Of Kings and Kids
Our public schools system fosters one of the strongest chess programs around. And these kids are good
Written by Mike Giglio
Photographs by Chris Edwards
Beep—beep—beep, and everything stops.
There is the Earth overhead, or many different earths, each halted on its axis: a papier-mâché sphere, a Styrofoam orb, a regular globe, a basketball.
A suspended battle floats in midair—black against white, carefully executed. It is waged on a square felt mat covered with green and white squares that alternate in rows and columns of eight. Pockets stitched onto each square hold all the pieces in place.
The mat hangs from a string wrapped around a ruler. The ruler juts out from beneath a row of nonfiction books.
The man at the bookshelves pinches a white, two-dimensional bishop in his fingers, his eyebrows raised and lips pursed in the questioning expression of a wily teacher.
Before him are strewn a dozen sixth-, seventh-, and eight-grade students. They stare blankly about the library as a morning announcement rings through Randolph Middle School one Wednesday in February. When it is finished, the room snaps back into motion.
"Bishop takes E-6! Bishop takes E-6!" a student shouts from her perch atop a square white table.
"Are you asking?" asks the teacher, a middle-aged local chess master named John Lane. "Or are you telling?"
"Telling!" answer the high-pitched cries, and the piece slides into the pocket. Calls of "checkmate!" are immediately followed by ones of "doughnuts!"
Someone runs up and opens the large bakery box sitting on a table near the front. Doughnuts in sticky hands, the students swarm around a poster board with the class's chess ladder. The more competitive players challenge those ranked ahead of them, hoping to move up a rung or two. They throw felt mats across the tables. The muffled taps of the plastic pieces in action fill the room.
Slim and brown-eyed seventh-grader Kelsey Kitchens has been playing since the fourth grade, because her triplet brothers Ean and Sam (both in attendance) play too. The Kitchenses learned the game from their father. Another girl plays "cuz it's cool." One boy's parents made him join the club in third grade. "Cuz he sucks at everything else," a friend chimes in, though a quick survey reveals chess as one of many pursuits for most. With the state tournament just two days away at the Blake Hotel in uptown, however, chess club seems more serious than usual.
"This is all textbook," says Lane, as he and a precocious opponent fire through the first ten or so move pairs with little apparent thought. A rectangular box holding two round clocks sits at one side of the board. Atop each clock is a stopper. When one stopper is slammed down after a move, the other shoots up, like a seesaw, or a furious game of whack-a-mole. When a player's time runs out, a flag falls, and the game is forfeited.
Lane's clock starts with one minute. Sixth-grader Derek Zhang, meanwhile, has five minutes. This keeps the match somewhat, though not really, even. Derek wears a navy hoodie and a red lanyard around his neck. He takes a pawn with his knight, then nervously runs his hands through his jet-black hair.
"He doesn't know what he's doing," says Zhang's classmate Sam Dehority, who rests his chin in his hands above the timers, his blond hair curled up in front and at the sideburns in spectacular Dragon Ball Z style. He keeps his eyes lowered to the board when he speaks, then looks up and smiles.
Suddenly, all eyes move to the doorway. "Josh is here," almost everyone says.
Twelve-year-old Joshua Mu, one of Charlotte's best young chess prodigies, strolls in through the book detectors. Tall and lanky with a cropped black bowl cut, thin glasses, and weathered sneakers, he ambles to the nonfiction corner, hands stuffed into the pockets of a navy UNC windbreaker. He checks the ladder, then peers in on the games in progress. A few students make him half-hearted challenges, but Josh pretends not to hear.
Eventually, Lane cajoles him into a match with Derek. Some of the students come over to watch.
Within a minute or two, Derek begins to stutter in confusion as he thinks out loud: "Whatta—whatta—uh. Whatever." A pile of his pieces has already accumulated on Josh's end of the table.
"That's a good quote. Put it in the magazine," Sam says.
Derek just shakes his head. He eventually concedes.
Once the clock on the wall nears 8:30 and the other students file out for class, Josh and Lane face off at last. Each gets five minutes per move. The room is quiet.
Then—Pound! Pound! Pound!—the seesaw surges up and down. Josh waves his right hand above the pieces for a split second; his left arm remains folded on the table. Pound! His eyes scan the board methodically from behind his glasses. Pound! He retreats his knight. Pound!
Josh snaps his fingers. "Oops."
A friend reminds him he's late for class.
"I don't care," Josh says. "Well, actually, I do, a little."
Lane wins his queen, then puts him in check with a rook. A tactical slugfest ensues as the final morning announcements sound overhead.
