With a stellar performance at the Olympics of chess this past week, a Canadian teen phenom has moved one step closer to the coveted title of grandmaster.
“I’m pretty happy with how I played at my first Olympiad, ” Jackie Peng said in a phone interview from Istanbul.
The 14-year-old had the best score on the Canadian team but played down that achievement.
“The Olympiads are a team tournament. You don’t play for yourself, you play for Canada, ” she said.
The Canadian women’s team finished 64th out of 127 countries, while the men were 52nd out of 150 countries. The top three teams receive prize money.
Ms. Peng is the second youngest player to ever play on the Canadian Olympiad team.
Chess experts, like her teacher Jura Ochkoos, believe she could become Canada’s first female grandmaster.
“She’s hard-working, has a good memory and a determination to win,” said Mr. Ochkoos. “In chess, you need to have a killer instinct, and she has it.”
Thanks to her showing in Istanbul, Ms. Peng has just earned the Woman FIDE Master title. (FIDE is the French acronym for the World Chess Federation.) The next step up the ladder is Woman International Master and the pinnacle of the sport is Woman Grandmaster.
“That’s my goal – grandmaster,” Ms. Peng said. But she doesn’t have a timetable other than “to do it before I’m old.” While that may seem vague for someone so driven and methodical, Ms. Peng said her challenge is that she cannot focus exclusively on chess.
“I have other stuff to focus on – like my homework.” Ms. Peng is a Grade 9 student at University of Toronto Schools (UTS). In addition to chess club, she plays flute and volleyball, and practices swimming and track events like shot put.
“Chess is like other sports: If you want to be good you have to practice and you have to be in shape – mental and physical shape,” she said.
Ms. Peng noted that some matches can last more than five hours, which can be taxing mentally as well as physically.
There have been numerous attempts to make chess an Olympic sport but, instead, the World Chess Federation holds an Olympiad every two years.
Ms. Peng said she would love to see Canada play host to the chess Olympiad but recognizes that it’s unlikely. “In countries like China and Turkey where chess is really popular, the government supports it. They even pay the top players a lot of money.” The highlight of the tournament for Ms. Peng was meeting one of those chess superstars – Hou Yifan, who is the third-ranked woman player in the world.
“I got to see Hou Yifan in person. That was really cool,” Ms. Peng said.
She recognizes, however, that being a professional chess player is not a career option in Canada so she is planning to become a doctor. (Her mother, Xuekun Xing, is a cardiologist who works in the pharmaceutical industry. Her father, Henry Peng, is a scientist at the Department of National Defence.)
In the meantime, chess remains a hobby, a serious hobby. Ms. Peng practises, on average, more than two hours daily, including analyzing her matches with computer-chess software, monitoring the games of masters and grandmasters, and plotting strategies for her coming matches.
But, being a teenager, she also goes “on the Internet sometimes to goof around” on online chess sites under the screen name Loafy.
Needless to say, she doesn’t lose.