequently plays in junior high or high school sections at state and regional events.
And even on the national level he tied for second in the eighth-grade-and-under division of the junior high tournament just a couple of weeks before his outstanding performance here.