Pound! Pound! Pound! More pieces fly off the board. The kings and castles perform a delicate dance. Josh chuckles quietly, then loses another pawn. Most of the pieces have left the board by now, but Lane appears to have a slight advantage. Josh lets out a quizzical whistle.
"This is lost," he declares. He grins with the left side of his mouth and rushes off to class, leaving the teacher alone with the scattered mats and pieces.
Lane tilts his forehead at Josh's back and raises his eyebrows, as if to say, now you see what I've been talking about.
Sports get most of the attention in Charlotte's schools, as they do almost everywhere else.
But an unusually vibrant chess community has taken hold in the district. CMS is among a handful of districts in the country that funds an extracurricular chess program, and the nonprofit CMS Chess Association services nearly 75 percent of its public schools. A decade ago, recalls CMSCA President Cathy Taggart, two instructors might have visited a small number clubs every four or five weeks. Now, the CMSCA employs nine elite local experts to teach strategy and tactics no less than twice a month, and often once a week, at each member school.
Like any extracurricular from Little League to Math Club, the usual suspects run the show—volunteer parents whose children have taken an interest. Taggart has been a part of the organization for ten years, when her then five-year-old grandson, who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, began playing.
Taggart believes the game has taught her grandson to focus and think ahead. She notes that chess often helps boost math scores, and that the students who take chess seriously tend to perform better in school.
Or, as Neil Harris, Josh's private chess tutor, puts it: "Either smart kids play, or it makes them smart."
Though she still doesn't know what all the pieces do, Taggart calls getting involved a "natural progression," one that has resulted in her devoting up to forty hours a week as the demand for chess grows.
Gary Zukowski, the parent who runs the clubs at Endhaven Elementary and Community House Middle School, says both reached capacity this year. Each now draws more than 100 students to its weekly sessions.
Charlotte routinely cleans up at the annual state tournament, which the CMSCA hosts bi-yearly. This year's event was held at the Blake from February 22 to 24. CMS teams and players hold their own on the national level, as well, and the area is home to several of North Carolina's top chess prodigies.
The U.S. Chess Federation provides the official chess ratings, which are calculated using a complicated formula. As of April, those rated 2,000 or higher are considered experts, such as Lane at 2,088. Lane is a national master as well, meaning that he has achieved a rating of 2,200 or higher in the past. Charlotte's top-rated player is a man named Frankie Newton at 2,293, followed by Chris Mabe (2,280), the CMSCA's rising star of an instructor.
Josh's rating is 1,882, twenty-five points behind his older brother, Frank, a senior at North Carolina School of Science and Math in Raleigh. Samuel Xin, an eighth-grader at Harris, rates a staggering 1,969. Other notable students in the area include ninth-grader Thomas Paradis of Charlotte Catholic (1,958), ninth-grader Kevin Huang of North Meck (1,892), eleventh-grader Peter Giannatos of Vance (1,771), tenth-grader Dominique Myers of Independence (1,753), and home-schooled twelfth-grader Amelia Wheeless (1,715).
For the third straight year, Josh jumped from the K-8 division to the K-12 to take them all on—along with the best North Carolina has to offer—at the state tournament. He placed third the first time around, beating his brother along the way. Josh came in nineteenth last year, and Frank won the title. Josh and Samuel Xin were the only middle-schoolers in the field at this year's event. When they walked in to take their seats at the first event, heads began to turn.
Everything revolves around the king: protect yours; kill your enemy's. Each piece plays by different rules and moves in different patterns. A rook attacks head on, bishops swoop in from the corners, knights bound about the board three squares at a time. They all have the same objective: trap the king into a checkmate, leaving him no means for escape. The sheer breadth and depth of the strategy and tactics for accomplishing this fills volumes of books and can take a lifetime to master.
At the state tournament, players get to be kings for a day—a big and gaudy event held in their honor, a hotel converted into an arena. Parents wake up early and fix healthy breakfasts; some even make their kids rest and hydrate between matches. They wait around all day in camping chairs, tailgating with bags of Bojangles or grapes and cheese.
"A lot of these kids, they're not going to get to be the captain of the football team," Lane says. "This gives them competition, a life-long hobby,
self-improvement, strengthening your mental muscles. A lot of people don't get to experience that."
Chess, in fact, is the game of kings. Russian tsars, European monarchs, Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible—all were enthralled by its intricacies, which to them closely mimicked executing a battle. The infamous American grand master Bobby Fischer once likened it to "war on a board." Only in chess, nothing is left to chance.
