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'I try to go online as much as possible. I'll log on [to internetchessclub.com ] for a few minutes just to check in -- lots of times it has live games from tournaments being played in other countries," says local chess champion Elliott Liu. "It's important for me to see what the hot new lines are that the strongest people are playing." At 16, Liu will be the youngest competitor at the U.S. Chess Championship, a 12-day festival beginning March 1 at the NTC Promenade. "To make chess understandable to my friends, I like to say, 'It's basically like a game of life,'" says Liu. "It's like playing football -- you watch a game on film, study it, and prepare a strategy. It's play-calling, basically, and you're just moving your players. I love sports, and in the future I would definitely consider taking my chess skills into the sports realm." Liu is on the basketball and football teams at Bishop's, the college preparatory school he attends in La Jolla.

"Everyone else had to qualify in other national tournaments [for the U.S. Chess Championship]. I'm just lucky and so thankful to even be in this thing. It's extremely hard to get into -- my teacher didn't even get into it." Liu won his position at the championship by participating in an online qualification tournament created for junior players. "The best juniors in the country were invited to play. The first weekend we all played each other twice in very fast, three-minute games. Whoever finished in first and second place after those games would move on to the next weekend."

Liu insists that winning the first weekend had as much to do with chance as it had to do with skill. "It's just whoever makes the least mistakes. You really don't have to play a beautiful game. It's whoever survives in the end -- moves fast enough and with enough accuracy -- because all kids have an eye for various shots that will completely kill you." The following weekend Liu won his position at the U.S. Championship and a guaranteed award of $2200.

Liu began playing chess at age 5, competed in his first national championship the same year, and began to play in adult tournaments when he turned 9. Liu believes his "perfect memory" is the primary reason for his skill. Born in Boston, Liu has lived in Encinitas for the past 11 years. His father, Ken, came to the United States at age 15 after living in various Asian countries, including Taiwan and Laos. When he was 5, Liu's mother, a third-generation Hungarian, bought him a book about chess.

"Something freaky happened." Liu says. "She came home one day and I had memorized a lot of the games in the book and played [each game] back for [my parents]. Here's this five-year-old who doesn't know 'two plus two' yet, playing these games." It was at this point that Liu's parents enlisted the help of a professional chess teacher.

Liu has frequently been compared to chess legend Bobby Fischer. "He also had a very good memory and started at a young age," Liu says of Fischer. "Obviously, he's a special case. That's all he did, was play chess. Back then juniors were a lot weaker -- chess was an adult sport. Now it's becoming so much more popular; kids are getting younger and stronger. I go to a very challenging school. I love sports and have lots of commitments. People say if I dedicated myself just as much as he did, then sure. But I don't want to."

Liu is not the only young chess champion who prefers to lead a balanced life. Tatev Abrahamyan, 18, is also slated to compete in this championship. Abrahamyan is originally from Armenia and currently resides in Los Angeles. "I do everything every regular teenager likes to do," she says. "I go to school and I work and I have chess. With my friends, I'll go out to eat, go to the movies, or [we go] to each other's houses."

Dmitry Schneider, 21, attends the University of Texas on a full chess scholarship and qualified for the U.S. Chess Championship by winning a spot offered through a tournament in Las Vegas. "I used to play tennis for my high school team, and now I play basketball for fun," says Schneider, who began playing chess at age 7. "I did my pro stint already. The Stanford Fellowship is only given once a year. I received $32,000 for two years to do tournaments and train. I went to Europe and South America and played chess. I loved traveling and considered [chess as a profession], but the money is nonexistent. A lot more money can be made from teaching." Schneider already has his own company, BGS Chess, which he formed with friends to teach chess to young children.

Liu says, "Everyone asks me, 'Do you want to do this for the rest of your life?' I always tell them: Chess to me, even though I'm good at it and have been winning money, is just a serious hobby...Chess is the hardest work for the least reward. I want to play it all my life as a casual passion." -- Barbarella

U.S. Chess Championship Wednesday, March 1, through Sunday, March 12 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily NTC Promenade 2801 Rosecrans Street Point Loma Cost: Free Info: 619-226-1491, ext. 108 or www.uschesschampionship.com

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