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April 30, 2013 > Letter to the Editor: What Does It Take to Make A National Champion Team?

Letter to the Editor: What Does It Take to Make A National Champion Team?

On January 27, 2013, I opened my email as usual but was surprised to receive the following unusual message.

Hello Mr. and Mrs. Sartorio:

My name is Jay Liu and I'm Joanna Liu's father. I got your information from Gomes PTA Directory. Joanna is a 5th grader at Gomes and a decent chess player. She and fellow Gomes players are forming a chess team to compete at the SuperNational Chess Championship held at Nashville, TN April 5-7. We are hoping that William is interested in joining the Gomes chess team to compete K-5 Championship section. You probably know that only three elementary schools at the Bay Area have won national titles: Weibel, Mission San Jose, and Regnart. This could be the opportunity for Gomes. We sincerely hope William can be part of the journey.

While I was excited and felt honored for William to be invited to the Gomes team, I couldn't help but feel worried at the same time. William was passionate about chess for the first 18 months since he was introduced to it after kindergarten in summer 2011, but recently, William only got 0.5 point out of 5 at a tournament at Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco. On the way back home, he said that he did not want to play at rated tournaments any more and would take chess as a hobby.

I did not know what this email message would bring but still couldn't conceal my excitement when I shared it with William and Dominic. To my delight, both of them were also excited and honored to be invited. We quickly decided to make a family trip out of this. Even his grandparents in Florida were excited and made traveling arrangements to meet us in Nashville.

On March 28, six days before our trip to Nashville, we were shocked to receive an email from Jay that he had to leave for China that morning as Joanna's grandfather was hospitalized following a heart attack. Within 12 hours, Grandfather passed away unexpectedly while Jay was still on his way. Shortly thereafter, we learned that Jay was able to conclude his father's final arrangements and shorten his stay in China.

The Gaylord Opryland Resort is as beautiful as a palace in a fairy tale. It also had a very large convention center; this tournament needed every bit of the space. With 5,335 participants, the 2013 SuperNational beat the previous record set in 2005 to become the world's largest over-the-board chess tournament. Held once every four years, this event brought players from every grade level, Kindergarten to 12th grade, to compete, all under one roof. The 1565 teams came from 47 states, plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico. The thousands of boards in the spacious Delta Hall left us in awe.

We thought that the stress was over once all four players arrived at Nashville, but realized that the real stress had just started. Our team received only 0.5 points after the first round, putting us near the bottom of the team rankings. The sunshine of that beautiful spring afternoon couldn't brighten anyone's mood.

Everyone could breathe again after all four players won their second game. Our new team standing at ninth place still seemed very far from the top. We did not know what to expect in the next two days.

Saturday morning, the third round started at 9 a.m. "This is the toughest K-5 section I have ever seen", said Dr Kirshner. "The number of players with high ratings is unbelievable." In spite of all the doubts and uncertainty felt by parents, our players surprised us! All four of them seemed to be more and more at ease, learning and growing at the same time, as the fourth and fifth rounds went on.

Our team standing had climbed to sixth after the fifth round. The difference between Gomes and the top team was only 1.5 points. But we didn't get our hopes up too much. The final two rounds were still ahead, and those are always the toughest.

I finally saw Jay on Sunday while he was waiting for Joanna during the sixth round. "You always seem so calm whenever I see you at Joanna's tournaments." I admired. "Actually I always feel nervous when she plays at tournaments. I hide by myself when I'm stressed out." That statement from one of the most experienced chess parents in the country sounded reassuring to me. As an inexperienced chess mom, I'm not alone.

We had a perfect sixth round with all four players winning. Everyone's spirit was at its highest as we saw our team tied with four other teams at the top. My heart quivered when I saw the pairings for the seventh round. While all his teammates' opponents were rated near or below theirs, William was paired with a player rated 1551 from the team with the highest average rating, the Greenbriar West Elementary School Team from Fairfax, Virginia, currently listed as number one.

William looked tired and kept on rubbing his eyes and yawning. He had to share a bed with his younger brother over the past three nights and woke up a couple of times last night. All I could do was to hug and kiss him, telling him to treat each move as a tactic as he was an expert on that. I went to the Chess Store directly after the round started since I would bury myself with worries and negative thoughts if I didn't distract myself. Grandpa picked out a nice design and made a souvenir shirt with SuperNational logo for William. Our team should still be in top three if everyone else won. At least we are here and have tried. "Top three is something to be proud of," I comforted myself.

I'd been waiting for an hour when my phone vibrated. On the other end, Dominic said, "William has something to tell you!" My heart beat faster. "Mom, I won!" I couldn't believe my ears! I jumped up and down with dozens of parents around me looking with understanding smiles. We jumped again after Jason and Ganesh's announced their wins. Joanna arrived in a bright red top as well as a bright smile that I had not seen on her before. Even the usually very composed Ganesh seemed to be chattier than ever.

I went out to check the posting board. I was excited to see a group of parents gathered in front of it. "Number 1, Gomes, CAF021 20.00 points." I couldn't believe my eyes! "We won! We are National Champions!"

Seeing our four players walking up the stage to receive the championship trophy was a proud moment for our five parents and two grandparents. But what we were most proud of is our children's persistence throughout those three days.

I learned that what weighs more than the championship trophy is our players' passion for chess. Throughout those three days, I met so many players and their parents who participated in the SuperNational, not for any trophy, but for the joy of the game. Several of those parents told me that they take their children to national chess tournaments every year to enjoy playing with other children around the country. They don't care about ratings; they just love playing the game with fellow chess lovers. In retrospect, I remember what a joyful experience it had been for William when he first started studying chess.

Our team sat at the elegant Revela restaurant for dinner after the award ceremony. We realized that although it would be extremely difficult for any one of our children to win an individual championship, with their combined strength, they were able to win the team championship. The value of teamwork is a memorable life lesson.

Winning or losing may change with each tournament. But may our children's love for chess, determination in facing challenges and appreciation of the value of teamwork will accompany them forever!

G. Julie Xie
An inexperienced 'Chess Mom'
Nashville, TN
April 8, 2013

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