An inspirational story of an autistic kid finding joy and success in chess…

…and with aloha wanting others like him to have the same opportunity

The scene at the 2012 Hawaii State Scholastic Championship

The 2012 Hawaii State Scholastic Championship is coming down to the home stretch of the fifth and final round with battles raging on the top two boards in the high school division and all four players still mathematically in the hunt for the coveted State Championship. In clear lead with 4 points is freshman Evan Zheng at board one against senior Coel Oshiro with 3 points. Board two pits two of the pre-tournament favorites against each other, junior Stephen Mau with 3.5 points and sophomore Eldon Nakagawa with 3 points. Stephen and Eldon are in a complicated middle game with all the major pieces still on the board. Stephen, while low on time, has the threat of pushing and promoting a passed pawn. On board one, Evan is seemingly in cruise control entering the endgame with a clear material and time advantage.

It was an unlikely position for Evan to be in with all the top scholastic chess players in Hawaii fighting for both team and individual glory. The championship for the high school division carries the added significance that the winner will have the honor of representing Hawaii in the prestigious Denker Tournament of Champions on the mainland in early August. Yes, Evan had a chance with his USCF rating of 1713, but the odds were against him with four players rated much higher from 1957 to 2013. These rating points are not to be taken lightly as they are earned through experience and performance, mostly from big tournaments on the mainland.

After routine wins in round one for all the top players, the real battle of the tournament started in round two. Evan emerged victorious in round two against Likeke Aipa [USCF rating 1968] after a fierce battle in the endgame. In round three, Evan played Eldon who had a national scholastic blitz title to his credit and USCF rating of 1988. Judging by past encounters, Evan figured that Eldon had a stronger opening repertoire and committed to spending more time during that stage of the game. Still, Eldon eased into the middle game with the upper hand. Evan is strong in tactics; and when the door cracked open, he pondered for five minutes and pounced for a deadly combination to be up a rook. With Eldon’s strength, he might be down, but it is never over until it is over. This time though against Evan, there was no comeback. In round 4 against Tristan Kaonohi [rating 1957] fresh off a draw against the top-rated Stephen [rating 2013], Evan was able to enter the middle game with a slight edge with a Scotch opening that apparently Tristan was not familiar with. Slowly Evan was able to solidify and expand on the advantage with a comfortable win.

Evan Zheng with Coach, Cornelius Rubsamen

Evan with His Coach NM Cornelius

Now here it is in the final round – Evan versus an unrated yet fast-rising newcomer in Coel Oshiro. Evan heard a lot about Coel from their common coach National Master Cornelius Rubsamen. Coel is so much into chess now that according to Cornelius he has over eighty on-line games going against different players at the same time. Despite being down in material and time, Coel is resilient; and now on his feet and under time pressure, he is putting up a good fight. Meanwhile, Evan is starting to fidget more than usual, and not with his fuzzy red ball (one of his fidget toys for chess tournaments), and looking around more than usual. Perhaps he is getting tired and perhaps paying more attention to the excitement on board two than his own game. In the span of five moves or so, despite having much more time than Coel, Evan moves just as fast as Coel and starts to make uncharacteristic mistakes and gives up all his hard-earned advantages. In the ensuring dogfight of rook and pawn ending, it is a murky situation. There is a chance that Evan may actually lose the final round. The commotion of rapid moves and sounds of hands hitting chess clocks on board two is finally over with Eldon and Stephen in a draw. Knowing that a draw would suffice for the championship, Evan gives up the last winning opportunity and goes for a quick lone-king draw. With a sigh of relief from both Evan and Coel, they shake hands, the tournament is over, and Evan is the champion!

It takes a lot of things to align perfectly for anyone to win a fiercely competitive tournament like this. For Evan, in his first year in the high school division, playing against his more experienced and accomplished chess friends, winning the tournament is undoubtedly against the odds. Certainly he benefited from having Stephen on the same Mililani High School team, and was helped by quality games that Tristan and Eldon played against Stephen. Clearly the most decisive moment of the tournament was the five minutes of total concentration and calculation that Evan took to seize the initiative against Eldon when the opportunity presented itself. At the end, though still a long shot, it required performance from Evan himself. Eldon’s father Bert summed it up generously, “Evan deserved to win. He played like an expert. To win against Eldon, Likeke and Tristan in the same tournament is quite an accomplishment.”

