At age 10, Maximillian Lu is the youngest-ever chess master in the U.S. Even so, he sees room for improvement.
The distinction of being a national master belongs to less than 2 percent of U.S. Chess Federation members and is earned by racking up at least 2,200 points in competitions. It's a rarity among children, but Lu shrugs it off, saying he needs to work on his endgame.
"It's all right. I have to improve other stuff," he said in a recent interview.
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Max, who plays 45 minutes to an hour a day, and an hour or two on weekends or before major tournaments, started playing chess in an after-school program when he was 6 and has competed in tournaments in Toronto, South Africa and Dubai, and he represented the United States in Greece this month.
Climbing the ranks has been difficult, he said. In matches with increasingly tough competition, ambitious rivals are always "coming up behind you," he said.
Max became the youngest-ever chess master in September, at 9 years, 11 months and 2 days, according to the U.S. Chess Federation. He toppled the record attained in 2013 by Awonder Liang of Madison, Wisconsin, who became the youngest master at 9 years, 11 months and 15 days.
Young chess players now are stronger than in the past, due partly to online chess games that allow players to practice alone and to efforts by schools, clubs and others to draw more players, said Jean Hoffman, executive director of the U.S. Chess Federation.
For Max's parents, supporting their son's interest is not much different from what soccer moms and dads do, traveling from one competition to the next.
"We didn't plan anything out," said his father, David Lu. "It just sort of happened."
An adult's perspective also makes a difference. Lu said he helps his son handle what he calls the "psychological aspects" of chess, or maintaining a balance "between seeming mentally tough between losing a game and coming back to play another game."
If approached the wrong way, competitive chess can be a "high-pressure thing," David Lu said.
Ian Harris, manager of the Chess Club of Fairfield County in Norwalk, and Bryan Quick, executive director of the Marshall Chess Club in New York — sites frequented by Lu — say the game has exploded in popularity in the past decade, particularly among youngsters.
In addition to ubiquitous after-school chess programs, charter schools are taking up chess in the classroom. Educators say the game teaches logic and critical and analytical thinking skills and the ability lose gracefully.
"If kids stick to it long enough, their concentration is improved," said Ronelle Swagerty, head of school at the New Beginnings Family Academy, a Bridgeport charter school that offers chess classes to seventh- and eighth-grade students.
David Lu said he's not sure Max is looking to make a career in chess.
"As long as it's fun, we'll encourage it," he said. "The higher and higher you go it's very difficult and if you don't enjoy it, it's not really worth it, I think."
For Max, the attraction to chess is simple: "I just want to do it for fun, as a hobby."