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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Chess, it's a mind game for all
In this championship event of players age 4 to 20, youth is no indicator of skill in the intense, silent combat of strategy.
By ANDREW MEACHAM
Published June 25, 2007
"I can't win, " the chess player laments, a tiny hand clenching his golden locks.
Zane Ice of West Palm Beach is 4. He stands 3 feet 4 and weighs 40 pounds.
"I can't win."
Samir Sunna, Zane's impromptu coach, would have none of it.
"You can't keep saying you can't win or you won't, " said Samir, 8, as Zane played a reporter to a draw.
Both boys had already finished their games in the U.S. Junior Open Chess Championship, held Friday through Sunday at the Sheraton Suites Tampa Airport.
Nearby, parents silently studied laptops that updated themselves with every move. The real action was taking place on the other side of a thick set of double doors, where the last of 140 players, ages 4 to 20, had the last of their games Sunday.
As fountains babbled noisily and children tickled each other or played chess for fun, a group of chess moms sat quietly, sequestered from the games that had brought some of them from as far away as Ohio and Texas.
These parents have no umpire to yell at and no live game to watch. Tournament rules forbid spectators and besides, Gail Lassner doesn't know how to play chess.
"It's very nerve-racking, " said Lassner, 40, of Weston, a community west of Fort Lauderdale. "We have no idea what's going on."
Adults involved in the Florida Scholastic Chess League, which organized the tournament, or Florida Chess Camp, which sponsored it, say that chess teaches young people to think analytically and spatially.
Entire areas are catching the chess bug, if a growing number of clubs and private coaches is any indication.
And like prodigies in math and music, youth is no barrier to skill in chess, said Berkeley Preparatory School chess coach Willard Taylor, 51, a former chess prodigy and dental school dropout.
Despite the presence of college students in the tournament, the strongest players in this group are 12 and 13 years old, Taylor said.
As Nicky Miljus of Tampa and Philip Ackerman of Ocala, both 10, wrapped up their game, Nicky offered advice.
"I told him he made a little blunder with his rook, " said Nicky, whose grandfather taught him the game when he was 3.
The biggest difference between players like this and beginners is efficiency, Philip said.
"A beginner would be thinking about attacks, and not about planned attacks, " the youngster said.
Players who won their categories took home cash prizes topping out at $300 for the oldest division, and trophies.
Winners included Miguel Angel Hernandez in the Under-8 division, and Miguel Fonseca of Miami in the Under-16 group.
Top-ranked players Jared Lessner, 9, and Haoqing Wang, 11, of Tampa, played to a draw in their championship round for the Under-12 division. Organizers will use a formula to calculate the winner, which includes elements such as a player's ranking and strength of competition.
"Look at him, " Taylor said as competitors played their final games.
Across the silent suite, Michael Fang of Ocala meditated upon his next move in an Under-16 game.
"Is he thinking about how to pay the light bill? Is he thinking about his mortgage? Is he wondering how he is going to eat tonight?
"He doesn't have a care in the world but how to beat you."