Evan’s introduction to chess and finding joy and success

When we first introduced Evan to chess at the age of seven, we could never have imagined in our wildest dreams that as a freshman he would be playing like an expert, winning the state championship and earning the honor of representing Hawaii in the Denker. We knew of only two players having represented Hawaii in the Denker in the years since Evan pushed his first pawn – Robert Lau and Stephen Mau, and both are like legends in the Hawaii Scholastic Chess scene. For Evan to be in that company, it is so unlikely, and frankly unexpected, knowing all the challenges that he had to overcome.

By the time Evan started chess, he had gone through a battery of standardized tests already – not in an attempt to get into one of the prestigious local private schools like Punahou (alma mater of President Obama) or Iolani (alma mater of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of modern China), but to determine proper educational placement in a public school. Tests confirmed what we already knew as parents that Evan was weak in speech and social skills, but superior in mathematical manipulations. In Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings at Evan’s elementary school, the Special Services Coordinator, a very nice teacher with an immense amount of power over kids like Evan, would simply dismiss Evan’s superior score in mathematical manipulations as a result of “rote memory,” and focus entirely on his weaknesses. As parents, we begged to differ but felt helpless at times. We set out looking for something that Evan can enjoy for life and something that has been commonly used as a yardstick of human intelligence. The finalists in our search were Go and Chess; and we eventually settled with Chess for the following reasons:

  • Abundance of chess books (there are probably more chess books in the world than any other board games combined)
  • Availability of computer–based chess programs (apparently Go is an even more challenging game than Chess to computerize as it presents even more options for each move)
  • Availability of local chess coaches (we went with the 6-time Hawaii State Champion and National Master Cornelius soon after Evan got started)
  • Vibrant scholastic chess scene in Hawaii (under the capable leadership of Hawaii Chess Federation Director of Scholastic Chess Guy Ontai and President Randy Prothero)
  • Playing and social skills opportunities with friends (unless you are in the Far East, you won’t find many people to play Go with)
Zheng Brothers Playing Chess in their Pajamas

Brothers Playing Chess in their Pajamas

Our first chess set was a Chessmatic – each piece with instruction on how it moves. Evan picked up the basic rules quickly, but for a while he was a little obsessed with marching his pawns up the board one by one and getting them massacred by the enemy with his younger brother Kevin on the other side. Well, that did not last long – I guess one day Evan decided that it was enough of goofing around already, and he started to get other pieces involved in the game. In the meantime, the two brothers were having many good laughs watching and listening to the bantering among Fritz, Bianca and the Black King, and earning “elos” along the way. By the time Evan turned eight, we dressed him up as a king and hosted a birthday party with a chess theme – with Hawaii Chess Federation President Randy as a special guest coach for the kids using a giant chess set in the garage and driveway. The party was a resounding success with the kids.

Marked improvement followed with instructions from NM Cornelius – both semi-privately with Evan and Kevin, and in chess camps at Uncle Guy’s house with Hawaii’s best (in 2010, Uncle Guy even hosted a camp with Grandmaster Timur Gareev). Race to “wizardry” on ChessMagnetSchool among the campers nudged everyone forward. School chess clubs with Chet Gionson also helped when Evan went to the middle school and eventually high school. After school, Evan would often talk about the fun he had in Mrs. Alameida’s classroom with his chess friends – Stephen and Emmanuel did this, Alan and Keegan did that, on and on.

Before long Evan became a regular at the local scholastic chess scene. While the academic and life-skill benefits of chess are well established and documented, chess tournaments in particular offered a great venue for Evan to develop his confidence, learn how to deal with pressure, balance between individual and team success, and cope with failures. Steadily he climbed up the ladder. He was happy to be the grade-level champion at 5 th grade. The first year at Mililani Middle School presented a unique challenge: as a 6 th grader, he had a shot for personal glory for Elementary State Championship, but he chose to play up in the K-8 division with his schoolmates to battle against the mighty Warriors of Kamehameha Schools (with Tristan and Likeke leading the way at that time). Evan was disappointed that he lost the deciding game in the final round against Likeke and the team lost by the narrowest margin of half a point; but he had no regret. The following year in the State Championship, Evan earned the title of Co-Champion with Eldon in the K-8 division with a draw in the final round. The biggest tournament success before this year came in the 2010 North American Open when he went undefeated and finished first in the 1500 and under division. Of course, the 2012 State Championship in the high-school division is Evan’s best chess success yet.

