Middle school student is global chess legend

Awonder Liang hopes to become the first...
Middle school student is global chess legend
Game On: Awonder Liang has been playing in chess tournaments since he was 5 years old.

The first time I met Awonder Liang, he was 7 years old and a second grader at Van Hise Elementary School in Madison.

That was September 2010. We were in his classroom at the end of the school day. Liang had agreed to play a game of chess against me.

When I walked in that day, one of the other kids says, “Did you know Awonder has a trophy that’s taller than he is?”

Some minutes later, I toppled over my king. I’d just been crushed by a 7-year-old.

He was a prodigy, even then. Today, not quite six years later, Liang, who turned 13 in April, is a seventh grader at Hamilton Middle School and already a legend in the chess world.

Among his accomplishments: two World Youth Chess Championships, the most prestigious prize in junior chess. Liang won his age group at the 2011 tournament in Brazil and again in 2013 in the United Arab Emirates. The second title got him on the cover of Chess Life magazine, the game’s premiere publication, in March 2014.

Last November at a tournament in Dallas, Liang set an astonishing record. His play in Texas fulfilled all the requirements to earn the title of International Master. Not only is Liang the youngest American ever to receive that designation, he achieved it at a younger age than Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, and a player Liang greatly admires.

“Was it a big deal to beat Carlsen’s age record?” I ask Liang when we sat down again recently.

“I guess so,” he says.

Though always polite–we’ve chatted a few times over the years–Liang likes to let his chess do the talking.

I remember speaking to him in December 2011, after he and his dad Will Liang returned from Caldas Novas in Brazil. The younger Liang had just won his first world championship.

“When you realized you were a world champion,” I asked, “what was your first thought?”

“I wanted to go to the water park,” he said. “But it was raining.”

Whatever you do, though, don’t mistake Liang’s shyness or his engaging grin for a lack of seriousness over a chessboard.

I remember talking in 2012 to Dennis Doren, a retired Madison psychologist and accomplished tournament chess player, about the first time he played Liang. Doren said he was dismayed when Liang walked in the room.

“He was just a little kid,” Doren said. Then they began to play. “As an opponent, he was an adult.”

They met in a reserved room at the Sequoya branch library, where Liang began playing matches with the library’s chess club years ago. He played his first tournament at age 5.

Will Liang taught his son the game. He came to Madison in the early 1980s, from China, to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and his wife have four children, including Awonder. Will worked at UW-Madison and now operates his own international trading business, but increasingly, he says, his time is taken up traveling with Awonder to chess tournaments.

I spoke with Will and Awonder one day after school this past winter, in a small conference room adjacent to the Hamilton Middle School office.

Awonder’s travel for chess tournaments is now so extensive that he is partially home-schooled, which allows flexibility. Will ticks off his son’s winter-spring tournament travel schedule: Texas (February), Iceland (March), Philadelphia (March), Thailand (April) and finally Sweden (late April into early May).

It’s expensive, and while there are potential pitfalls–including burnout–for prodigies in any arena, financing a globetrotting schedule and paying for top-level coaching have been concerns for the Liangs since I’ve known them. The family isn’t wealthy. Will says that some tournaments do provide lodging and meals, but he’s actively seeking sponsors.

“Most important now is a regular coach,” Will says.

Awonder’s love for the game itself appears unabated. “I hope to play a long time,” he says, smiling, when I ask about his future in chess. It took a little prodding on my part, but Awonder says that long range, he would like nothing more than bringing the United States its first world chess champion since Bobby Fischer.

“That’s still quite far away,” Awonder says. “I’m trying to take it step by step. It’s a long term goal, way out there.”

It would be unwise to bet against him. I recently had a chance to ask Mike Nietman, president of the Wisconsin Chess Association, and a friend of the Liangs, what it has been like having a once-in-a-generation chess player growing up here in Madison.

“It has been phenomenal to watch his progress,” Nietman says. “His meteoric rise in the chess world–it’s just a joy to watch.”