U.S. Junior Chess Champ, 9, Makes Moves to Defend Title Against 500

Times Staff Writer

At 9 years old, Justin Tyler Clark of Long Beach has a long list of accomplishments. He has read the entire works of J. D. Salinger. “Catcher in the Rye” is his favorite.

“It’s more meaningful than the rest of Salinger’s books,” he says. “It doesn’t really have a moral. It’s the story of a person trying to do what he wants to do.”

He has won local essay contests on patriotism, racked up an IQ of more than 130 points and decided to be a nuclear physicist when he grows up.

“Atomic power should be used just as a source of energy,” he says, “rather than (for) destruction.”


A Master of the Game

Above the books and beyond the test tubes, though, Clark has mastered the game of chess, beating out a field of highly gifted competitors to become the 1986 national chess champion for children grade three and below in a dramatic come-from-behind victory at last year’s tournament in Spokane, Wash.

But on Saturday, the squeeze was on, as Justin joined an estimated 500 young chess stars aged 5 to 15 at Buena Park High School for the 1987 National Junior High Chess Championship.

“He’s under a lot of pressure right now,” said a nervous Edwin Clark, Justin’s father. “He has to defend his title.”


And his competition was stiff--a motivated group of players from 35 states had gathered in Buena Park for three days of chess playing, chess lectures, a chess movie and just a little sightseeing.

Although Disneyland was on the agenda for out-of-town players, the weekend consisted largely of grueling competition--eight rounds played over Saturday and Sunday, with the morning round starting at 8 and the final evening round wrapping up at around 11.

Lost First Games

With vinyl, roll-up chess boards tucked under their arms and timers in hand, the players started streaming onto the campus at about 7:15 a.m. Saturday, dragging sleepy-eyed parents and nervous coaches behind them.


By the time his second round ended about six hours later, Justin looked a little the worse for wear. He had lost his first two games, defeats attributable to three hours of sleep the night before and the digestion--or indigestion--of most of a mushroom-and-sausage pizza.

His eyes were rimmed with red, his face was drawn and his father was herding him off campus for a nap before the next round of competition started at 4 p.m.

“I think he’ll come back (to win),” Clark said of his son. “In Spokane, he lost three in a row and came back to win the last five. He’s good under pressure, but it’s still hard for me to watch him play.”

Although competition was intense Saturday, grimness did not carry the day. When they weren’t playing chess, most of the young contenders were simply off playing.


Javier Montano, 15, arrived in Orange County on Friday with nine other players from the Royal Knights, the chess team from J.H.S. 99 in Manhattan. By 4 p.m. Saturday, he had blown a wad of pocket money on candy bars from the high school snack bar and--perhaps best of all--visited the Magic Kingdom. “It was great,” he said. “It was beautiful.”

Vying with the delights of Disneyland, though, was the competition. In his first two rounds, Javier won one game and tied another. “I like chess,” he said. “It’s very interesting. It’s better than television.”

Fun is also one of the reasons Justin Clark said he spends at least an hour a day in front of the chess board and most Saturdays at tournaments. And as his coach sees it, the enjoyment and dedication have paid off. For after watching and teaching Justin for the past two years, chess teacher Robert M. Snyder contends that the boy could go the distance in the world of chess.

“He has a great ability to sit down and concentrate and train his mind on a single subject,” Snyder said Saturday. “He’s not easily distracted. He has a great potential for winning the fourth-grade (competition) today. . . . And if he dedicated his life to chess, he has a potential to be a world-class player, a grand master, which means possibly a contender for the world championship.”