Child's play

Tiny tot already a veteran chess player at just four years old

Thursday, February 19, 2004

By Mokneque Clark

Jayel Taylor may not be in kindergarten yet but he's mastered a game that still stymies many adults chess.

Jayel, just 4 years old, has been playing since he was 2, and last month he placed in the top 10 percent of his age group at the Latin Scholastic Chess Championship at Navy Pier in Chicago. He came in 23rd out of 239 children competing in the kindergarten through third-grade category.

"He's unbelievable for a four-year-old," said Milan Mitrovic, coach of the 47-member Chicago Chess Kids Club, open to students between the ages of 4 and 16. "He's the best young player I've seen since we've started this club two years ago."

Jayel is the youngest member of the group, but his coach said he is dedicated to the game. Jayel and his parents commute from their Justice home to Chicago's Edgewood Public Library every Saturday so he can be part of the group.

The preschooler first picker up the game by sitting in his father's lap and watching him play, said Krystal Taylor, Jayel's mother.

"Then one day we noticed he set up the board," Taylor said. "He knew one set of colors was on one side and the other set was on the other."

Her husband, Freddie, later showed Jayel the basic concepts of the game and how to move the pieces.

Then came his first chess board, his first computerized chess game and his first hand-held computer game for playing while traveling. Cardboard chess boards don't last long, Krystal Taylor said.

"He played chess just that much that we constantly had to buy new boards," she said of her son, who also started reading at the age of 2.

Beating his dad remains a challenge, Jayel said.

"My dad always beats me," said Jayel, who often sports a full-size Cubs hat adjusted to fit his head. "He's a tough guy. I have to get tougher."

In competitions, he's beaten competitors twice his age and once topped a friend of his father when they played online, his father said.

On one Saturday in February, Mitrovic stands in front of a group of about 20 Chicago Chess Kids Club members, demonstrating moves and outlining strategies. At one point, he asks a question about a strategic move. Jayel's hand shoots up and he answers correctly.

Afterward, as club members practice or play a tournament game with other children, Jayel sets up a board to play against a 6-year-old opponent.

His first move: Pawn to E4. Six moves later, Jayel announces, "I got your queen." Moments later, "Checkmate."

For a chess novice, the game is full of strategies, rules and key moves. For Jayel and his challenger, the game seems effortless.

"You should not move there," Jayel suggests as they briefly exchange strategy in hindsight.

Mitrovic said the chess club teaches camaraderie, but the kids understand that during the game, "you're not supposed to help the other player."

"More and more kids are becoming interested in chess," said Mitrovic, who said the number of registered youth players has grown from 5,000 to 50,000 in the past 20 years.

"Educationally, it helps improve a child's reading and math," he said. "Socially, it helps integrate a child into a group of children with similar interests. It teaches how to lose with dignity and how to win with grace."

And just how far can Jayel go? That depends on whether he sticks with the game, Mitrovic said.

It's hard to know whether a 4-year-old will still have the same interest as he gets older, and his parents have made it clear that they want him to continue only if it remains fun for him, Mitrovic said.

"It's hard to say for a child that young," he said. "If he keeps up with it, he'll be in one of the best in the U.S."

Daily Southtown, 19 February 2004