If chess is a battle, then Josh employs the blitzkrieg. He plays a creative-aggressive game, with an emphasis on aggressive. He isn't afraid to start by launching a massive attack on the enemy king, which can take opponents off guard. When they stumble, Josh pounces.
"Some kids love that, some kids don't," says local instructor Bernard Baker. "Josh Mu loves it."
One weekend night in early February, at a meeting of the Queen City Chess Club in the Asian Library in south Charlotte, Daniel Liu stumbled. A national master in his forties or fifties, Liu is revered as a draw specialist. He may not always win, but he doesn't lose. Josh beat him in thirteen moves.
"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," Josh says from a dark green couch in a lobby of the Blake on the Friday night of the tournament, which kicks off with a speed-chess competition. He wears his trademark UNC windbreaker and glasses and cocks his head nervously to the left, which scatters his hair across his forehead.
"I'm not really sure how to describe it. There are a lot of strategies, positional and tactical strategies. I just use all of them, or try to."
A kid in a white hat and white sneakers takes a seat on the edge of the table across from Josh, his hands inside the pockets of a white hoodie. He tries to contain a smirk.
Ask him his playing style, demands the kid, who is Samuel Xin.
"Really aggress—" Josh says.
"Lucky!" Samuel interrupts.
"Yeah," Josh says. "I beat him last week."
Samuel, a student of Chris Mabe, jumps up and pretends to throw his hat against the wall. Then he returns to his perch and outlines his strategy for beating Josh: fend him off at first, then come back strong if he survives. The conversation quickly turns to the mythical slaying of the draw specialist.
"Like, he draws everyone," Samuel says.
"I got lucky," Josh demurs.
"You see, Josh is like super smart," Samuel says, trying to embarrass his friend and succeeding. "He plays tennis, he plays violin, and he's really good at tennis. He's really good at chess too. And he started doing SATs. He's trying to get a full score on his SATs. His mom makes him do SATs like every single day. And math club and all this stuff."
Josh quietly points out Samuel's higher rating.
"Nah, I'm not smart," Samuel says. "I'm not smart. I'm only taking geometry next year."
Josh went on to win the speed chess tournament, also known as the blitz. Players have just five minutes each to complete the game (regular chess can last three hours). This demands quickness, tactical mastery, and guile as much as visualization and pattern recognition. It's also a lot more fun. The best players start out slowly, then gain momentum.
Of the five rounds of blitz that night, Josh won four and drew one, coming from behind at least twice. He scored nine points out of a possible ten, outpacing an eleventh-grader with eight and Samuel, who tied for third with 7.5.
The ground floor of the Blake is like a level from a first-person video game. Spend enough time wandering through the nondescript corridors and banquet rooms, and you'll get the feeling you're back where you started. A soundtrack of suspenseful melodic music lends the place a spy-movie feel. Here and there, water drips down from a pipe overhead.
Beyond the recently updated, modish lobby in front—leather sofas, black walls with New Age decorations—the carpet turns from trendy black-and-gray to a dated maroon with scattered floral patterns. A ramp descends into a large, sunken common room with the green couches. From the vaulted ceiling hangs a gold, box-shaped chandelier. This room and the formidable hallways that surround it are lined with doors.
Behind each door lies a different world. It is Saturday morning, the first official day of the tournament, and almost 500 students have registered. Some doors have signs denoting locker rooms for specific teams. In one humming banquet room, parents and children lounge around a multitude of dining tables topped with white cloth. Girl Scout cookies, fruit cups, juice boxes, potato chip bags, Game Boys, and thick books with titles like Standard Chess Openings cover the tables.
John Lane sits at a table in the corner, surrounded by kids. Using the log players keep for each game, he re-creates a match with one student while the rest wait and watch. This is how chess is coached: student and teacher rapidly run through all the moves that were made, along with the ones that should have been, and the labyrinthine logic behind it all. Some parents look on with pride, amazed; others lean back against the wall, frazzled and exhausted. Lane attempts to convince the tiny girl across from him, who looks to be about ten, to go for checkmate instead of torturing her opponents by taking additional pieces. She doesn't see the point.
The tournament schedule and results are posted down the stairs from the common room. After each round of games, hordes of students of all shapes, colors, sizes, and haircuts stampede down to find their pairings and then back up to find their places.
The seasoned chess parents sit in circles in their camping chairs, unfazed amid all the commotion, reading hardcover books or the New York Times. The more involved watch or take part in pick-up chess games that spring up like rounds of casual catch. Instead of baseball bats or hockey sticks, dads lug green canvas bags with rolled-up chess mats. Some can be seen coaching their kids between sessions, or looking on as a personal instructor does the job.
