Chess

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Nguyen, 14, tries to spend at least an hour a day prac­tic­ing chess. Some­times she’s prac­ticed as much as seven hours a day to get ready for a tour­na­ment.

Of course, this is in be­tween school­work and other ex­tracur­ric­u­lars. In school, she loves math and she’s good at sci­ence but could do with­out his­tory and English. She doesn’t quite know what she will do when she grows up, but per­haps it will be some­thing with en­gi­neer­ing.

“Chess ex­pands my ca­pac­ity to cal­cu­late and make log­i­cal moves,” she says.

Emily also plays pi­ano and swims. With chess, though, she doesn’t re­ally get ner­vous. Pi­ano is a dif­fer­ent story. “I still get ner­vous when I per­form,” she says. And al­though she’s learn­ing Beethoven and he’s her fa­vorite com­poser, pi­ano and chess are very dif­fer­ent. “With pi­ano, I like play­ing it, but I don’t re­ally have mo­ti­va­tion to prac­tice for hours.”

With chess, she does. “Ev­ery sin­gle night she asks my hus­band, ‘It’s time for chess?’” Tran says.

While Emily has passed her fa­ther and her 16-yearold brother in skill, her fa­ther is still her go-to for prac­tice. He’s also the go-to for read­ing chess books and dis­cussing it with Emily. She an­a­lyzes dif­fer­ent moves, how to open the round, what op­po­nents might do.

“We make sure it’s en­joy­able,” Nam Nguyen says of his work with his daugh­ter. He also has com­peted, as has An­thony, who gave up chess for de­bate once he got to high school.

Emily also has an on­line coach, Me­lik Khachiyan, and a lo­cal coach, Michael Fe­in­stein, whom she meets with ev­ery two or three weeks. Fe­in­stein has been coach­ing Emily for seven years.

“Emily has an amaz­ingly ma­ture man­ner about her,” he says. “Even when she was in sec­ond or third grade she was very fo­cused, pa­tient, more sharp in many ways. I’ve taught a num­ber of great young play­ers, but she was re­mark­ably ma­ture both in her man­ner and ap­proach.”

Chess, Fe­in­stein says, is about nerves and “whose nerves are stronger, who takes ad­van­tage of a small mis­take.” “She’s very strong in a calm way.”

Fe­in­stein re­cently played Emily and lost. “Be­fore I knew it, it had gone to a check­mate,” he says. “That’s not nor­mal for me. She’s great at look­ing for op­por­tu­nity.”

One of the big­gest things her par­ents and coaches teach her is to not get caught up in the re­sults. Tour­na­ment win­ners are not de­ter­mined by a process of elim­i­na­tion. In­stead, tour­na­ments are about points scored. “You should treat each game dif­fer­ently, like it’s a new tour­na­ment,” she says. “For­get about your game and fo­cus on the next round.”

When she was younger, it wasn’t as easy. She re­mem­bers be­ing at the 2010 world cham­pi­onship in Greece and be­ing up­set af­ter she made a mis­take in the sec­ond round and lost. “I started cry­ing a lot,” she says. “It was a waste of a game.”

“We told her to for­get it and move on to the next round,” Tran says.

Now, if she does cry or get up­set, she waits un­til she’s back in her room. She knows how awk­ward it can be when an op­po­nent loses and gets up­set on the tour­na­ment floor. “You’re not sure what to do,” she says.

Some­times younger op­po­nents will cry, she says, though she’s learned never to un­der­es­ti­mate an op­po­nent. “Some of the lit­tle kids are re­ally good,” she says.

While she of­ten plays peo­ple who are close to her age, this up­com­ing tour­na­ment and oth­ers like it can have her play­ing much older play­ers. She doesn’t get in­tim­i­dated, but she does say, “Older peo­ple get cranky when they lose to lit­tle kids. Some peo­ple throw pieces.”

Some­times games can last an hour or two; other times they go on and on. Her long­est game lasted six hours. She and her op­po­nent both had the king, a knight and two pawns left. “When you get to that point, it’s a mu­tual draw,” she says. “I was los­ing, then I was win­ning. I could have won, but then I drew.”

Even when a game lasts that long, Emily isn’t sit­ting the whole time. She walks around and takes a break when it’s not her turn. “I still get tired,” she says.

When she’s not play­ing at a tour­na­ment, she’s think­ing about her next game and her next op­po­nent. She also writes down ev­ery move of ev­ery game. She’ll put those into a com­puter and re­watch her game to see what she could have done dif­fer­ently.

Her fa­vorite piece is the knight. It’s mem­o­rable be­cause of its horse shape, and in each chess set, it looks a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, she ex­plains. Plus, “It can jump over any piece, but it moves in an L-shape. … It’s pretty pow­er­ful.”

Her fa­vorite move? “When I win, that move is my fa­vorite.”

Chess has taken Emily and her fam­ily to seven coun­tries and four con­ti­nents, in­clud­ing all over North Amer­ica. She loved Brazil and Slove­nia and Greece. She’s head­ing to Italy in Oc­to­ber.

Af­ter St. Louis, she’ll come home and then head to Nashville to com­pete in the na­tional tour­na­ment with her high school. Her mid­dle school, Canyon Vista, was na­tional cham­pion when she was in sixth grade and her brother was in eighth grade and they both played for the team.

For each tour­na­ment, she brings her travel set, which in­cludes a thin plas­tic board that rolls up and large plas­tic pieces. “It’s been on the plane, in the car, to all my tour­na­ments,” she says. She rec­om­mends start­ing with a portable chess set that is lightweight rather than in­vest­ing in a heav­ier, more beau­ti­ful one, so you can bring it with you.

She rec­om­mends first learn­ing the moves and then play­ing in lo­cal tour­na­ments be­fore mov­ing up to ones around the state, then na­tional and in­ter­na­tional.

Her portable chess set isn’t her lucky charm, though. If any­thing, it would be the mints. She and her fa­ther started a tra­di­tion. She gives him an Al­toid mint be­fore each round, and she has one, too.

“This is re­ally cool that I get to play,” she says of each tour­na­ment, but when she comes home, “I die a lit­tle from home­work.”

PHO­TOS CON­TRIB­UTED BY NAM NGUYEN

At in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions like at this one in the United Arab Emi­rates in 2013, Emily Nguyen gets to meet other play­ers from around the world. They are all friendly to one an­other.

It’s not all chess all the time. Some­times be­fore or af­ter the tour­na­ment, Emily Nguyen will get ex­plore the host coun­try, like she did in the United Arab Emi­rates in 2013.

Emily Nguyen com­peted in the United Arab Emi­rates in 2013.

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