There are no such things as baby steps when youngsters jump feet-first into the world of competitive chess.
Annie Wang was 5 when she first saw the 32 classic chess fixtures: knights, bishops, rooks, pawns and the king and queen. "I thought they looked interesting," said the La Cañada Elementary School sixth-grader. "They looked like toys."
In March, 11-year-old Annie became the youngest American girl to ever become a chess master in the 12-and-under category in National Junior Chess Congress competition held in Irvine.
Raphael Manahan was 3 when he first learned to read and then became interested in the game. During the same National Junior matches, he took first place in the age 6 and under division.
Raphael, who just turned 7, likes to show his first-grade friends from Grazide Elementary School that he can play chess without looking at the board. "When I do that they say, 'That's amazing!' " he says, flashing a missing-front-tooth grin.
Annie said her parents signed up her for introductory chess lessons when she expressed an interest in the game. Her father, Ou Wang, is a numerical-modeling researcher at JPL in La Cañada Flintridge who admits to learning how to play alongside his daughter.
"It only took me a month to learn all the rules. My dad now plays chess, but of course I'm the better player," said Annie, who celebrated her 12th birthday May 18.
She explained that matches can run from 10 minutes to more than six hours. If she gets up to stretch during a longer game she knows how to recognize if her opponent tries to cheat by moving a bishop or a pawn. "I'd notice because we record any moves in a book," she said.
When she grows up Annie is considering becoming a rocket scientist. And in chess she hopes to become a grand master.
"I don't know whether older players are frustrated or angry when I beat them," she acknowledged. But she plays to win.
So does Raphael. "I won't let my friends win. I'd like to be the world champion in chess. When I beat adults it makes me feel good," he said.
Raphael's father, Daniel Manahan, said he learned how to play chess when he was 8 but hasn't competed since his college days. He's still advanced enough to continue to coach his son and 9-year-old daughter Sophia in the game.
Manahan, who is a 3-D animation professor, said his son listened in when he was teaching his then-6-year-old daughter chess rules. "I didn't think he was getting the game at all. But he became very competitive," Manahan said.
His daughter views chess as simply a fun game, said her father. "But I feel disappointed that I'm rated at almost 400 points and my brother is around 1,300 points," interjected Sophia, a fourth-grader.
Annie's chess master title was awarded on the basis of her age and for reaching a threshold of official tournament points determined by her skill and that of her opponents.
Three years ago a Santa Clara boy, fourth-grader Sam Sevian, became a master at the age of 9 years, 11 months and 11 days. He had been introduced to the game when 5 by his father, Armen Sevian, a Silicon Valley physicist.
In contrast, American former World Champion Bobby Fischer began playing chess at 6 and became a master in 1956 at the age of 13 years, 3 months and 29 days.
"Almost all the players who become grand masters start young," said Jack Peters, an International Master who formerly wrote a chess column for The Times. "When Fischer started it was unusual for people his age to be competing. Now it's absolutely common," Peters said.
The youngest person to become a master is Sergey Karjakin, a Ukrainian who reached the rank at age 12 years, 7 months and 0 days, he said.
Peters said he has competed in matches while sitting next to Annie. He said youngsters under 16 often compete against men old enough to be their grandfathers.