Early autism diagnosis and journey to embrace

Like the nice teacher in Evan’s elementary school who dismissed Evan’s intelligence, there is little doubt that the doctor who diagnosed Evan as being autistic and implicitly hopeless would be just as surprised of Evan’s success in chess and progress in many facets of his young life at this point. Back when Evan was 2 years old, we noticed Evan’s speech delay, and figured that the bilingualism at home might have confused him. So we switched solely to English. When that didn’t seem to make a difference, we searched far and wide for an answer; and the nice pediatricians simply re-assured us that there was nothing wrong with Evan. When Evan lost his appetite entirely for a stretch of a few weeks and turned into a bony boy, the doctors were helpless other than attempting quick fixes with antibiotics and we did not know quite what to do. Honestly twelve years ago, we were ignorant and never heard of something called autism. Uncle Charles first opened our eyes about the word and world of autism, and our search for answer turned much more focused. Back then in New Jersey, the nice pediatricians were still of no help, and eventually we went for consultation at a University Medical Center and connected with a local neurologist who finally provided the diagnosis of autism. By then, it was more of a relief than anything else – at least we knew what we were up against.

Zheng Brothers - Catch and Release at Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden

Catch and Release at Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden

The journey has been arduous but also rewarding. Our life decisions soon revolved around what’s the best for Evan (of course with his younger brother Kevin in mind as well). With tireless research, we learned about food allergies and started CFGF diet with Evan. With the help of a renowned DAN doctor, Dr. Neubrander, we learned about antibiotics-induced yeast problem and Nystatin. Soon after the yeast treatment, Evan started talking. Evan simplified and improved our life in so many different ways. He is allergic to dust mite, so we removed carpet from the entire house. Knowing what’s buried deep in the carpet, we wonder now why anyone would want to have carpet. Evan had asthma, so we searched for places with the best air Catch and Release at Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden quality. I wanted to help Evan the best I could, so I managed to have projects closer to home with a supportive employer in Deloitte (one of FORTUNE’s best places to work); and eventually left the management consulting career behind altogether. We figured that Hawaii being in the middle of the ocean would have the best air quality. Along with other factors such as its climate and reputation as a good place to raise a family, we decided to just come to and live in Hawaii in 2004. Despite the occasional “vog” (like smog but as a result of the volcano) that we did not know then, moving to Hawaii still ranks as one of the best life decisions that we have made; and we have Evan to thank for that.

Chess for life, and Evan’s desire to help others like him

The journey is continuing and we are happy that chess has been an integral part of Evan’s development and self discovery. When Evan has a bad day, we can often use his Internet Chess Club rating chart as a metaphor for the ups and downs in life – there are many peaks and valleys in the chart, but directionally it is going up in the long run. Evan is now able to use chess not only as a means for competitive outlet, but, more importantly, as a hobby to enjoy. He will often play an online chess game to relax and calm himself when he is stressed out about homework or grades. Evan is also playing chess with the kind of innocence that is uncommon among players at his skill level. Shortly after the State Championship, he played in a blitz tournament. In a rook and pawn endgame, Evan offered a draw when his opponent is two seconds away from running out of time simply because he believed that the position should be a draw. In another round, he lost a game after letting his opponent move again after an illegal move. While an illegal move in blitz would have counted as a loss, he simply didn’t feel like winning that way. As he becomes more competitive, he might change; but for now, let’s enjoy the innocence while it lasts.

There is still no definitive answer out there as to what causes autism, let alone a cure. For the families who are faced with the challenge, it is often a life-long journey. It is a journey to be embraced. We are embracing it with Evan as he continues to cope with food allergies from time to time, as he continues to become more skilled in social settings, and as he continues to control the fidgety that he showed in the final round on his way to the State Championship.

Evan has other hobbies such as tennis and piano, and like many other kids his age video games; but chess will always have a special place in his life. Among all his interests, chess and everything around it, including many wonderful people that we have come to know through chess, probably affected Evan in a positive way more than anything else. In honor of the unlikely championship win and inspired by the April Autism Awareness Month, we discussed with Evan how he can help others like him. Evan would like to see more kids with autism enjoy the beautiful game of chess, and do so with the help from Coaches like Cornelius and Chet as he did. To that end, we have encouraged Evan to make good use of his prize from the 2010 North American Open – we will donate $1000 from that winning to be used as seed money for an “EZ CheckmateAutism Chess Scholarship.” The primary purpose of the scholarship is to provide financial assistance to Hawaii kids with high functioning autism (HFA) or Asperger for group or individual chess lessons. With the fund, planning is already underway to have a chess camp this summer where maybe five kids with HFA or Asperger can mix in with five other players with professional coaching along with volunteer tutors like Evan. We hope that others will contribute as well to make the scholarship perpetual. Anyone interested in making a tax-deductible donation, please e-mail tzheng007@yahoo.com for more details.