Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Three Ottawa boys crowned kings of chess at national championships

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.04.12
EDITION: EARLY
SECTION: City
PAGE: C3
BYLINE: Patricia Sherlock
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen
ILLUSTRATION: Photo: Jean Levac, The Ottawa Citizen / Lloyd Mai, who tookfirst at the competition in Victoria, practices about an hour a day, mostly through Internet games.
NOTE: Looking for the Best Move

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Three Ottawa boys crowned kings of chess at national championships: With the first, second and third under-12 spots going to area boys, the national capital is becoming known as the country's new chess centre, Patricia Sherlock reports.

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Lloyd Mai sits blushing at his family's dining room table, his face almost as red as the T-shirt emblazoned with a monster dog logo. His parents urge him to talk, to recount his exploits for a visitor. But the young boy sinks deeper into his shyness, and it's left up to the parents to extol their son's remarkable talent at chess.

Of course, it's not unusual for 11-year-old boys to feel shy in front of strangers, or to be embarrassed at their parents' praise. But, in Lloyd's case, such shyness is at odds with his talents. When it comes to the chess board, Lloyd Mai is no wilting flower.

After becoming this year's winner of the Canadian Youth Chess Championships in the boys under-12 division -- his second national championship win -- he's being touted as a future grandmaster. His parents, Loc Mai and Ngoc Nguyen, say his classmates at Knoxville Public School didn't know he played chess for a long time.

But Lloyd is not the only chess talent who has put Ottawa on the map as a locale for chess achievement. Lloyd is just one of several talented junior players from Ottawa who took top places in the national championships in Victoria in late March. Lloyd, along with Karoly Szalay Jr., 11, and Jerry Xiong, 10, defeated competitors from across the country, coming in first, second and third in the boys under-12 division. Sonja Xiong, Jerry's sister, came in second in the girls under-14 category.

"We'd expected to do well, but to take first, second and third is really special," said Michael Holmes, president of the RA Chess Club where the children all play.

Chess is thriving in Ottawa. "Montreal used to be the centre of the game in Canada, then Toronto," says Tom O'Donnell, an international master and professional chess teacher. "Now Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa are all strong, with Ottawa the newcomer."

Why are Ottawa's young chess players doing so well? The magic behind this year's wins seems to come from a mix of ingredients -- talent, good coaching, supportive parents and chess clubs are all important factors.

In Lloyd's case, the magic began at six, when he saw people playing chess at the Carlingwood Shopping Centre. He was already good at games, able to beat his father at checkers after a week. But chess became his game after his father taught him a few moves. Soon, he was so good his father couldn't take him back to a chess club at his Grade 1 school after Lloyd beat the teacher several times.

Lloyd's father says his son has an exceptional capacity to grasp the patterns of the game. The proof of this is in the shelves of trophies, ribbons and plaques in the family's basement. Lloyd has been the North American champion in his age group several times and won provincial and area tournaments.

Competing against older players is routine for all of these young champions, For example, Karoly's first game at the age of seven was against a 79-year-old man, says his father, Karoly Szalay. It didn't faze the boy at all to play against an adult.

But, talent also requires practice to be developed. Lloyd, for instance, plays for about an hour daily, mostly through Internet games. Karoly trains for tournaments by doing chess puzzles, playing online, and playing computer games. Sonja practices by reading chess books and playing with her father and brother.

Playing chess is also a family affair with a hefty price tag. Parents foot the bill for travel as well as chess lessons, books, tournament fees and Internet access. As a national champion, Lloyd will have his way paid to the July world championships in Belfort, France, but second- and third-place winners must pay themselves.

These youngsters are also involved in extracurricular activities apart from chess. Lloyd studies kung fu and piano, and enjoys math, 3-D puzzles and robotics. He also mentors younger students at his school. Sonja enjoys reading, playing on the computer and watching TV. Sonja and Jerry also take piano lessons and attend Chinese school.

So where do they go from here? Karoly says his goal is to play chess in the Olympics one day, if it's admitted as a sport. Sonja hopes to qualify for the next World Youth Championships.

Whether their pre-teen ambitions will be realized may depend on how they navigate their teenage years. If so, Ottawa's future as a chess centre depends on whether its current crop of young chess champions still love the game when they get older.

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