AMES, Iowa (AP) — Irene Fei of Ames studies the chess board with her brows furrowed even when her opponent has almost no skills in the game. That’s because this 9-year-old takes her title as world champion seriously.
Sure, it’s a game. But it’s also a passion.
Irene started playing chess in kindergarten because her parents, mother, Yan Jiao, and father, Zhe Fei, wanted her in an afterschool program at their Gilbert school district while they were at work. They just happened to pick chess club.
“We didn’t know about her gift,” Fei told the Ames Tribune. “And, surprisingly, she was quickly beating the third graders.”
Fei said when the chess coach told them that Irene was an outstanding player, they just brushed it off. But when the coach approached them again, they took it more seriously.
“When we found a private coach for her, she progressed very quickly,” Fei said.
In June, Irene won the International Chess Federation (FIDE) World Chess Championship in the under nine age group. The competition was in Panama City, Panama from June 10 to 19. She turned nine during the tournament.
In July, she will be in California attending the national K-5 championship of state champions as the state of Iowa champion of elementary-aged players.
Her parents are hoping Irene will place in the top 20 competitors.
“She’ll be playing against fifth graders, and that will be very challenging,” Jiao said.
Irene says many elements of the game drive her passion.
“I like figuring out the other person. And I like to trap them. I like killing the opponent,” she said, spilling over into giggles.
Irene said she plans her chess moves three to six steps in advance.
Once Irene has analyzed her opponent’s ranking on a national or international rating system, she’ll lay out her best possible opening move, Fei said.
If her opponent isn’t rated or has a low rating, Fei said, Irene will play a safer game. But if her opponent is highly ranked, Irene will play more aggressively.
Each opening move has a different theory behind it, Fei said. Irene studies and memorizes theories and strategies by not just playing the game but studying chess books.
Gilbert third grade teacher Katie Nees, who taught Irene over the past year, said the youngster brings a lot to the classroom and her fellow students every day.
“She is so fantastic,” Nees said. “She’s so much fun. She’s very kind and thinks about other kids first. And she’s a fantastic leader, always wanting to do the right thing.”
Nees said she saw Irene blossom, helping other students when they needed it and just being a good friend.
And she said she was impressed when Irene’s parents came to student-teacher conferences — they were just as interested in how Irene was doing socially as well as academically.
“Her parents have done such a great job at keeping Irene well rounded and making sure she is making friends and joining in with her friends to have fun,” Nees said.
Jiao said Irene likes to spend her time playing Xbox, dancing and swimming.
“If she still has a big passion for chess, we will support her,” Fei said. “If she chooses chess as a career is up to her. But of course, she will need to go to college. That’s also important to her.”
Jim Hodina, president of the Iowa State Chess Association, is another one of Irene’s fans. Hodina said these days he fills his life with more teaching and coaching than actually playing the game.
Hodina teaches chess for College Community School District in the Cedar Rapids area. This past year he had 125 kids in his program. He said out of those students, maybe about 40 will go on to play in tournaments and maybe a couple of them will excel at higher levels.
Interest in chess grew in the past couple of years, Hodina said, because of the pandemic and the Netflix show, The Queen’s Gambit. The pandemic drove people to online chess sites like chess.com, lichess.org and kasparovchess.com.
Hodina said all three websites are a good choice for anyone thinking they might want to give chess a try. The sites have games and puzzles and videos for teaching the basics and more advanced skills. He also suggested contacting a local chess club.
The Iowa State Chess Association offers a summer camp from July 19-23 for students from kindergarten through high school. Information is available at chessiniowa.org.
“Chess is a life skill that brings enjoyment as well as helping improve your overall brain health,” Hodina said.
Irene agrees that chess.com is the best place to go to start learning chess.
“They have lessons and puzzles there. If you can’t get the puzzle, they will drop you down to an easier one, or they will advance you to a hard one,” Irene said.
Irene encourages others to try chess out.
“And if they are interested, they should play chess and maybe have some fun,” Irene said.