Grandmaster In The Making

Mark Chen, 12, begins his reign as the youngest state chess champion in Hawai‘i history.

The initiative is a physical manifestation of a psychological battle,” Mark Chen recites, sounding far older and wiser than his 12 years would suggest.

The quote is from How to Reassess Your Chess by International Master Jeremy Silman. It is a reflection of how Chen admires a chess game that begins with purpose, aggression and a strong agenda.

He later elaborates, “It’s very true because it’s not all about your skill. Chess is amazing because it’s so many things. It’s like a sport. You have to be able to sit at a board for hours on end — my longest game was six hours and lasted past midnight. It’s an art. It’s a beautiful game that you can learn to appreciate. It is also a science, as you need to calculate all possibilities accurately many moves ahead.”

Readers, let Kaua‘i Midweek introduce Hawai‘i’s youngest-ever state chess champion.

Mark Chen at his first scholastic tournament at age 6. PHOTO COURTESY THE CHEN FAMILY

It began for the Punahou School eighth-grader at the ripe old age of 5. His older brother, Michael, had joined a summer school club about chess, and Chen couldn’t resist giving it a try, too — as little brothers are wont to do.

From there, he entered his first scholastic-level tournament at age 6, won the Hawai‘i K-3 Championship at age 8, and entered his first mainland chess tournament at age 10 (and took home the Hawai‘i K-8 Championship title that year, too).

Other Chen achievements at the ripe old age of 10: Winning $4,000 in prize money (and first place) in the U1500 division in the 2018 National Open and representing the state at the Barber K-8 State Champion Invitational Chess Tournament (the latter of which he repeated this year, too).

Then, of course, this year’s state win. Chen was able to cruise to two early victories, but he stumbled against former state champion and No. 1 seed Damian Nash. The loss, however, helped him relax and win in the fourth round, leaving him to face No. 2 seed Charles Sonido for the title.

The Hawai‘i Kai resident is, in fact, a U.S. Chess Federation Category 2 player, with a Blitz rating in the top 50 for the Under Age 13 category.

That, at least, is what the record shows. Chen’s attitude is what explains why the stats are what they are.

He says he tries to spend about two hours a day studying or practicing chess — an average of 14 hours a week — but if he isn’t feeling it, he isn’t feeling it.

“If you’re going to play at a more competitive, higher level, it’s not just being able to work hard. It’s knowing how to work hard, and how to use your time effectively. Spending the time is not as important as producing quality work. And most importantly, have fun.”

He currently studies with Ukrainian International Grandmaster Andriy Vovk weekly via Skype. The two will review past games to see what decisions were made, and why they did or didn’t work.

“That’s one of the biggest life lessons about chess: learning from your mistakes and other people’s mistakes,” Chen says.

And naturally, Chen is keen on improving his game and adding a national title to his collection.

“I want to continue developing and playing at a higher level,” he says modestly, noting that the mainland chess scene is more serious and competitive than the largely scholastic-focused environment here.

What is striking about Chen, however, is the way he returns, like a compass, to the qualities of decisiveness and control.

His two favorite players, he says, are Mikhail Tal and Gary Kasparov — both known for their aggressive, sharp styles of play.

He prefers to play white because “you can decide what the opening’s going to be, for a certain part you can decide where the game’s going to go.”

When he explains his philosophy, it all makes sense.

“You always gotta learn from your mistakes, learn from other people’s mistakes. You gotta continue improving yourself. You have to keep looking ahead and plan — what’s going to happen, what are the consequences, what you’re going to do.”

With that kind of razor-sharp foresight, the idea of Mark Chen, youngest-ever grandmaster from Hawai‘i, doesn’t seem too far off.


Away from the chessboard, Mark Chen is a pretty ordinary kid — as ordinary as someone like him could be, at least.

He plays piano, swims for Punahou Aquatics and is a member of the math club.

While he’s not one for movies or TV shows (not even chess-related ones), he does like reading the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. And, of course, he’s played Among Us with his friends (like all of us have, too).

His favorite food is his mom’s dumplings, and if he could travel anywhere safely, he’d love to stop at New York (where he was born), California (where he’s been but didn’t get a chance to explore) and Saint Louis (the chess capital of the U.S.).