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Coppell Teen Vies To Be Best Junior Chess Player In Nation

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis

Coppell’s Jeffery Xiong just became a teenager, but he already has an international reputation. The 13-year-old -- one of the two youngest chessmasters in the country -- is the fifth-ranked junior player in the U.S.  He’s in St. Louis today to compete in the U.S. Junior chess championship.

Jeffery Xiong has been engrossed in chess more than half his life - since he was 4, says his mother Jenny Li.

“At a birthday party, he saw a 4-year-old playing chess,” Li said. “He got so fascinated by the moves and he asked my husband to buy him a set of chess.”

Within a year, Jeffery learned to play. By the time he was 7, he was competing.  

“It was my dad’s idea for me to compete,” Jeffery says. “I didn’t have a choice. He just took me to a tournament and I played. I was supposed to use a clock and I actually didn’t. They allowed me to win the tournament anyway.”

Jeffery was hooked.

Yes, he admits – even with his mother right next to him - there’s pressure sometimes from mom and dad to pursue chess. But Jeffery really likes it.

“And I also like to win,” he says.   

Only now, after seven years of competing, and playing up to 20 matches a year, he sees value in every match, even when he loses.

“When I was younger,” Jeffery says, “of course I enjoyed winning much more than when I lost. Now, when I lose a game, I want to improve more, because I learn more from losing than winning.”

An awareness of what chess can be for serious players is summed up by Ben Kingsley’s character, a chess coach, in the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer. The movie’s about a child chess prodigy.

“What is chess, do you think?” asks Kingsley’s character, Bruce Pandolfini. “Those who play for fun or not at all dismiss it as a game. The ones who devote their lives to it for the most part insist that it’s a science. It’s neither. Bobby Fischer got underneath it like no one before him and found at its center art.”

Credit the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Jeffery Xiong took an interest in chess when he was only 4. He's been playing chess ever since -- and winning.

When asked why he likes chess, Jeffery mentions the beauty of the game. There can be other unexpected benefits. On Wednesday, he played some members of Congress in Washington D.C. He was really there for the “Young Stars” chess camp. It’s run by Gary Kasparov, considered by many to be the world’s greatest living chess player.

“During my games,” Jeffery says, “he would offer a better move and explain to me why this move is better than what I did.”

Jeffery and his family are now so committed to chess that the teen is home-schooled. He takes classes online and gets help from his mom, a financial advisor who works at home. That lets him spend three to five hours a day studying chess, but his mom worries he might become too isolated.

“As a mom, of course I worried about that,” Li says. “He's not having as much time as other kids to play with kids of his age and missing all the activities. But you always have to sacrifice for something."

Jeffery understands that. And in St. Louis, it might lead to theU.S. junior championship.

Credit The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Jeffery Xiong is in St. Louis for the U.S. Junior Closed Championship, the nation's premiere chess tournament for players age 20 and under. Jeffery is 13.

“I think it’s just an absolutely fantastic experience to be playing people much older than me,” Jeffery says. “I just think it’s great for what I’m doing. In a way it makes me feel good about myself that I can keep up with older players.”

But sometimes he loses. And reminds himself to just keep going. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.