April 15, 2007
Samuel Xin, a nationally ranked state champion chess player, sits perched on the edge of his chair, hands on the table, ready to make his next move.
He and his coach, Chris Mabe, are playing a speedy five-minute "blitz" round of chess.
Samuel, 12, moves his knight so fast that he knocks over his bishop. Each move, he slams a piece onto a new square.
"I have two problems," Samuel said. "One, I play too fast. Two, I get bored if the move is easy."
At chess tournaments, though, he focuses hard on each move. With minutes to plan and execute a move, games can last up to two hours.
At this year's State Scholastic Championship in February, Samuel, an eighth-grader at Harris Road Middle School in Concord, won the K-8 division. But he really wanted to play in the high school division and plans to do so next year.
"You have to get aggressive to aim for the win," he said.
Samuel moved to the U.S. from China four years ago with his family. He couldn't speak any English, and it was his English as a Second Language teacher at Wolf Meadow Elementary who first taught him the game of chess.
That teacher, Ken Ivens, also introduced him to the Charlotte Chess Club. Samuel, then 8, won the first match he played at the club, and he continues to win at the weekly tournaments, often against chess players three times his age.
When he changed schools, Samuel got a new coach, and he's had several others since. His current "chess master," Mabe, coaches for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Scholastic Chess Association.
Mabe accompanied Samuel and 14 other students to the National Junior High (K-9) Championship in Sacramento, Calif., March 30-April 1.
Out of about 200 kids in his division, Samuel placed 33rd. He is now ranked among the top 50 12-year-olds in the nation.
Mabe has been Samuel's coach for three years.
"He's bright, and he listens," Mabe said, "so he's a really good student to have."
To improve Samuel's concentration, Mabe assigns him a difficult position from a grandmaster professional game. He gives Samuel 20 minutes to determine the best possible move.
Last year, a tornado interrupted a tournament in Kentucky. Everyone had to meet in the center of the room, but after the warning was over, the kids went back to their chessboards.
Samuel, who also takes tennis, guitar and karate lessons, likes chess because it's challenging.
"It's hard, and you think a lot," he said.
Samuel said he also likes to play for fun with his friends. When asked whether he always wins those games, he said, "Sometimes I play stupid moves, but then we all laugh at them."
Mabe hopes to continue teaching Samuel through high school. "Unless he gets too good, and then he's going to have to coach me," he said.