Awonder Liang is like any other 10-year-old.
He makes funny faces at his siblings, hoping to make them laugh, and likes school because he sees his friends there. But his typical evening is a bit different than that of other pupils.
Awonder devotes at least two hours a night to working inside, alone, focusing on the 32 chessmen positioned across the wooden chessboard in front of him.
“I’m not so sure in particular (why I like it),” Awonder said. “But let’s just say if you love math, you keep doing math, and I guess it’s like that.”
Awonder, a fifth-grader at Van Hise Elementary School, is the youngest ever United States chess master — achieving the title at the age of 9.
It’s a rarefied perch for anyone, let alone such a young player. To become a U.S. chess master, a player must beat several opponents ranked above him or her to eventually earn the 2,200 points required.
Beginning Saturday, Awonder will join about 500 other top players in the U.S. Open Chess Championship in Middleton. It’s the first time the event has come to the Madison area and the third time it’s been held in Wisconsin. Players in the nine-day event held at the Madison Marriott West hotel in Middleton will compete for prizes worth a cumulative $40,000 to $50,000.
Awonder also will compete in the Dewain Barber Tournament of K-8 Champions, one of three scholastic invitational tournaments for student champions held Saturday through Tuesday.
Mike Nietman, U.S. Chess Federation executive board secretary and a Madison resident, said the tournament is for players of all levels and welcomes any player to register for non-invitational events.
“It’s not a knockout tournament,” Nietman said. “People don’t pay $190 and just play one game. They do play nine games.”
At the tournament, all players begin with zero points, earning one point for a win, zero for a loss, and half a point for a draw. Players play only opponents with equal scores and similar ratings to ensure an average chess player with a rating of 1,500 would not compete against a master like Awonder with 2,233.
“It was my dream to bring this to Wisconsin,” Nietman said, adding there are approximately 1,100 USCF registered chess players in the state out of the 80,000 nationwide. “There are upwards of 150 to 200 USCF-registered players in the Madison area. It’s growing, especially in the elementary schools.”
Players in the main event, the
U.S. Open, will compete for the title of U.S. Open Chess Champion and an $8,000 prize. The top-place finisher will go on to the U.S. Closed Championship next spring in St. Louis. The contest has no age limits.
“Any sex, any age,” Nietman said. “It could be a 4-year-old against a 90-year-old.”
In addition to the Open, Awonder and two other Wisconsin students, and possibly their three alternates, will compete for first place in their respective invitationals: the Barber Tournament, the Denker Tournament of High School Champions and the National Girls Invitational Tournament.
Anupama Rajendra, a 13-year-old from Kenosha, will compete against players from 38 other states in the girls tournament and join the U.S. Open tournament Tuesday.
Anupama is a two-time All-Girl National Chess Champion, the youngest to win the 18-and-under section. She practices each night for three hours and has high expectations for her upcoming tournaments.
“I’m doing extra preparation because I want to have good results there,” Anupama said. “I’m 10th seed and should be getting some good results.”