Young Manhattan Chess Prodigies Take on World’s Best Players
October 10, 2011 7:12am | By Mary Johnson,
DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

KIPS BAY — Five Manhattanites are heading to world championship chess tournaments in the coming months — and the genius players are no older than 13.

Ten-year-olds Katya Davis, Thomas Knoff and Kadhir Pillar will join eight-year-old Ethan Joo at the World Youth Chess Championship in Brazil from November 17 to 27.

Thirteen-year-old Alisa Kikuchi, who attends East Side Middle School on the Upper East Side, was invited to compete in that tournament as well as in the Youth Chess Olympiad in Turkey. Because of school commitments, she could only choose one. She has decided on Turkey, marking the second year in a row that she will compete in that tournament.

“This is a great group of kids,” said Saudin Robovic, an international chess master from Bosnia who runs NYChessKids, an organization that teaches the game to children through after-school programs, online lectures and tournaments.

All the children headed to the overseas tournaments are part of NYChessKids. At a minimum, they dedicate about three days of each week to the program that NYChessKids has put in place. One day is for online chess lectures, another centers on in-person workshops and Sundays are usually sectioned off for tournaments.

Most of the children said they began playing chess around the age of five or six.

“Chess is probably the hardest thing I’ve had to learn,” said Katya, a slip of a girl with blond hair and a big smile. “I never knew I was going to get to this stage. I just kept playing.”

Katya, who attends the Sacred Heart school on the Upper East Side, has an affinity for math — and soccer. That proclivity for numbers has helped her master her craft. Now she can play chess in her head, without a board, imagining moves and shouting them out to her opponents.

Thomas can do that, too. And at 10-years-old, he already has a national title under his belt. In December, he won the fourth-grade national chess championships.

“I just love the strategy of the game,” said Thomas, who attends The Browning School at 62nd Street and Park Avenue. “I like meeting new people.”

“And beating them,” Thomas’ father, Tom Knoff, added with a laugh.

Kadhir Pillar also holds a national title, which he won in 2007.

“The trophy was actually bigger than him,” said Kadhir’s father, Kovan Pillar.

Kadhir, who attends Trevor Day School on the Upper East Side, has gotten to be so good that he no longer competes in children’s tournaments, save for the World Youth Chess Championship. For the most part, the 10-year-old competes in adult tournaments around the country.

“It means sitting at a table with a 60-year-old Russian guy for five hours,” his father said of his son’s passion for chess. “It’s not what most children would choose to do.”

The game is intense and requires supreme focus, Robovic, of NYChessKids, said. Chess games routinely last up to five hours, and the child competing has to sit virtually still that entire time.

“You can imagine what kind of stamina you have to have,” Robovic said.

In its after-school programs and chess camps, NYChessKids breaks up the monotony and stillness with physical education, letting the kids blow off steam with sports and movement.

Alisa, the 13-year-old, said her brain feels like it is almost dead at the end of a really intense match.

Katya said she gets annoyed with players who can’t stay focused and get all “fidgety,” but she too has experienced the pains of extreme concentration.

“When you’ve been working so hard, you get this really angry headache that won’t go away. It’s like, ‘Ahhhhhh!’” she said, grabbing the sides of her head theatrically. “And that’s when you know you have to eat.”

But for a chess player, that stress and strain is the equivalent of a sore hamstring after a hard sprint or a sweaty brow after a dance routine. It may be hard work, but the children all agree that chess is a game of love.

“I mainly play for enjoyment because I think it’s really fun,” Alisa said.

“But I want to get stronger,” she added. “I do want to become a grand master.”

Ethan Joo who, at eight-years-old, is the youngest in the group heading to Brazil, agreed.

“I like learning new things,” said Ethan, who attends the Lower Lab School. “[At] these big championships, I can learn new things that I didn’t know.”

Ethan has been playing since he was about five-years-old, and he has largely surpassed many of his peers when it comes to his chess skills, his father, Woo Joo, said.

Now, he is trying to teach his six-year-old sister to play in the hope that he might have a worthy adversary right in his own home.

“She says she doesn’t like it,” Ethan said, looking a bit dejected.

The tournament, however, should provide plenty of serious competition.

“I always want to know how good I am,” said Ethan, who recently placed second in the under eight division of the North American Youth Championship. “I just like to test my skills against other people.

“But,” he added, “my dream goal is really just to make friends, have fun and be happy.”

Such dedication, passion and pleasure, the children’s parents say, have made chess worth the investment.

On its face, chess may seem like a fairly inexpensive extracurricular activity. There’s no high-end equipment or uniforms to purchase, but traveling for competitions can get costly and taxing.

“[Kadhir] has to miss some school, and I have to miss some work,” said Kadhir’s father, Kovan Pillar.

Robovic, of NYChessKids, estimated that traveling to the tournament in Brazil will cost each family roughly $6,000, when the price of air travel and hotel stays are taken into account.

Then there’s the smaller tournaments in cities around the country and the extra lessons with private tutors that several parents pay for.

“It’s a subculture,” said Tom Knoff, Thomas’ father. “And it really requires a lot of effort.”

With the tournaments drawing near, the children’s parents said they don’t have any heightened training regimens in place. They don’t intend to intensify practice sessions or study their competitors’ playing style — although some children will undoubtedly be doing all of the above, they said.

Instead, on a recent evening, they got together for dinner. The children played chess, naturally, on a smartphone as their parents chatted.

“Look how nice these kids are,” said Tom Knoff, Thomas’ father. “They should be the brattiest kids in the country, but they’re not. Saudin [Robovic of NYChessKids] has done that.”


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