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School Mates : 30 Seek Title of Nation’s Best High School Chess Player

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With all the foot tapping, pen chewing and nervous pacing going on, it was clear that plenty was on the line Monday morning.

Thirty teen-age boys, each a champion in his own state, stared intently at 15 chessboards in the hush of an Airport Marriott ballroom, anxiously studying the pieces. Slowly, move by move, they began their five-day competition to select the best high school chess player in the nation.

In surrounding rooms, more than 600 adult players--and a handful of teen-age players who have chosen to compete at the adult level--are playing 21 other tournaments, including the two biggest events in American chess: the U.S. Invitational Championship and the U.S. Open Championship.

Forget Disneyland, the beach and cruising Hollywood Boulevard. The rarefied atmosphere of serious chess play is the vacation dream of a lifetime for the high school players.

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“This is very invigorating for me,” said Gilbert Busby, 18, of Honolulu as he walked slowly around the room, waiting for his opponent to make a move.

“It’s like the ultimate release for me. Some people do bodybuilding, some people play football. I play chess,” he said. “You transfer all your energy to the game. It leaves you empty.”

Many of the students are so wrapped up in the dance of pawns, bishops and rooks that they play in one or two of the other tournaments during their free time away from the high school championship.

Corey Russell, 16, of Tacoma drove down from Washington more than a week ago to begin play in the U.S. Open before this week’s high school competition began.

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Moments after winning his initial high school round Monday morning, Russell hurried off to an adjoining room to lay out his chessboard and go back over all the moves of the match.

“Just because I won doesn’t mean I didn’t make mistakes,” he said, his eyes locked on the board and one foot tapping incessantly as he studied. “I look for my weaknesses and I look for other ways around (my opponent’s) weaknesses.”

The game’s key attraction, Russell said, is the thrill of victory. “It’s a way to vent my frustrations, by beating people,” he said.

Russell said he hones his chess rating of 2140, an “expert” ranking, by playing at least 24 hours of the game each week, much of it in tournaments.

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Most of his friends play chess, Russell said, but other youths his age “if they’re ignorant, they think, ‘This guy’s a nerd for playing so much chess.’ It’s an unfair stereotype that people give to chess.”

The better a young chess player does in competition, however, the less likely he is to be called a nerd, the students said.

“My friends think it’s kind of cool . . . because I do so well,” said 15-year-old Josh Manion of Janesville, Wis. Ranked 12th in the nation in the 13- and 14-year-old class last year, Manion is trying to bump up his 2090 rating to move from the “expert” to the “master” classification.

Manion, who also likes to play computer role-playing games, said he was drawn to chess because skill--not luck--determines the winner.

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“There’s no chance involved in it. You’re the one who decides what’s going to happen,” he said.

Manion’s parents, Ruth and Dale, said they want to encourage their son.

“We’ve invested a lot of money and energy in him and we want him to do well,” Ruth Manion said.


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