All it takes is one weekend at a big tournament like this year's National Elementary Championships here to show that there's really no such thing as a ``typical young chess player.'' The more than 700 children from kindergarten through sixth grade who converged on Terre Haute, Ind., recently came in all shapes, sizes, and colors - and in both sexes.
If you want to get away from the stereotype of chess as an all-male pastime, in fact, a scholastic tournament is the place to be. There were nearly 100 girls competing here, which comes out to about 12 percent - not what it should or could be, perhaps, but a much bigger slice than you'll find in most adult events.
Over the years some of them have done very well, too, such as Jessica Ambats of New York, who tied for second place two years ago, and Angela Chang of Richwood, W.Va., and Yvonne Krawiec of Hacienda Heights, Calif. - each of whom has also finished well up among the leaders in recent years.
In terms of success disproportionate to their numbers, however, children of Asian parentage have made the biggest splash lately. John Villoria, a New York third-grader of Filipino extraction, scored 7-0 to share this year's primary championship with Tal Shaked of Tucson, Ariz. Alex Chang (Angela's younger brother) tied for national primary honors as a six-year-old in 1983, then dominated last year's elementary championship. Oliver Tai of Memphis won the primary title three years ago. Nicolai Parker of New York, whose mother is from the Philippines, shared the same honor with Chang in '83.
Children of Soviet 'emigr'es, as might be expected, have also done very well. But generally speaking, stereotypes fall by the wayside quickly as one realizes that these youngsters come from all parts of the country (23 states were represented here), from big cities and small towns, and from all sorts of economic and ethnic backgrounds. Team honors have been won in recent years by every imaginable type of entry, from posh private schools to all-black inner-city teams.
And what about intellectual prowess? Perhaps the most common misconception is that any youngster who is good at chess must automatically be a genius. Many of these boys and girls, to be sure, are excellent students. Obviously, the same abilities that produce good chess players can carry over into other mental disciplines like mathematics and music. But it's not a strict correlation. There are straight-A students, good students, and even some not-so-great students out there in the chess arena (remember that famous dropout, Bobby Fischer?).
Finally, all one has to do is watch the ball games in the schoolyard between rounds or listen to conversations in the cafeteria, and it quickly becomes apparent that these kids are much like any other group of young people.
As for parental influence, some do have chess-playing mothers or fathers, but a great many others come from families with little or no interest in the game.
Jimmy Goloboy, a third-grader from Marblehead, Mass., is in the latter category. He became interested when his mother got him a subscription to a chess magazine for his sixth birthday. ``He was fascinated by the notation, the clock, the ritual of writing down the moves,'' his father, Bernard, recalls. ``All the things most kids don't like.'' As a first-grader in 1985 he made his tournament debut - and won a district championship for third graders-and-under. He went on to win the state primary championship the next two years as well as several tournaments for older children, and also did well in adult events. And for two straight years he has scored 6-1 in the nationals, losing only to the eventual co-champion in each case.
Earlier this year, Jimmy became the youngest player ever to defeat a master in an officially rated tournament game, breaking a record set six years ago by nine-year-old New Yorker Evan Turtel. That feat earned him national attention, including a spot in Sports Illustrated as one of the magazine's weekly ``Faces in the Crowd'' selections.
Villoria also comes from a non-chess- oriented family. ``John is very gifted mathematically,'' says his father, Oscar. ``At the age of 2 he was adding two digits at the snap of a finger, and at 4 he could do square roots and knew the multiplication tables. He is also an excellent piano player and studies the violin.''
The elder Villoria says he didn't know anything about chess, but understood it was a good game for the mind. ``So I got some books from the libaray, and we learned together,'' he says. ``After a while he was beating me. Then he beat the nursery teacher.''
Bobby Seltzer of the West Roxbury part of Boston, who scored 7-0 to win the elementary championship, learned the moves at age 4. But for the next few years he played only occasional games with his father, Richard, who had long enjoyed the game, but only on a casual basis.
Bobby didn't enter his first tournament until age 9, but he showed promise from the start - plus an insatiable appetite for the game. In the next couple of years he played some 300 official rated games, plus untold hundreds of less-formal contests. Also, for the last two years (like most of the other top young players), he has had regular weekly lessons with a chess master.
It's quite a schedule - both for Bobby and for his father, who accompanies him by car, train, or plane to most of these events. But Mr. Seltzer sees his own tremendous commitment of time and energy as anything but a sacrifice or a burden.
``Basically, it is a lot of fun,'' he says. ``Think of all the time other fathers spend rooting for the Red Sox or the Celtics or the Patriots. I probably don't spend any more time than that - and it's a lot more fun rooting for your own son!''