Menlo Park 8-year-old is state champion chess player, plus a whole lot more


Several words come to mind when describing Shawnak Shivakumar: prodigy, polymath and precocious among them, but despite being a state chess champ, the Laurel School Upper Campus third-grader is, at heart, just a typical 8-year-old kid.

Shawnak, who lives in the Willows neighborhood of Menlo Park with his parents Devleena and Shiva and his almost 5-year-old brother, Sahil, plays chess two or three hours a day and has recently begun winning in tournaments against adults.

But Shawnak also plays basketball, soccer, baseball, tennis and badminton with other kids his age, has recently taken up (and excels at) the piano, enjoys the "Amulet" fantasy graphic novel series and the Harry Potter books, and attends Stanford Math Circle classes because he can't get enough of math.

Shawnak competed in the national grade-level chess championship in Nashville, Tennessee, Dec. 16-18. He won five of his first six games with one draw (tie), losing only in the final round and tying for third highest point total.

He won a place at the national tournament by winning the state CalChess/U.S. Chess Federation grade-level tournament for third-graders at the Alameda County Fairgrounds on Dec. 4.

Shawnak is a serious chess player, but he's also not beyond making a rude noise after a chess move and explaining: "The knight made a burping sound because he ate the queen."

The summer before he started first grade, Shawnak began playing chess with his father, an investment banker who specializes in the technology sector. Mr. Shivakumar said he thought chess, a game he'd played casually in India, was something he could share with his kids so they could "bond over the game."

Within months, however, Shawnak was besting his father. "Shawnak is inherently competitive," Mr. Shivakumar says. "He wanted to beat me," he says, so Shawnak started playing chess online to learn more about the game while his dad was at work.

Since then, Shawnak has outgrown several chess teachers. He is currently tutored online, for an hour twice a week, with chess Grandmaster Predrag Trajkovic from Serbia, via Skype.

"He just teaches me new stuff I don't know," Shawnak says. "We mostly do strategy, because he says strategy is important. If you master strategy, you're a grandmaster."

A grandmaster is the second highest ranking a chess player can reach. World champion is the highest. Rankings are based on points awarded for winning games against higher ranked players, and lost by losing to lower ranked players. Shawak had 1,657 points before the national tournament and raised his total to 1686 at the tournament. He started the year with only 818 points.

His short-term goal, Shawnak says, is to get to 1,900 points, which would make him eligible to play in the World Youth Chess Championships. In November, only three 8-year-olds were above 1,900 points.

Shawnak also has a long-term goal: "To become world champion," he says.

He even dreams about chess. "Sometimes I dream about being world champion and I beat everybody," he says. "I beat Magnus Carlsen (the current world champion), too."

Ted Syrett, a retired computer software engineer who lives in Shawnak's neighborhood, has been playing chess with Shawnak for the past 18 months. Mr. Syrett, who has a U.S. Chess Federation ranking of expert (above 2,000 points), says he thinks Shawnak has the potential to get to the grandmaster title.

"In a year or two, he's going to go beyond me," he says.

Mr. Syrett and the then-6-year-old Shawnak started playing together after Shawnak's mom posted a request for chess partners on a local neighborhood website. Mr. Syrett says he wanted to "pay forward" the favors done for him as young chess player, not much older than Shawnak, when an older player in his hometown played chess with him and provided transportation to the local chess club.

He believes Shawnak will go far. "Shawnak's parents are supportive, but not pushy," he says. Shawnak "continues to show enthusiasm and interest. If he keeps up his interest, I don't see roadblocks in his way."

Shawnak now plays online most days, and in tournaments on many weekends. The tournaments can run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. He has played games that went as long as five hours.

His parents' job is to make sure he eats and takes breaks, says his mother, a biochemist whose specialty is computer-aided drug design. "Once he starts playing chess, he goes into the chess mode" and doesn't think much about things like eating and drinking, she says.

For now, when Shawnak is not busy with one of his other interests, he seems to live and breathe chess. He patiently answers a visitor's questions while running chess pieces through different scenarios on a roll-up chess board.

Playing chess "is relaxing," he says, because it takes all of his focus. "All I worry about is just the game, and to win it, and then my parents are proud."

Plus, he says, "it helps you get smarter."

For a break, Shawnak will often move to the piano. He took piano lessons when he was 4, but soon lost interest, his mother says. But, about three months ago, Shawnak asked if he could resume lessons.

It appears, at least to the untrained ear, that Shawnak is a piano prodigy as well as a chess prodigy. Ms. Shivakumar says Shawnak, in addition to flying through a classical music repertoire, has been listening to YouTube videos and then recreating them, by ear, on the piano.

He's been teaching his brother, who will enter kindergarten next year, how to play both chess and the piano.

He says having his brother as a live-in chess partner would be "good awesome actually. I'd always be wanting to play with my brother."

"Someday he's going to beat me," he says. "Because he's a smart little guy."

Does he ever get bored? Yes, Shawnak says. "When my laptop is out of charge" so he can't play chess online, his brother is using his chessboard and he's just finished practicing piano.

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