A knight among chess players
Jan. 14, 2004
Janet Rathner
Staff Writer

Martin Leuders/The Gazette

Shinsaku Uesugi of Potomac recently placed second in a national chess tournament among 12-yar-olds. The win puts Uesugi in the top 20 players nationally, and ranks him higher than many adults.

Potomac sixth-grader places second in national tournament

Two years after he first faced his father from across a chessboard at his Potomac home, 12-year-old Shinsaku Uesugi has steadily advanced to a national ranking in the game of critical and abstract thinking.

His progress was evident in December, when he placed second among 12-year-olds in a national chess competition.

Uesugi, a sixth-grader at Herbert Hoover Middle School, rose from a field of more than 200 contestants to tie for second place at the United States Chess Federation's 2003 National Scholastic K-12/Collegiate Chess Championships, held Dec. 12-14 in Rosemont, Ill.

His performance at the competition means his national ranking among his age group is on the rise, said Ed Scimia, scholastic and events assistant with the United States Chess Federation.

"He was ranked 44th," said Scimia on Monday from the federation's headquarters in New Windsor, N.Y., of Uesugi's placement prior to the tournament. "He'll probably be in the top 20 now, at about 18 or so."

What makes Uesugi's record particularly significant is how it fares when placed alongside adult competitors who have likely been at their game since long before the boy was born, Scimia said.

"He's an above average tournament player even when you consider adults," Scimia said. "He'd be stronger than three quarters of the adults in the country."

For his feat Uesugi won a trophy that now joins a wall of other similarly acquired prizes.

The honors student fits in weekly basketball, baseball, swim team and English tutoring lessons in addition to at least two after-school chess clubs and a 90-minute chess lesson with a private coach. Yet, he is a young man of few words when talking about his latest achievement.

"I was so happy," Uesugi said.

He said he plans to use chess as an entree to college, possibly at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County -- one of a handful of schools to offer chess scholarships.

The middle schooler's father, Kazuya Uesugi, 43, an executive with Al Nippon Airways, said Shinsaku's accomplishment is likely due in part to his early mastery of Shogi, a nine-piece Japanese board game similar to chess that the boy learned at the age of 3 from his grandfather.

His son's passion, however, may have something to do with the fact that in chess, it is possible to be accomplished and feel at home without being fluent in English, Kazuya Uesugi said.

In 1999, when his father's career brought the family to Potomac from Yokohama, Japan, Shinsaku, then 8, did not speak a word of English. Placed in an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program at Beverly Farms Elementary School in Potomac, Shinsaku did well, but was shy around his classmates.

"I felt nervous," he recalled.

Sports helped, but it was not until he joined the Beverly Farms chess club that Shinsaku felt truly at home, Kazuya Uesugi said.

"Through chess he could have confidence in the U.S. That is the number one good result," Kazuya Uesugi said. "Number two is that through chess, my son could get a lot of friends."

Shinsaku agreed saying he could be an active player without having to open his mouth.

"I like to think about things," Shinsaku said. "I like to watch other people's games [and] it is so quiet. You cannot talk."

When Shinsaku arrived at Hoover in September, there was no chess club to join. That led his parents to help organize one that has proven to be quite popular.

Every Wednesday from 2:45 to 4 p.m., Uesugi and 49 classmates watch coach Teresa Schaeffer explain a particular strategy with the aid of a special "teaching board." They then embark on games of their own.

Schaeffer said Uesugi never says a word to anyone about his expertise. "He's very quiet. He doesn't go around telling anybody," Schaeffer said. "Not too many know about what he's done."

Schaeffer has been a chess coach for six years. During that time, she said she has noticed a growing number of children looking to learn the game. Schaeffer said she attributes this to parental interest and to world events.

"Chess increases focus. It makes you more aware of consequences. If you do certain things, you're rewarded, " Schaeffer said. "Kids want to play and they do get better. There's a lot of chess in life and in school. Parents have started to realize this and that's all they want."

She also said chess is a good way to unwind."In this time of terrorism, chess is relaxing," Schaeffer said. "We go back to games when we're stressed."

Schaeffer said given Shinsaku's talent and drive, she's not surprised by his success on the chessboard.

"He comes from a family that plays. Obviously the gene is there," Schaeffer said. "They're good strategy players. You can immediately tell who they are."