LOWELL — The chess world is one of chivalry and royalty, of stern faces and seriousness. And as much as Lowell High School sophomore Jessica Wamala tries to fit in, she cannot.
She is certainly good enough: She recently won the title of the top under-21 female player in Massachusetts. It’s just that when the 15-year-old Jessica is beating you, she’s unable to hold back her big smile.
“It’s really rude,” she said with a smile. “I feel bad. I really try not to.”
Wamala has had a lot of smiles to contain over her nine-year chess career, and just talking about chess leaves her beaming. For her, the game is about fun. (“I never really got so bummed out playing chess,” she said.) And that’s just the way her father, Severine, wants it.
But Severine Wamala almost didn’t learn how to play chess in the first place. While he was an undergraduate at Makerere University in his native Uganda, his roommate tried to teach him, but it was no easy task; Wamala was fervently devoted to his studies, determined to avoid another distraction.
“I told him, `Don’t teach me chess because I don’t even have time,’ ” he said.
Wamala, who traveled to the United States in 1988 to work toward a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, laughed at the story last week. He said that once his roommate twisted his arm, it didn’t take long to realize its benefits with problem-solving and mental exercise.
“When I started playing chess,” Wamala said, “I stopped worrying about my education, and I just did it.”
So, as soon as his children were old enough to learn, he taught them. Jessica, at 6, and Jacob, at 7, quickly embraced the game, engaging in countless head-to-head battles. When Severine wasn’t away playing at tournaments, he’d play them both at the same time (what chess players call a “simul”), beating them both easily.
Things have changed since then.
“My Dad doesn’t want to play me anymore,” Jessica said, explaining that she surpassed him in rating about a year ago, not long after Jacob got better than his father. The youngest Wamala, 10-year-old Youwana, probably won’t be far behind.
For Jessica, chess went from hobby to obsession at age 9, when her father took her and Jacob to one of his adult tournaments. Jessica, who said she was “just happy to be there,” lost all of her games, but her father told her to just keep playing.
“We had this computerized chess board, and I’d play the computer. Then, I’d go over the game and see where I went wrong,” Jessica said. “Once I started seeing patterns and stuff, my rating would go up.”
Chess ratings range from zero to around 2,800, which is super grandmaster status achieved by only a handful of people in history. When you break 2,000, you’re considered an expert — a status Jacob Wamala has reached. Jessica is a notch below, between 1,800 and 1,999 as a Class-A player, but she continues to cut down on her mistakes.
Whatever their rating, the Wamala children have always dominated the competition (Jessica cannot even put a number on how many tournaments she’s won). They started out playing in adult tournaments, but soon afterward, their father got them involved in scholastic tournaments, which give out trophies to their top finishers. After a few years of scholastics, an entire room of the Wamala house was devoted to trophies.
Jessica’s most recent success was last month at the Susan Polgar National Invitational for Girls in Oak Brook, Ill., where Jessica finished sixth out of more than 50 competitors. She earned the spot by winning the Massachusetts under-21 girls title.
At such a high level it can be a grind to outthink your opponent, she said, since you have to go into the contest with a plan, react to your opponent’s method, and constantly be thinking four or more moves ahead.
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