A Chess Lesson

13-year-old Patrick Allen know his chess. BUt do his skills match those needed to win a championship and a four-year scholarship?

March 13, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

It is the sort of thing that would send Bobby Fischer into a tirade.

Here, in the first round of the Maryland Scholastic Chess Championship, Patrick Allen's chessboard - the plastic roll-up kind - is curling up at the ends. The more pieces he advances, the more the mat curls, until a whole row of squares, then two, disappear.

It doesn't faze Patrick Allen, but not much does, at least visibly.

Shy, slim and sandy haired, Patrick is not Bobby Fischer - maybe not even "the next Bobby Fischer"- just a 13-year-old playing a game, albeit last weekend for some fairly high stakes: The winner of the "Sweet 16" tournament at the University of Maryland Baltimore County gets a four-year, $20,000 scholarship to the school.

Patrick didn't come into the tournament with illusions of winning. Or if he did, he kept it, like most things, to himself. He, his parents and his coach agreed just getting in was an achievement. Finishing in the Top 10 would be a major accomplishment.

In the tournaments that led him here, he had not jumped up and down when he won or cried when he lost. He kept such an even keel that his parents sometimes worried about it. "Patrick doesn't show his emotions too much," his mother said the week before.

Patrick, one of three 13-year-olds to make it to the Sweet 16, didn't show a whole lot of stress, either, in the week leading up to the tournament. He wasn't studying chess, or even playing much. On Monday, just getting over strep throat, he fell asleep while watching TV. On Thursday, he played computer games most of the night. And on Friday, the night before the tournament, he went to a Magic card competition at The Mall in Columbia and even asked his mother if he could spend the night with a friend.

His mother, Michelle Allen, said no. "If he had done that, he would have been up till 3 in the morning playing Magic cards."

Although she drew the line there, she is not one to push the game on her son. If he chose not to prepare, "that's 100 percent his choice," she said.

Michelle knows how some chess parents can be - sometimes she even wonders if she should be more like them. But for now, she thinks giving him leeway and encouraging his varied interests is the best route.

Patrick, who lives in Woodstock, near Ellicott City, may talk to himself once in a while around the house, his mother says, but he seems as well adjusted as a 13-year-old male can be. He likes to bowl, bike and play soccer. He likes math and science. He's not much for small talk.

At the mall the night before the tournament, he turned down his parents' offer to buy him new sneakers. "I don't need new ones," he said. "These are watertight."

His mother jokingly accused him of being eccentric.

"I'm only eccentric when I want to be," he said.

Patrick was in bed by 10 p.m., and, by 9 the next morning - after a breakfast of sausage and hot chocolate (his choice) - headed to the UMBC campus showing few signs of being nervous.

He swings his chess bag back and forth nonchalantly as the tournament director recites the rules and gives directions to the nearest McDonald's. Each player will compete in four games. Winners will play against winners. Whoever wins four games or had the highest score will take the award.

As he steps inside a tournament room filled with long tables, his father wishes him luck. He nods. His mother asks if he needs a pen (to record moves) or a bottle of water. He shakes his head, and the door closes behind him.

"If you're looking for signs of nervousness," his mother says minutes later, "check out his feet."

Sure enough, inside the room, as Patrick sits across from his opponent, his well-worn sneakers are ever-so-slightly bouncing.

Round One

Patrick's first opponent is Rajaram Raghu. Patrick has the black pieces, which he prefers.

He has met Rajaram before, and lost. Rajaram, 14, has a U.S. Chess Federation rating of 1,520 and is seeded sixth in the tournament. Patrick's rating is 1,101. (All the players have moved up since the last official posting; Patrick, for example, is now actually rated 1,243.)

Rajaram, as contestants go, has more nervous energy than most. He paces the floor after almost every move, checking on other games in progress. Several times, he talks with others roaming the floor, earning him a warning from the tournament director.

Patrick sits still, keeps a poker face, his hands wrapped around the back of his neck, which he pinches from time to time.

It is silent except for the occasional creaking chair and cleared throat. Patrick takes an early lead.

Outside the room, Patrick's parents sit with other parents - some waiting calmly, some pacing nervously. Some tournaments keep parents out. Here, they are allowed in. Most, though, including Patrick's, figure their presence would only make their children - and them - more nervous. So they sit and wait.

"It's a lot like waiting for the patient to deliver the baby," says Patrick's father, Chris, a carpenter.

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