By Collin Binkley
The Columbus Dispatch
Thursday April 4, 2013 5:57 AM
His opponents look across the chessboard at a small boy with legs that dangle from the chair and hands that make the pieces seem too big.
But they aren’t fooled.
They have heard of Chris Shen, an 8-year-old from Powell who, just two years after he picked up the game, is known as the No. 1 player of his age in the country, according to the U.S. Chess Federation, and No. 3 of his age in the world.
On websites, chess enthusiasts have described him as “superhuman.”
“People are watching him, most definitely,” said David Bills, president of the Ohio Scholastic Chess Association. “The sky’s the limit with him.”
Chris is considered a standout in an elite class of young players because of how quickly he has risen.In third grade, he ranks as the No. 16 youth player in Ohio — with most of the young people ahead of him in high school.
He likes toys and cartoons but has daydreams about chess.“Sometimes the teacher says: ‘Chris, you need to get out of your chess world. Get into the math world,’ ” said Chris, who attends Tyler Run Elementary School in the Olentangy district.
His dad taught him the game two years ago after teachers reported that Chris had too much energy in class.“I just wanted him to sit down, to sit down for, like, 20 minutes if he can,” said Jeff Shen, a chemist who knew the game’s rules but never played it seriously.
Curious to test his son’s skill, Shen enrolled him in a tournament a week later. It went poorly, but Chris kept trying and, in two months, earned his first tournament victory.
Seasoned players debate whether Chris has the natural talent to be called a prodigy, but they agree that his success is largely a result of his outsize drive to win.
“You see this very little kid in this extreme level of focus and concentration,” said Alan Casden, one of his coaches. “He doesn’t act like a child on the chessboard; he acts like a hardworking adult.”
Chris studies chess three hours a night with his father, analyzing past games or reading strategy books. Every weekend, they drive to tournaments throughout the United States.
Casden runs a club for elite Midwestern chess students, including Maggie Feng, a sixth-grade Dublin student who has inspired a similar buzz.The game is a hit among young players of all levels, coaches say.
“Chess is extremely popular in the schools,” said Chuck Diebert, a central Ohio coach and competitor. “I have so many schools calling me, I don’t have time in my schedule for them.”
Backers of the game cite studies showing that students who play chess do better in school, particularly math. Chris said he does fine in school but not as well as 11-year-old sister Jessica, who is in eighth grade after skipping first and fourth. She learned chess but finds it boring.
When he isn’t playing chess, Chris likes to shoot hoops. He swims and takes piano lessons, but free time is limited as his father and coaches ramp up training for the game’s highest stage for students — the World Youth Chess Championship.It will take place come winter in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Last year, he placed third in his age group.
To prepare, Chris has begun attending more tournaments with adult competitors and is taking online lessons from a coach in Serbia.
Chris will be playing against children his age or younger. But even top-level adults in Ohio don’t take him lightly.
“They’re keeping an eye on him,” said Diebert, who, at 58, is the No. 18 player in Ohio and has beaten Chris five times. “I play him pretty seriously. I don’t let my guard down.”