POSTED: 6:18 p.m. HST, Apr 29, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 6:20 p.m. HST, Apr 29, 2014
Eighth-grader Quguang Wang is new to Hawaii, new to the English language and new to chess. He didn't win a single game in his first open chess tournament last fall.
"I didn't play well," said the lanky, soft-spoken 14-year-old, who came to Washington Middle School from Shanghai in seventh grade. "I was scared to lose."
But he kept his chin up and kept playing and came out on top as Hawaii's middle-school individual chess champion at the state scholastic championships March 29. Washington won the middle-school team competition for the fourth year in a row, while Punahou took the elementary and high school divisions.
This weekend, Quguang (pronounced chu-gwan) and four teammates from Washington are in Atlanta, defending the school's title as the National Junior High (K-9) Unrated Chess Team Champions of the U.S. Chess Federation.
Washington's four-year winning streak at the state level in chess equals the record of its MATHCOUNTS team, but the two teams are made up of different students and have different coaches. What they share is an uncommon devotion to their subject.
Math teacher Roderick "Eric" Floro, who learned to play chess with his dad before he learned to read, started playing the game informally with kids after school at the McCully campus. He turned it into a club at Washington seven years ago, then got permission to teach it as an elective course.
"I couldn't give up a math class, so I gave up my prep period," said Floro, who also coaches cross-country at the school.
Just a handful of kids signed up for the chess class when it started. This year 90 students chose it, but there was space for just 20.
On Monday the classroom buzzed with energy as kids faced off against one another, sometimes in fast-paced "blitz" games, making their moves quickly and slapping the digital chess clocks with gusto between moves.
"I like the strategies," said eighth-grader Wun-Min Chen, headed to Atlanta with his teammates on his first trip to the mainland. "It helps me think in a way I never thought of — like creative."
The other members of the Washington team at the nationals are eighth-grader Huai Yu Zheng, seventh-grader Kai Zheng and sixth-grader Patrick Perry.
The student body at the campus has 18 different ethnicities. While this year's chess team is largely Chinese, the Washington team that triumphed at the nationals last year included students with roots in Japan, Mexico, Italy and China.
Floro used to teach math to English-language learners at the school and found they gravitated toward chess, which has almost a language of its own.
"You don't have to be strong in English to play it," he pointed out.
A Michigan native, Floro coaches triathletes and has a strong competitive streak as well as an easygoing nature that makes him a favorite with the kids.
"Our teacher is awesome," said Kiana Ogawa, one of the girls Floro encourages to join the class. "He cares. He helps a lot."
The youngest player on Washington's team in Atlanta has been playing the longest. Patrick Perry, who turned 12 this week, has been competing in tournaments since he was a fidgety 4-year-old. He came to Washington Middle from Aikahi Elementary specifically for its challenging math and chess, said his father, also named Patrick Perry.
"Chess is an important resource to get kids thinking," said the elder Perry, a two-time state chess champion who teaches math at Hawaii Pacific University. "We had seen their chess team, and then I read about their math. We wanted him to get the challenging math."
"My older daughter is at ‘Iolani," he added, "and they were getting trashed by Washington Middle."
Patrick has played in mainland tournaments and has a national rating of 744. The rest of his teammates are not rated since they haven't played in official tournaments of the U.S. Chess Federation, so they are competing in the Unrated K-9 Team competition.
"In Hawaii local tournaments we don't play under U.S. Chess auspices," Perry said. "It's considerably more expensive for the kids to do so," he said, noting that it requires payment of fees to the federation.
Two-thirds of students at Washington come from families with low incomes that qualify for subsidized school lunch. Paying for the trip to Atlanta is daunting for most of the players.
After a nonstop stream of fundraising, the team has raised about half of the cost, and parents are covering what they can afford, Floro said.
"I can't tell you how many candy-cane-grams and Valentine candy-grams and Jamba Juice sales and snack shop sales we've had to help support the team," Floro said.
The chess club has no budget. Floro used his earnings from working as a coach for Brian Clarke's Island Triathlon Training to buy chess clocks, sets, books, software and a laptop. Most of the clocks, which cost $50 each, will soon need replacement after seven years of zealous use.
As the state middle-school individual champion, Quguang earned the right to compete in the Dewain Barber Tournament of K-8 Champions in Orlando, Fla., July 26-29. He hasn't figured out how to pay for that trip yet. For now he's focused on outwitting his opponents in Atlanta.
To follow the tournament, visit uschess.org.