Eye on the Pupil: Junior Michael Zhong

Campus Chessmaster Dominates in His Favorite Game

“Castle to E4 … Pawn to C3 … Knight to H3 … check!” Though Ron Weasley might be more famous for speaking these words during the Wizard Chess Game of the first Harry Potter movie, they are the kinds of commands running through junior Michael Zhong’s head constantly.

While other kids were learning how to play simple games such as hop-scotch at the age of four, Michael was learning how to play chess from his dad. A nationally ranked player since the age of 12, Michael now skips between number 10 and number 20 in the nation for his age group. His expertise stems from a simple enjoyment of the game and the challenge it presents.

“I like how whether you win or lose, it’s completely your responsibility,” Michael said.

The first chess team that Michael joined was at Egan Junior High School, and through that team he was able to discover other local groups focused on developing and practicing chess skills.

“Actually, [this school] played a match against Egan, and that’s how I knew that there was a Los Altos chess club,” Michael said.

Junior Nima Emami has played chess with Michael since eighth grade and can attest to his advanced understanding of the game.

“Back in eighth grade, he was super-highly ranked and I was impressed,” Nima said. “The first two times I somehow managed to beat him, but since then he’s always beat me.”

Once he arrived at this school, Michael participated in the chess team for two years until its termination this fall due to lack of organization.

Though his high school chess team ceased to exist, his love and determination for the game certainly didn’t. Michael continues to practice hard at home.

“There are many only places to practice so you don’t actually have to go to a physical place,” Michael said.

One of the websites he uses is chessclub.com. While he plays “99 percent” of his games against real other people online, consulting the computer about his progress does come in handy sometimes.

“I usually look over the game, and with a computer that simultaneously analyzes, you can see some mistakes you made,” Michael said.

Whether he is challenging people online or learning different chess techniques from reading the written records of a game, Michael spends around two to three hours a day practicing his chess skills. When he’s preparing for a tournament, which happens about once a month, practice time increases to about four or five hours.

“I’m actually pretty good at blocking out nervousness [during games],” Michael said. “I’m a lot more nervous when not in chess tournaments.”

Because of his composure and mastery of emotion during chess tournaments, he finds that it is easier to control the process and the outcome of the games.

“My games tend to be a slower grind because that’s what I specialize in,” Michael said. “[Although] it’s hard to endure such long games because you’re sitting at a board for six hours at a time.”

Nima agrees about Michael’s ability to carefully calculate his moves.

“If anyone ever sees him play, he’s really strategically sound,” Nima said.

Even though he is the one making all the decisions and suffering through the long game hours, he loves to play the game.

Michael is not planning on being a full-time professional chess player, but he hopes that the college he goes to has a good chess team.