Article by Damian Nash

If you are curious about the next Renaissance minds like Da Vinci who are growing up in Hawaii, there is an 8th-grader of note at Punahou School. Over the Labor Day Weekend, Mark Chen became the youngest state chess champion in Hawaii’s history.

Mark Chen accepts the traveling trophy for the Hawaii State Chess Champion from Beau Mueller, the President of the Hawaii Chess Federation.

In many ways a typical 8th-grader, who loves swimming and math competitions, Mark has some hobbies which he pursues with great discipline and remarkable achievement. As a 7-year-old, Mark won first place in his division at the Hawaii Music Teachers Association (HMTA) Piano Competition in 2015, an event he described as ‘’stressful.’’ He still plays piano and especially loves Chopin’s Nocturnes, but his competitive energy has found a new home in chess.

The five-round Hawaii Open chess tournament, where each game can take up to four hours and whose winner determines the Hawaii state chess champion, went online for the first time because of COVID restrictions. While the new format kept some of Hawaii’s top players from participating, Mark still started in the middle of a strong field. As an experienced tournament veteran who has represented Hawaii twice in the Barber Tournament of K-8 state champions, he systematically defeated his young opponent in round 1, then his Punahou friend and teammate Joshua Dutton in the second round.

In the third round Mark faced the top-seeded former state champion Damian Nash with the black pieces. He soon found himself in a very sharp line of the Evans Gambit. Suddenly, disaster struck: Mark made a single wrong move. His king, trapped in the middle of the board, was checkmated quickly. “After that loss I thought my chances to win the tournament were over, so I just relaxed a little and decided to have more fun.’’ His fourth round turned out to be a very complicated game against a veteran of the tournament, but he was able to squeeze out a win from a drawn position (Please see below game). His resilient attitude also paid off in the final round when he faced the second-seeded player, Charles Sonido of Honolulu.

Sonido, who has led the Hawaiian Islands Chess Team to three victories in its first four international matches this year, needed only a draw to win the tournament. “The games stayed very close up until the end,’’ Mark explained. “Then, in the endgame, he finally made a little mistake that allowed me to win a pawn.’’ A single pawn is oftentimes all it takes to win a game at the level of play necessary to win a state championship. Mark carefully applied correct endgame technique until his opponent was forced to resign. Sonido finished in a tie for second with Dutton and Ryan Tongg. Top-ranked Nash won the Hawaii 2020 Blitz (5 minute) chess tournament after the main event finished.

“I didn’t expect to win this tournament,’’ Mark said in modesty. The cash prize he earned was puny compared to a $3000 prize he won in Las Vegas two years ago, but his competition in this tournament was much stronger. “It was my goal to win this tournament before I graduated from high school,’’ he explained. Two Hawaii teenagers had accomplished this before – Robert Lau in 2008 and Eldon Nakagawa in 2012, both of them at age 16. But now a pre-teen has claimed the Hawaii Champion title, and put Hawaii’s active master players on notice.

Mark credits his first formal chess teacher, USCF Master Reynolds Takata, for inspiring his love for the game. ‘’He’s really good at making chess fun to learn, especially for kids.’’ In recent years, Mark has started to work with Ukrainian International Grandmaster Andriy Vovk to help him understand the game at a deeper level. Last week, as the newly crowned state champion, Mark helped the adult Hawaii State Team defeat New Mexico in the 2020 States Cup with a score of 11 to 5, and is currently in second place in the Western Division behind Washington. Earlier this month, the Hawaiian Islands Chess Team dominated Scotland’s Aberdeen University in the 2020 World Online Team championship tournament on chess.com with a score of 9.5-2.5. The Kauai Team managed to score three points in its loss to Oxford University’s A team, thanks to Likeke Aipa who went 2-0 on top board, maintaining his perfect streak for the season.

When asked why he enjoys chess, Mark said, ‘’Chess is such a fun game, and I hope more people, especially from Hawaii, join the game.’‘ He added, ‘’It is good for your mind too, because it makes you think more deeply and strategically.’’ Kids who are interested in playing chess locally can get information from www.HawaiiChess.com on the Scholastic Chess tab. They can also join the HCF Scholastic and the Hawaii Chess Federation clubs on the chess.com website. The Hawaii Chess Federation club at chess.com is open to players of all ages.

Here is a game from the tournament annotated by Mark (shadowtiger) against Marvin Alvarez (goodtintin):

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