By Melody Birkett
Steve Wongso is not your typical 7-year-old. In between studying, he loves playing chess. In fact, he has won two national championships.
He’s the First Grade Champion in the 2016 National K-12 Championships.
And in May, Steve became K-1 Champion at the 2017 Super Nationals VI, which is held every four years and is considered the largest competition of its kind, with more than 5,000 children competing.
Steve also competed in the 2017 World Cadet Championship in Brazil, where he played 11 games and placed 14 out of 79 competitors.
In December, he’ll compete in the nationals in the December K-12 championship, this time as a second-grader. Asked if he’s excited, Steve said, “Not so much.” He said he doesn’t get nervous, but rather looks at the competition as a way to have fun.
“Often he plays against older kids and adults as part of training” but just competes in his age group,” said Steve’s mother, Silvana, who said her son first showed interest in the game when he was about 5.
“Before he started kindergarten, he was playing board games,” Wongso said. “So we got one of chess, a basic one.” When Steve was in kindergarten, she said, “We joined Neely Traditional Academy School in Gilbert. They have a chess club.”
Steve then started entering – and winning – chess tournaments on weekends.
Realizing his talent, Wongso went to Unity Chess Club in Mesa and enrolled her son in private coaching lessons with Pedram Atoufi.
“He’s going to become the youngest master in the U.S.,” Atoufi said. “I think the secret is the spirit of his fight that he has in his game. I never saw it in a long time and for any kid his age.”
Many kids and adults worry when they’re playing.
“For Steve, his secret when he’s playing is he doesn’t worry about anything,” Atoufi said. “He’s very brave. He’s just going for a win. These things you rarely see in kids his age.”
No doubt, it takes a special talent. Steve said his favorite part about playing chess is “thinking.”
He does have other interests, too: soccer and basketball, according to his mom.
“I like soccer just as much as chess,” added Steve. “All of my friends are chess players.”
Steve also plays piano and is trying to get other pianists interested in chess. For now, he practices against his 10-year-old sister.
Steve has time to practice and travel to these competitions because he’s enrolled in an online school called Arizona Connections Academy.
“When he goes out of state, he can still do the work,” said Wongso, who adds the school offers the standard curriculum of a traditional elementary school.
No doubt, at the level Steve is at, it does take a lot of practice. “Steve is very serious and he’s practicing every day,” said Atoufi. “Many hours he has put into chess time.”
Practicing every day doesn’t always mean doing it in the traditional way.
“Nowadays with technology, like online games, they can go online and play with kids around the world on some websites,” explained Atoufi.
He recommends starting children at a young age at playing the game.
“Five and 6 is a very good age to start chess,” said Atoufi. “Any age is possible to go towards the top but 5 and 6, in my opinion, is better.”
As far as cost, going to the national and international tournaments can be expensive, as are private coaching sessions.
“Talented students have a good potential to go for a championship, and I encourage them to go to the top level in the country,” Atoufi said.
Steve plans to continue competing and for now, has no desire to learn other games. He just wants to “keep getting better” at chess.