At a time of the year when many students have set their brains to “pause,” a select few spent six days in high gear at an invitational all-star chess tournament sponsored by the University of Texas at Dallas.
Several players were on the school’s chess team. One champion was brought in from Russia. And one competitor came from Plano: a 14-year-old whiz named Darwin Yang. If he played well enough, Yang would earn the points necessary to become an international master, the level just below the ultimate chess rank of grandmaster.
Tuesday was the final day of the 10-player tournament. Would Yang make the grade?
While Yang’s status may have added drama, the tournament was really all about the UT-Dallas chess squad, one of the strongest college teams in America. They’re getting ready for their biggest annual competition, the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship, played every January.
Seven years ago, the school decided to start hosting a tournament in late December and ensuring a field of top players for an effective team tuneup. This year’s event included four grandmasters (two from the UT-Dallas team) and players hailing from Russia, Costa Rica, India, Romania, the Philippines, New Zealand and the United States.
The Russian was the tournament star, brought to Dallas for the event: Aleksey Dreev is ranked 67th in the world by the World Chess Federation. He won seven of his matches here and had a pair of draws.
Yang has been playing and winning since he was 7. And he’s a “FIDE master,” already a high level for a young player. The levels are set using a formula that includes the number of wins, the strength of each opponent and the strength of the field in a particular tournament.
Yang entered the event on a roll and the field was tough enough that he could have reached the international master level at this event.
He showed up with plenty of confidence, said his father, Dijiu Yang. “Maybe overconfidence.”
Yang lost his first three games, then rallied for a draw and a couple of wins. But that still left him with a worse record than the formula had predicted going in. If he won his final game, he’d probably break even â€“ neither gaining nor losing points in his drive for the international master rank.
That last game was against UT-Dallas’ top player: grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez. The play was pretty busy for chess. While players at the other boards protected their pieces as if they were gold, Yang and Ramirez aggressively exchanged captures until the board was all but clear. At that point, Ramirez offered a draw and Yang accepted.
It was, Yang admitted, a disappointing tournament.
“I had a theme to my mistakes,” he said. “I played well early in my games and at the very end started to unravel.”
He gets another chance to reach that next level at a New Year’s week tournament in California. “I just need to rebound and get better.”
That’s the attitude all great players need, said Rade Milovanovic, the UT-Dallas chess coach.
“Whenever you play chess, you have a great opportunity to lose,” he said. “That is the first lesson you learn.”