Sunday, June 23, 2024

He’s no rookie: Meet Ottawa’s 14-year-old chess master | CBC News

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It’s a Thursday night, and 14-year-old Johnathan Han is at the head of a classroom at an Ottawa high school, carefully placing pawns on a fabric chess board attached to the wall for an audience of more than a dozen kids younger than him, eager to learn.

It’s a typical night for the Kanata teen, who started playing chess at just five years old. At seven, he won the Canadian U8 Youth Championship, going on to win the U10 and U12 tournaments, too. 

Now he’s a local legend to these kids after reaching the rank of international master — the second-highest a chess player can achieve.

“It’s just kind of surreal,” said Han, who earned his title in December 2023 by winning the North American Youth Chess U18 Open Championship.

In winning the 2023 North American Youth Chess U18 Open Championship in Mexico last December, Han earned himself the rank of international master, the second-highest a player can achieve. (Submitted by Christina Tao)

Rising through the ranks

Only about 4,000 players have achieved the title of international master, according to the game’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE). 

The next level up is known as grandmaster, and there are only about 1,800 of them.

To become a grandmaster, a chess player must fulfil several requirements, including reaching a very high rating and achieving strong results in tournaments that involve other grandmasters. They can also earn the title if they win one of a few high-level tournaments outright.

According to FIDE’s records, the youngest-ever grandmaster was Abhimanyu Mishra, who was awarded the title in 2021 at just 12 years old. 

Han, who typically spends an hour a day playing, watching or reading about chess, said he aspires to achieve the grandmaster title as soon as possible.

To improve, Han juggles high school with travel to different tournaments, as often as once a month in places as far as Greece or the Netherlands.

“We will support him as much as we can,” said Johnathan’s father Murphy Han, who accompanies him on these trips, including to the upcoming Canadian Youth Chess Championships in Laval, Que., in July.

A man and a young boy pose in front of a chess board.
Johnathan and his dad Murphy Han travel together to chess tournaments around the world. The pair are pictured here at a competition Johnathan attended in Spain when he was nine. (Submitted by Murphy Han)

A growing game

For Johnathan Han, it’s also important to give back by teaching kids younger than him at a weekly club at Earl of March Secondary School.

Interest in chess has been growing steadily since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Christina Tao — particularly among young people.

The Youth Coordinator for the Chess Federation of Canada credits people having more time, and the game’s prevalence in popular culture, for the growth.

The Queen’s Gambit is hitting a heat wave,” she said, referring to the 2020 Netflix drama.

For Han, online chess content creators like YouTubers GothamChess and grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura help explain the rise among his peers. Even his younger brother Joshua, 11, is getting in on the game, saying he enjoys the calm of the sport.

“It’s kind of peaceful,” said Joshua, adding that it can also be frustrating always losing against your opponent.

David Li, 10, said he comes to Han’s lessons because he loves the game and notices it’s becoming a bigger deal.

His goal? “Make friends with more people.”

A young boy poses across the table with two others, playing chess, with flags of the world nearby.
Han has been playing chess since he was five. He’s pictured here competing in Brazil at age eight. According to Chess Federation of Canada youth co-ordinator Christina Tao, whose daughter played Han years ago, he was a natural from the beginning. ‘Some kids don’t even have to learn it,’ she recalled. (Submitted by Murphy Han)

Tao said she’d like to see more support, including federal funding, to make the game accessible to more young players, but it’s still good to see it grow. She argues even if your plan isn’t to become a grandmaster, it’s never too young to start learning the many skills that come with chess.

“The first is discipline. The second is the consequence. [Young chess players] have to learn emotional control,” she said. “These are nice soft skills you can transfer into lifetime skills.”

A group of kids gathers around a fabric chess board.
Han credits YouTube chess players with the growing popularity of the sport, which he teaches at a weekly session at Ottawa’s Earl of March High School. (Anchal Sharma/CBC)

For Han, the love of the game comes from its infinite possibilities. He cites the fact there are more potential combinations of moves in chess than there are atoms in the observable universe.

“There’s so many possibilities and different ideas in one game of chess,” he said. “You’ll never get bored of it.”

Two boys plot pawns on a chess board hung on a wall.
Han, in Grade 9, teaches younger kids chess at a Kanata high school. (Anchal Sharma/CBC)

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