How big are you?
"I'm about 5'11" tall, 170 pounds."
So you're involved in both the ultimate nerdy high school activity and the ultimate popular high school activity?
What gives? Are you a nerd? Or are you popular?
"Luckily, I've always been well rounded, and that's what I always try to be. Among my friends, I've gone from something they can't understand at all to something that's really cool and recognized everywhere. But all my friends support me. They respect that I'm good at something, even if they really don't understand it fully."
What about your chess friends? Aren't they jealous when you go suit up and hang out with the cheerleaders and get all the cheers at pep rallies?
"Oh, I don't know. I guess they might be jealous. But I think I fit in with all different groups of people. I like to socialize a lot with every type of person. And when you have a background in something academic -- and I guess you could say, 'nerdy' -- and in something athletic, and you're well rounded like that, then it really helps, because you can talk to almost anyone."
Where are you going to go to college? What are you going to study?
"I don't know," Liu says. "I'm thinking medical school. And right now I'm looking at Duke. And I'm also looking at the University of Maryland, because I have a full scholarship to go there."
To do what?
"To play chess."
The University of Maryland offered you a full scholarship to play chess? Tell me that story.
"The U.S. Championship is the most prestigious chess tournament in the country. And last year I was the youngest player. I was 16. I think the oldest player was in his 70s. So there's no age limit. It's just the best players against the best players. You have to qualify to be there. It's not like the World Series of Poker or anything where you can just buy in. Most of the guys who get in are either the top ten in the nation, or they qualify through open tournaments. But the way I got in was by winning the 2005 U.S. Cadet, which is the U.S. championship for under 16s, which was how I got the scholarship to Maryland. And then later on that year, they told me that because I'd won that, I'd qualified to play in this mini-tournament against three other strong junior players. By some miracle, I won that, and I got into the U.S. Championships. In 2006, they were held in San Diego, so I was like the hometown kid, and I was the youngest player, and all the attention was just incredible. The whole chess nation is watching you. All your games are broadcast and everything. So that was an amazing experience."
How'd you do?
"I did as well as Cyrus and I predicted," Liu says. "We thought it would be a miracle if I even scored one point. There were nine games total. And the competition was incredible. All these guys were pros. And they were all adults."
And if you won nine games, you'd get nine points? And if you tied nine games, you'd get four?
"Yes, the scoring's like that. And the winner ended up with seven points, I think. Which is a very good score in these type of tournaments. I got three, which was, by our standards, a very good tournament. I started out against these two grand masters who are very well known, and somehow I drew those games, which was totally unexpected. So I was floating on cloud nine, and I got a little ahead of myself. I went through a rough patch during the middle of the tournament, where I lost three of the next four games. I finished okay, to kind of save it. But overall, it was just a great experience."
Have you played in any other big-time tournaments?
"I played in the Pan-American Chess Championship in Ecuador last year." Liu's tone becomes ironic. "To make a long story short, I'll just say that it was a very poorly organized tournament. The hotel that we stayed in had no heat, and it was winter there in the Andes. So it was about 30 or 40 degrees, and the playing hall was this huge stadium, and it was freezing. I had to wear ski clothing while I played. The hotel was even worse. Not only was it cold, but people partied throughout the night. You heard broken bottles, people vomiting, the trash-dump people coming and making a racket. It was just ridiculous. And after all that, let's see...I somehow won the tournament. I won the gold medal. And in the process, I was accused of cheating, and then they cheated on me. But we appealed that, and we won."
How do you cheat at chess?
"There are a number of ways. There've been these huge scandals lately with computer cheating. There are these powerful chess-playing computers that are mainstream now. Oftentimes, what people will do is they plant earpieces in their ears, or something like that, and then they have their guy back at the room relaying moves to them. It's relatively easy to do, but people have been caught at every level of chess. It's a big problem. They're even doing drug testing in chess now. They're trying to ban caffeine and brain stimulants. It's ridiculous."
Tournament chess games can last for hours. I can't imagine sitting over a chessboard for five hours and not having any caffeine. And what if you have to go to the bathroom during a six-hour match?
"That's a common misperception," Liu says. "You don't have to sit in your chair for a whole chess match. I could never sit at a chess board for more than 15 minutes. I'm always walking around. Like, a lot of the tournaments are held in Vegas, and you go out of the room, and into the casino, and you can watch ESPN or something. You don't have to sit there at all. Which is good and bad, because you say, 'Well, what about cheating? The guy could go anywhere.' And that's kind of the honor-system thing. But in bigger tournaments, there's a loose rule that you shouldn't leave the room unless you have a good reason. And the rooms are usually huge. Chess tournaments are almost always played in big ballrooms or convention halls or something. It's not like you're confined in some tiny space. But you can get up, walk around, or get something to eat, because these games last so long, there's no way you could sit there the whole time. And I have a short attention span as it is, as strange as that sounds. I think I have a minor ADD issue when I play chess."