Chess scores middle-schooler scholarship

Hoover eighth-grader hopes to be a grandmaster

Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2006

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Rachael Golden⁄The Gazette
Shinsaku Uesugi, 14, sets up a game of chess. His chess skills won him a four-year scholarship to University of Maryland, Baltimore County when he was only a seventh-grader at Hoover Middle School.

At first, chess was just a way for Shinsaku ‘‘Shin” Uesugi to make friends. But the skill has already won the Potomac eighth-grader a four-year college scholarship. Now he hopes his talent will take him even further.

‘‘I hope to be a grandmaster in chess,” Uesugi said.

He is well on his way.

Uesugi started playing chess in fourth grade because it was a way to socialize, he said. Chess didn’t require a lot of talking, which was important since he didn’t speak a word of English when his father’s job moved his family from Yokohama, Japan, to Potomac in 1999.

But now, chess has become more than a method to make friends.

‘‘Chess is now the most important thing in my life,” Uesugi said. ‘‘Through chess I can get a lot of friends, a lot of experience.”

His devotion to chess led him to create the chess club in Hoover Middle School, which now has about 30 members including Uesugi, and represent Japan in the World Juniors Chess Championship held in Istanbul, Turkey, in November.

In Turkey, each country had one representative that traveled from all over the world and there was a total of 160 competitors, Uesugi said.

He represented Japan because he is still a Japanese citizen.

Uesugi called it a ‘‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that made him a stronger player.

‘‘Almost everyone I played was over 18 [years old]. I got lots of friends from all over the world,” Uesugi said.

He still keeps in touch with friends from 30 different countries and exchanges information about good chess books and tournaments.

The only problem was that Uesugi had to miss two weeks of school, which meant he had a lot of catching up to do when he came back.

‘‘I had to stay up until midnight to do my work,” he said. ‘‘But it was worth it because only a few could get the experience.”

Once again, that passion and the love for chess led the eighth-grader to help the Hoover chess club to win the state team chess championship held Saturday in Cockeysville.

As a seventh-grader Uesugi, 14, received a four-year scholarship to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County last March after becoming the Maryland chess champion.

‘‘I couldn’t believe it,” Uesugi said. ‘‘Everybody said, ‘Congratulations,’ to me and I felt so happy.”

He won the ‘‘Sweet 16” playoff – an tournament led by the Maryland Chess Association that selects 16 players in the state to compete, said Alan Sherman, director of UMBC chess program.

There were eighth-graders who won the state tournament held at UMBC in the past, but it was the first time for a seventh-grader to sweep the tournament since the university began offering chess scholarships in 1995, Sherman said.

‘‘When that happens, the scholarship awaits the child,” Sherman said.

And there was another thing Uesugi was happy about after winning – not having to attend his weekly Japanese classes that took his Saturdays away. Masako Uesugi, Shin’s mom, said she agreed he could quit going to Japanese school if he won the tournament because she doubted it would really happen.

‘‘I had no more homework,” Shin Uesugi said, adding that he now spends his Saturdays playing basketball, baseball or swimming.

It took four years for Uesugi to become a chess champion because ‘‘he’s an exceptionally talented boy,” said Victor Sherman, Uesugi’s private coach of five years.

‘‘Probably he was just born with the talent,” the coach said. ‘‘He’s a real fighter. He always wants to win.”