Desks are lined with chess boards and rows of competitors are paired off, facing each other. They’re concentrating so hard that not a breath can be heard, just the sober drag and click of chess pieces being exchanged and removed from the board.
Among the men and boys sits a single girl, seemingly unfazed by opponents who are mostly older and taller than her.
That’s a fairly common scenario for fifth-grader McKenzie Tongg, whose brother Hunter and father Ryan Tongg also compete in the chess tournament lineup throughout the year.
The family plays every open tournament on the island, and the siblings play scholastic tournaments as well.
Next up: State Open and State Blitz championships on Labor Day weekend.
THIS STORY begins with the siblings’ chess tutor, Cornelius Rubsamen, who moved to Hawaii from Germany as a young college student in the ’90s.
Rubsamen recalls meeting up with a crew of dedicated chess addicts who’d crowd around the Kuhio Beach chess tables for hours at a time.
“We had our system — winner stays at the board, so there was incentive to win,” says Rubsamen. “There were multiple boards and lots of people watching.
“The problem was the last bus back to Mililani (where Rubsamen lived) was at 11 p.m. So oftentimes I’d just decide, ‘The next bus comes at 5 a.m., so why not play a little longer?’”
Fast-forward to today: Rubsamen has been dominating chess in Hawaii for the past 20 years and is an 11-time state champion. He’s a US Chess Federation master and certified instructor who also teaches English as a lecturer at the University of Hawaii while working on his dissertation for a doctorate in English.
During those Kuhio Beach days at the tables, Rubsamen met Ryan Tongg, who was on his own chess journey: While studying for his real estate license, Tongg had begun playing chess against a classmate, who beat him over and over again.
The frustration fueled Tongg’s competitive nature and he immersed himself in the game, reading books on strategy and finding chess groups to practice with, including the one at Kuhio Beach.
“I went back nine months later and played that guy, and he couldn’t beat me anymore,” Tongg exulted. “At that point, I got really competitive.”
When Tongg’s daughter was 5 years old, she asked dad about the board. He explained how each piece moved and she caught on readily, absorbing the rules after a single explanation.
Recognizing her natural talent, dad called his friend Rubsamen in as a tutor.
Six months later, McKenzie’s older brother by two years, Hunter, decided he wanted in.
Then the oldest, Austin, a sophomore, discovered he had a knack for the game. While Austin plays for the family fun of it, and is even bested by his little sister sometimes, the two younger siblings see Cornelius regularly.
McKenzie now has three years of tutoring and tournaments under her belt.
Asked if facing off against a roomful of opponents is intimidating, she pipes up: “Not really, I’m used to it.
“Of course, winning feels pretty good, but when I lose, I still get a win because I’m learning the game.”
It’s common for players to practice online to keep their game sharp, but McKenzie prefers an in-person experience for tactical reasons.
“You can see in their eyes if they’re worried,” she said.
“CHESS IS really competitive in Hawaii now,” Rubsamen said, crediting the scholastic director of Hawaii Chess Federation, Guy Ontai, for drawing in students.
Ontai stresses the importance of providing opportunities for students to play, noting that at scholastic events, organizers provide the timing clocks and chess sets needed to compete. The competitions have drawn as many as 150 students.
“Many Hawaii students have earned individual honors, and sometimes a school puts together strong teams,” Ontai said. “We are growing each year, not in great leaps, but incrementally.”
All three Tongg family members have had their share of wins in their respective divisions, with dad in what’s called “expert” territory and the siblings several notches above novice.
They will compete Saturday through Monday in both the State Open Championship and State Blitz (a speedier version of traditional chess), open to members of the US Chess Federation. They are expected to draw more than 40 competitors.
Hunter and McKenzie are also signed up for the first scholastic tournament of the season, Sept. 28.
The tournaments follow a Swiss system: Everyone plays an equal number of games, with the highest-rated and lower-rated players facing off. The best players move up with each round, and eventually face each other.
“That’s fascinating about chess, especially for kids,” said Tongg. “It’s the one place they can go to war with adults and be equal.”
As for the family’s goals, dad is looking to improve his game a couple hundred points to master’s level. Hunter is aiming just below that, at expert level.
McKenzie is shooting for the top. “I want to be a chess master when I grow up,” she said. “I just need to dig deeper.”
HAWAII STATE CHESS CHAMPIONSHIPS
>> Where: Kapiolani Medical Center
>> When: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Monday (Hawaii State Open Championship) and 2-6 p.m Monday (Hawaii State Blitz Championship)
>> Cost: Free to observe; player registration $20-$40
>> Info: hawaiichess.com
>> Note: A scholastic tournament is scheduled at 9 a.m. Sept. 28 at Washington Middle School