It's Checkmate, and Then Back to School for 11-Year-Old State Champ
Some Say the Dobbs Ferry Youngster Could Someday Be U.S. Champion
Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal
New York state's new chess champion, 11-year-old Nico de T. Checa.
When Nicolas de T. Checa was pronounced New York's state chess champion after the tournament ended earlier this month, he was asleep. After all, the next day was the first day of school.
The 11-year-old Dobbs Ferry resident had competed in Albany over the Labor Day weekend against rivals decades older to become the youngest champion in the tournament's 135-year history.
But for Nicolas, news of the big win had to wait. "When we say school is first, school is first," said his father, who is also named Nicolas. "We didn't want him to be tired."
The middle schooler's accomplishments would be notable for a chess player of any age. Nicolas, a slight, brown-haired sixth-grader who goes by Nico, reached a national master rating that places him in the top 1% of all competitive chess players in the U.S.
He also won the New York State Middle School Championship this year and was New York's representative in the Barber Tournament in Middleton, Wis., a competition between 50 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. He placed sixth in that tournament.
The winning formula: years of practice, with people and computers. Nicolas began playing chess when he was 4, and spent hours at it, taking advantage of chess software programs, and studying masters and their strategies.
"He's one of a handful of kids under 12 years old right now who could one day be U.S. champion," says Greg Shahade, an international master of chess and former National High School Champion.
Mr. Shahade founded the U.S. Chess School, which hosts invitation-only chess instructional camps for young players in locations including San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. Nicolas has attended three times.
Attaining advanced-player status at a young age is becoming more common, Mr. Shahade says. Parents are increasingly exposing their children to the game as early as age 4 or 5, a time of life Mr. Shahade says isn't too early to grasp the game's complexities.
Starting young isn't their only advantage. For many of today's best young players, the prevalence of online chess-playing and computer software make playing and studying easier.
In the past, players could use textbooks or play at a chess club, but most of the time relied on being geographically close to other strong players, Mr. Shahade said.
Technology has also made it possible for players in remote areas to become competitive. "Now, you can log onto the Internet and play against other people at all times of day," he said.
Nicolas attributes online games and evaluations with helping him improve quickly after he started using them consistently when he was 7 years old.
There can be a downside to the online access.
Chess players' games are logged online, and can also be watched in real time. That means opponents of Nicolas can study his moves—just as he is studying theirs.
On a typical day, he spends one to two hours studying chess, and closer to four or five hours a day during the summer.
Nicolas is a member of the Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan, where the late world champion Bobby Fischer played. The young master competes there now with his team, the New York Knights.
His win at the New York State Championship, which is run by the Continental Chess Association, came after some late-night number-crunching.
Although some other competitors placed higher than Nicolas, he was named the winner because due to tiebreaks he had the highest score of any New York resident in the tournament.
He also became the national champion this summer for his age category in an online tournament sponsored by the U.S. Chess Federation.
Thee next big challenge is a tournament in Al Ain, in the United Arab Emirates, in mid-December. Before then, he is hoping to fix problems in his openings and add to his repertoire of moves.
For now, since the school year has started, Nicolas is back to his studies and taking part in other outside activities, including soccer and karate.
He says his friends know he is a talented chess player, but it hasn't been a frequent topic of conversation.
"Chess is a hobby for me, and I'm going to continue playing it as a hobby," he says.
It has been a profitable one so far. He has made several thousand dollars from tournament winnings, but his father says any cash goes right into a bank account.
A version of this article appeared September 13, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: It's Checkmate, Then Back to School.