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Shawn Rodrigue-Lemieux, an 18-year-old from Montreal who just won the World Youth Chess Championship in Mamaia, Romania, in his chess club in Montreal, on Sept. 21.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

When Shawn Rodrigue-Lemieux travelled to the World Youth Chess Championship in Romania earlier this month, he projected for himself a possible top-five finish. Maybe, if he was dreaming really big, he could crack the top three.

Instead, the Montreal teenager returned home with a world championship in the under-18 division, part of an extraordinary year that has heightened expectations he may soon earn the highest title in chess.

“I believe that he will become Grandmaster very soon,” said Bator Sambuev, a Russian-Canadian Grandmaster. “I don’t know him well personally, but I know he really loves chess. He’s made big progress. I like his fighting spirit. It’s really hard to beat him now.”

Rodrigue-Lemieux played well enough in Romania to obtain the first standard – or norm – on the way to becoming a chess Grandmaster. One needs three such performances, at tournaments that meet specific criteria, to earn the prestigious GM title, which is awarded by the International Chess Federation (commonly known by its French acronym FIDE).

Chess players receive ratings – points that increase or decrease as they play – based on the quality of each opponent faced, and whether they win or lose. The 18-year-old routinely goes toe-to-toe with players of all levels and ages, even some Grandmasters.

“People had been asking me ‘When are you planning to get those norms?’ and, I said ‘Maybe in a few years,’” Rodrigue-Lemieux said this week from Montreal. “This is really something that I didn’t expect to get for quite a while. I didn’t think it would come so quickly.”

He’s Canada’s first world youth chess champion since 2014, and its first over the age of 14. It caps his remarkable roll in recent months, which includes first-place finishes in the Canadian Closed Championship, the Canadian Open, and the under-18 division at the nation’s youth championship. He earned the FIDE title of International Master (IM). During a July trip to North Carolina, he went on a rare 9-0 run in the Charlotte Chess Centre Norm Invitational, declining a draw in his final game to try for the win, despite already having first place in hand.

“He’s having the best year of any Canadian chess player in decades,” said Vladimir Drkulec, president of the Chess Federation of Canada, and a chess trainer. “The skill level that he’s displayed is off the charts. I even go through his games with my students.”

Rodrigue-Lemieux first took up the game as a six year old after he saw some classmates playing it. It was fall of 2010, and his mother signed him up for the school’s chess club, operated by the Chess and Math Association, hoping her high-energy son might sit quietly and focus on an activity. By that winter, he played his first tournament, and won all five of his rounds right out of the gate.

“I was just spending time with my friends and I thought it was a pretty cool game to play,” Rodrigue-Lemieux said. “I never expected to still be playing so much after 12 years that I would get to where I am. It’s been a great surprise.”

He worked with chess coaches until 2016, and has mostly trained alone since. Today he plays about 35-40 chess tournaments per year, every weekend if he can. Many are in Quebec, others throughout North America, plus special opportunities to represent Canada internationally. Many of the world’s best concentrate on chess full time. He balances it while staying focused on his studies at Collège de Maisonneuve – a CEGEP – the step in Quebec between high school and university.

“I’ve always wanted to combine a career in law and my chess – I don’t want to focus on one and forget the other,” he said. “Winning this event makes it even more interesting to pursue a chess career, but I don’t see it as stable career.”

Rodrigue-Lemieux missed school for the 11-day tournament in Romania, where he was one of 620 junior chess players from 72 countries to compete at an exhibition hall in the beach resort city of Constanta. The vast tournament hall was lined with long tables where hundreds of players sat across from one another, separated by chess boards, playing in U18, U16 or U14 age categories.

At most youth chess tournaments, parents and coaches wait away from the competition floor, often in spectator rooms with monitors – to prevent cheating or the ability to influence players. It’s in contrast to kids’ activities like soccer or hockey, where parents and coaches watch, cheer and advise up close. At a chess tournament, each player is left to strategize independently, and advocate for oneself if something seems unfair.

Of the 109 competitors in his U18 open class at the worlds, Rodrigue-Lemieux arrived with the eighth highest rating. The CFC helped subsidize travel for Canadian players. The non-profit doesn’t get government funding but runs primarily on entry fees from its domestic tournaments.

Players there had top coaching. Rodrigue-Lemieux played 11 rounds, and consulted with a coach, Romanian Grandmaster Gergely Szabo, who was provided for the Canadian players by the CFC. He studied intensively, but had fun too, reuniting with chess friends he’s made from around the world, taking his mind off things by visiting the mall.

Rodrigue-Lemieux collected a full point for each of his seven wins and half a point for each of his four draws for a total of nine, best in the U18 class. Dressed in shorts, and a red Canada T-shirt, he collected his giant trophy, and stood on the top step of a podium, with a Canadian flag draped around his shoulders.

According to the CFC, there are just 14 living Grandmasters registered to Canada, plus three who have the title of Woman Grandmaster. Many believe Rodrigue-Lemieux will get the needed norms, but it’s hard to predict when.

“If chess was some kind of science, that would be easy to say he’ll get the knowledge and the PhD at this time, but chess is also sports, and even if you’re talented and play very well, you still must demonstrate it,” said Sambuev, who has played Rodrigue-Lemieux many times in tournaments, winning most, but not all of their encounters.

Sambuev, who competes and coaches chess, says he often sees kids learn the game young but quit when they reach high school or university, particularly during the pandemic when there were no live tournaments to hold their interest. Rodrigue-Lemieux, however, committed to using that extra time during the pandemic to improve, reading chess books, playing opponents online and analyzing moves in a chess engine.

“Sometimes I would wake up at like 8 a.m. and just study the whole day, almost until I went to sleep,” Rodrigue-Lemieux said. “One of the great things about chess compared to other sports is that you can play online just as much as you can in person.”

After his recent championship, Rodrigue-Lemieux has been swamped with interview requests back home in Canada. He’s twisted himself around, juggling it all while trying to catch up on his school work before leaving again for another event.

“I really feel like this first one, maybe it gives me more confidence, in trying to get two more norms,” he said. “Some people get close, but never get the last one. It does put a lot of pressure on my shoulders, but I think it’s good pressure.”