Emily Nguyen was 4 when she found a chess set at the Round Rock Public Library. “She wanted to move the chess pieces, she wanted to play,” her mother Uyen Tran says.
Soon her father, Nam Nguyen, was teaching her as he had her older brother, Anthony. A year later, Emily was competing in tournaments.
“I like calculating everything and knowing I have the power to do whatever I want with all the pieces,” she says. “It’s a strategy game.”
Now the ninth-grader at Westwood High School is about to compete as one of the top 12 women in the United States. She won the U.S. Junior Girls Championship last summer and has been ranked as high as No. 9 in the world for junior girls under 16, which is the most competitive level for that age.
Next week, she’ll be in St. Louis at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis to compete for a share of $100,000 in prize money during the two week U.S. Women’s Championships. That means she’ll be competing against both teens and adults.
Nguyen, 14, tries to spend at least an hour a day practicing chess. Sometimes she’s practiced as much as seven hours a day to get ready for a tournament.
Of course, this is in between schoolwork and other extra curriculars. In school, she loves math and she’s good at science, but could do without history and English. She doesn’t quite know what she will do when she grows up, perhaps something with engineering.
“Chess expands my capacity to calculate and make logical moves,” she says.
Emily also plays piano and swims. With chess, though, she doesn’t really get nervous. Piano is a different story. “I still get nervous when I perform,” she says. And although she’s learning Beethoven and he’s her favorite composer, piano and chess are very different. “With piano, I like playing it, but I don’t really have motivation to practice for hours.”
With chess, she does. “Every single night she asks my husband, ‘It’s time for chess?’” Tran says.
While Emily has passed her father and her 16-year-old brother in skill, her father is still her go-to for practice. He’s also the go-to for reading chess books and discussing it with Emily. She analyzes different moves, how to open the round, what opponents might do.
“We make sure it’s enjoyable,” Nam Nguyen says of his work with his daughter. He also has competed as has Anthony, who gave up chess for debate once he got to high school.
Emily also has an online coach, Melik Khachiyan, and a local coach, Michael Feinstein, whom she meets with every two or three weeks. Feinstein has been coaching Emily for seven years.
“Emily has an amazingly mature manner about her,” he says. “Even when she was in second or third grade she was very focused, patient, more sharp in many ways. I’ve taught a number of great young players, but she was remarkably mature both in her manner and approach.”
Chess, Feinstein says, is about nerves and “whose nerves are stronger, who takes advantage of a small mistake.” “She’s very strong in a calm way.”
Feinstein recently played Emily and lost. “Before I knew it, it had gone to a checkmate,” he says. “That’s not normal for me. She’s great at looking for opportunity.”
One of the biggest things her parents and coaches teach her is to not get caught up in the results. Tournaments winners are not determined by a process of elimination. Instead, tournaments are about points scored. “You should treat each game differently, like it’s a new tournament,” she says. “Forget about your game and focus on the next round.”
When she was younger, it wasn’t as easy. She remembers being at the 2010 world championship in Greece and being upset after she made a mistake in the second round and lost. “I started crying a lot,” she says. “It was a waste of a game.”
“We told her to forget it and move on to the next round,” Tran says.
Now, if she does cry or get upset, she waits until she’s back in her room. She knows how awkward it can be when an opponent loses and gets upset on the tournament floor. “You’re not sure what to do,” she says.
Sometimes younger opponents will cry, she says, though she’s learned never to underestimate an opponent. “Some of the little kids are really good,” she says.
While she often plays people who are close to her age, this upcoming tournament and others like it can have her playing much older players. She doesn’t get intimidated, but she does say, “Older people get cranky when they lose to little kids. Some people throw pieces.”
Sometimes games can last an hour or two, other times they go on and on. Her longest game lasted six hours. She and her opponent both had the king, a knight and two pawns left. “When you get to that point, it’s a mutual draw,” she says. “I was losing, then I was winning. I could have won, but then I drew.”
Even when a game lasts that long, Emily isn’t sitting the whole time. She walks around and takes a break when it’s not her turn. “I still get tired,” she says.
When she’s not playing at a tournament, she’s thinking about her next game and her next opponent. She also writes down every move of every game. She’ll put those into a computer and rewatch her game to see what she could have done differently.
Her favorite piece is the knight. It’s memorable because of its horse shape and in each chess set, it looks a little different, she explains, plus, “It can jump over any piece, but it moves in an L-shape. … It’s pretty powerful.”
Her favorite move? “When I win, that move is my favorite.”
Chess has taken Emily and her family to seven countries and four continents, including all over North America. She loved Brazil and Slovenia and Greece. She’s heading to Italy in October.
After St. Louis, she’ll come home and then head to Nashville to compete in the national tournament with her high school. Her middle school, Canyon Vista, was national champions when she was in sixth grade and her brother was in eighth grade and they both played for the team.
For each tournament, she brings her travel set, which includes a thin plastic board that rolls up and large plastic pieces. “It’s been on the plane, on the car, to all my tournaments,” she says. She recommends starting with a portable chess set that is lightweight rather than investing in a heavier, more beautiful one, so you can bring it with you.
She recommends first learning the moves and then playing in local tournaments before moving up to ones around the state, then national and international.
Her portable chess set isn’t her lucky charm, though. If anything, it would be the mints. She and her father started a tradition. She gives him an Altoid mint before each round, and she has one, too.
“This is really cool that I get to play,” she says of each tournament, but when she comes home, “I die a little from homework.”
See chess in Austin
The Austin and San Antonio chess clubs compete against one another each year. So far Austin has won the first five meetings. The annual Austin/San Antonio Shout Out tournament is on again. 9:45 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. April 8. Homewood Suites by Hilton, 13001 Center Lake Drive. austinchesstournaments.com
Play chess in Austin
Find more tournaments at austinchesstournaments.com as well as a list of weekly games around Central Texas.
If your child is interested in playing chess, they can join the Austin Kids Chess Club, austinkidschessclub.com.