By Susan Justice
The journey started twelve years ago when my then two year old son surprised me by setting up the chess board correctly when asked to clean up the pieces that were scattered across the floor. Although it feels like we have reached the culmination of that journey, I realize that it is possible we have just embarked on a new beginning.
April 5, 2103 – All four of my children are slated to play in their respective championship sections at Supernationals V: Daniel playing K8, Zachary K6, Zoe K3 and Drew K1. Even though we have visited the Gaylord for national tournaments before, I find myself standing in the line to check into the hotel for more than an hour and a half. By the time we get checked in, we have precious little time to compete against the other 5,000 participants and their families in the lines for food, get pairings, and get the kids to their boards. Everyone is tired, hungry and a little out of sorts, and the tournament has yet to begin.
Our first national tournament, Mother’s Day weekend 2007 for the National Elementary Championship, I brought my mom with me to take care of Drew who was still a baby. Daniel had been playing tournament chess for less than five months and Zachary was competing in only his second rated tournament. Zoe was at her other grandmother’s house, her only interest in chess at the time being her supper-time ritual of asking from her highchair, “White to move or black to move?” as my husband set up the daily tactic on the analysis board at the dinner table. It was only six years ago, but things were different as I didn’t have access to online pairings (good training for this year when the servers kept crashing). Daniel managed to win three rounds in a row and gain 100 points on his rating while Zachary took two wins and a draw.
Day one of Supernationals V ends mostly as expected with Drew defeating two lower rated opponents in K1 and my other kids winning a collective two games out of six facing some difficult opposition. Since the hotel was unable to accommodate our request for adjoining rooms (I later found out we were lucky to have rooms as more than 100 families with reservations were turned away due to the hotel being overbooked), I was on a different floor from my husband with two of the kids – he was upstairs with Drew. At about 11 o’clock, all the kids were soundly asleep and I was turning in for the night after an exhausting day. Then the call comes – Drew has gotten sick upstairs and I head up to deal with the mess and get him settled back down. It looks like it is going to be an eventful tournament.
We have been fortunate to develop many relationships along the way as we navigated the chess sub-culture and took advantage of the many opportunities the Atlanta chess scene provides. Daniel first started playing competitively after visiting the Kid-Chess club and meeting Eric Lu and his father. We soon enlisted Kenn Young to provide coaching and benefitted from his ability to connect with the kids. Daniel and Zachary faced incredible competition at the Atlanta Chess Center, while I was able to participate in a book club during those Saturday and Sunday tournaments with other chess parents, many of whom I would never have come in contact with were it not for chess. Eventually, Bella Bellagradek stepped in to provide coaching and Daniel and Zachary headed off to Castle Camp. Zoe began competing and Drew began to ask when he would be old enough to play chess.
Day two of competition at Supernationals V dawned with Drew feeling better and ready to play. After a quick round three win, round four brought Drew his first tough competition in the K1 section. He was paired against Justin Friedlander, a strong player from Arizona who had just topped 1400. As a mom, you try to balance being realistic with believing that your kid can beat anyone. After six years of national competitions, I was firmly in the realistic camp and was prepared for the possibility that Drew would lose round four. Drew, however, having repetitively faced and sometimes defeated his older siblings, was not intimidated. He won rounds four and five, facing Kevin Pan from California in round five who had also just topped 1400. (Have I mentioned yet that Drew was rated 1029 coming into the tournament?)
Drew basically taught himself to play chess by competing against “Stanley the chimpanzee” on Chessmaster 10th Edition with the hints enabled. From there he started playing on my phone when we were out on errands and eventually began over the board play against his older siblings. He attended chess club when he turned four since I was teaching and didn’t want to pay for babysitting. His first tournament was the 2011 MLK which he entered because the entry fee was less than paying a sitter for the day as my other three kids were competing. His second rated tournament was the 2011 National Elementary Championship in Dallas, TX, still just four years old but tagging along with his older siblings and picking up three wins. Since his early start until today, his only coaching has been from his dad and from achieving the “Wizard” level on chessmagnetschool.com.
As day three of the seven round tournament began, I realized that Drew had a good chance at a top 10 finish and was certainly positioned to garner a top 25 trophy. He received a favorable pairing for round six against Henry Burton from New York who had a rating more in line with Drew’s. Remarkably, I was confident that he could win this round, and he did. Daniel and Zachary were holding their own in their sections, able to check posted pairings themselves and find their boards, and they were both winning some tough matches while taking their share of losses. After waking up ill and unable to hold down breakfast, Zoe played a long round six match, losing after more than three hours of play. Now feverish, she withdrew from the tournament with three wins. My focus turned to round seven in the K1 section where Drew was one of four undefeated players. Seated on board two, he faced Rithik Polavarum who had just defeated fellow Georgian and 1st grade National Co-Champion Arthur Guo in round six. Unfortunately, Drew would play the white pieces while Arthur had just played black, so Drew was unable to benefit from looking at Arthur’s game.
When Drew entered kindergarten at Whitefield Academy, he was excited to finally be at school with his siblings and with his dad who teaches at the preK-12 school. He was even more excited to be able to enter chess tournaments with his school team. All of our children have benefitted from the strong opponents they have faced in Georgia chess tournaments, both small and large. Drew has benefitted from not only his own opponents, but also from the opponents of his older siblings. Losing to fellow first graders Arthur Guo and Henry Yu gave Drew games to analyze and learn from. His last loss, which came at the state qualifier to Raj Mehta, drove him to be more careful in considering his moves during play.
All of my children are patient players. Their father has taught them to be patient at the board, which is a skill that will hopefully transfer to life. Drew had been playing his round seven game for two hours or so and the K1 parent waiting area had dwindled to twenty or so families. Typically at this point in a tournament, the “money” round, I would be nervous hoping for that last round win. I found myself quite content, however, knowing that Drew had already had a successful tournament and had put himself in a position to achieve a national title. If he were to lose, he would still have a top ten finish, besting his brother Zachary’s fourteenth place when he competed in the K1 section in Pittsburgh (a family record that Zachary thought was safe). Then Drew emerged from the playing hall, toting his notation and looking, well, just “normal.” I immediately assumed that this meant he had lost the game thinking that a six year old who has just gone 7-0 to win a national title would be showing some excitement. But my first indication that he had indeed won came when Section Chief Susan Breeding gave me a thumbs up as she escorted Drew to the parent’s area. He won. He did it. He actually went undefeated. He tied with one other player for the National Title in the K1 section. I stifled a whoop and a holler, aware that his opponent was also exiting the playing hall.
When Daniel and Zachary arrived, they congratulated Drew, with a good measure of incredulousness, and informed him that, “This will never happen again.” They have a good understanding of how rare it is to win a national championship, in anything. Zoe was also genuinely excited for Drew, and we celebrated as a family, knowing that this victory did not just belong to Drew. It also belongs to his siblings who “taught him everything he knows” and to his dad who faithfully coaches and encourages each of the kids, with a good measure of exhortation when needed. It belongs, in part, to all those who contribute to Georgia chess, players, coaches, and organizers – including those who laid the foundation many years ago. And it belongs, at least a little bit, to me – the best mother’s day present ever (okay, a month early this year) – for spending five of the last seven Mother’s Day weekends at chess tournaments. I guess I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Susan Justice is a mom to four chess players who inspired her to get involved in the chess community by serving on the GCA Scholastic Committee, pursuing TD certification, and playing in a few tournaments. While each of her children can best her at the board, they appreciate her willingness to compete. Susan also organizes the chess after school program at Whitefield Academy with her husband Kyle. When not playing or organizing chess, Susan works as a pediatric physical therapist in the west Georgia area.