Only students and proctors, who wear silly green smocks, are permitted in the tournament area—a precaution against what are called "wink-and-nod parents." Rows of folding tables fill the vast Symphony 5, with four games underway at each.
Mostly, it is quiet. Groups of students, often led by Josh, get up and wander around the room to check on friends. Other players never leave their seats and rarely even move. Some look frustrated; fingers embedded in unruly hair is the common pose for a perplexed player. Every once in a while, a deep sigh of disappointment breaks the silence.
In the K-8 section, Derek Zhang, wearing his hoodie and red lanyard, walks over to a table, pours himself a glass of water, and splashes it all over his face. Sam Dehority sits, anxiously, across from the prettiest girl in the room, who is several years his senior. Kelsey Kitchens seems bored, slumped cross legged in her chair.
Josh's opponent looks like a high school quarterback—maybe the captain of the team—or a member of the Cobra Kai dojo: tan and blond with a white sweater and a silver hoop earring. He takes forever between moves, while Josh watches nearby games or strolls around the room before sitting back down to win a bishop with his knight and punch the timer.
"It's like playing football and having the biggest guy step on you," says a proctor, feeling sorry for the quarterback kid.
A chess game has three parts and rarely lasts more than thirty move pairs. The opening (first ten to twelve pairs) tends to follow preset sequences. It is normally used to establish position, not attack. The troops must be gathered and used in unison. A single assassin will not succeed.
The middle game involves greater strategy and tactics. In endgame, few pieces remain, and play is at its most scientific. There is no margin for error.
Josh and the quarterback are in endgame. Josh has used his bishop pair to cut the board in half. His opponent cannot move to a valuable square without losing a piece. He is trapped. Josh forces him to give up his knight.
"He had to be a reasonable player to get to endgame," the proctor whispers. "He's fighting. But it's over."
Josh's parents, Ye and Joyce Mu, moved to the United States from China in 1981 on scholarships from Stanford and Winthrop, respectively, speaking little English. They have lived in Charlotte since 1982. Both work for Bank of America.
Euphemia, the oldest of the three Mu children, is now a junior at Princeton. She taught Josh to play when he was still in kindergarten. She and Frank would drag their dead-tired brother to the Charlotte Chess Club on weekdays after school, where he would eventually compete in tournament chess against some of the best adult players in the region.
National Master Leland Fuerstman founded the club in the early 1970s, and it stands apart from many of its peers for outlawing speed chess in favor of regular games, which it allows to count toward the USCF ratings. It also serves as a proving ground for Charlotte's young stars, who aren't given any leeway when they sit down against opponents many times their age.
"They gotta sharpen their swords when they get there, buddy," Fuerstman says, adding that the local upstarts are treated like celebrities. "It's always an honor to play them, because I know in the future that they're going to be better than me."
The club has been meeting Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. at the Wendy's on Charlottetowne Avenue but is searching for a new location. Six of the top ten finishers at the Blake tournament, and eight of the top fifteen, are members, as are instructors like Mabe and Lane.
Reaching the top of the game and staying there, however, requires considerable commitment, which may be further than some of the current prodigies are willing to go.
"It's not just a game, if you're really a master," Fuerstman says. "You must spend a tremendous amount of time studying it and playing it, and there are other things for kids to do in life."
Chess has moved to the back burner for Euphemia since she arrived at Princeton. Frank has indicated that he plans to make chess a hobby after he graduates this spring.
"If he sticks with it, he could be one of the top three or four masters in North Carolina," Harris says of Josh. "It depends on his other interests. When he gets his driver's license and starts meeting girls, chess could be gone. It happens a lot."
At the end of the tournament on Sunday, when 473 students had been whittled down to about a dozen, Lane heard someone sobbing behind him in Symphony 5. It didn't surprise him at all.
"There shouldn't be any crying in chess," he says. "But sometimes there is."
Josh didn't win the tournament, but he didn't cry, either. A fourth-round loss to a lower-rated twelfth-grader from Chapel Hill, who ended up tying Frank Mu for second, did him in. The first three finishers were high school seniors. Josh and Samuel tied for sixth.
After his critical loss, Josh slouched at a folding table in his UNC jacket, staring calmly ahead as he played out the fifth and final round. His older, curly haired opponent tapped both hands on the table, fluttered them over the board, and finally just shook his head.
Then Josh got up to amble around, his fingers hooked in his pockets. His opponent just stared at the board, his forehead in his palm and fingers dug deep into his hair.