When Maximillian Lu sat down for the third match of a tournament last month in Scarsdale, N.Y., he was not thinking about history. He was still mad at himself for an ineffectual “rook fortress” in his previous game.
Max, a Whitby School fourth-grader, had thought the protection he had assembled around his king would help him to hang on for a draw after using up most of his clock on earlier moves. Instead, his opponent, an international master, broke through the defense to win.
The loss stung even more because the match went 130 moves, equivalent to a baseball game that goes deep into extra innings.
“I was really upset,” Max said in an interview with Greenwich Time. “And I only had five minutes until the next round.”
But he regrouped and went on to win in the next match. After the victory, he was greeted by a delighted expression on the face of his father, David. Dad knew something his son did not: With that victory, Max has become the youngest player in U.S. Chess Federation history to earn an elite “master” rating. About a month away from his 10th birthday, Max had beaten the old record by 12 days and reached the milestone about three years before chess legend Bobby Fischer had done so.
“I was happy,” Max said with a shrug. “It was an outside goal. My main goal was just to make master no matter when it was. It just happened that I made it earlier than the other people did.”
Max’s modesty reflects that of a gifted player who describes himself as one constantly trying to improve weaknesses. By his high standards, his bid to become a master followed a trying period. Since the summer of 2014, his rating had stalled around 2,030; 2,200 is the threshold to become a master. He made a breakthrough this past summer, but his new title does not mean he’s finished working at the game.
“Just because you’re a master doesn’t mean there still aren’t lots of areas to improve,” Max said. “I fixed a major one that was giving me difficulties, I didn’t know how far I’d go once I fixed the weakness.”
Since he started playing chess as a 6-year-old, Max has shown an uncommon ability to fix his shortcomings on the board. He decided without any parental prodding to take up the game. Actually, he faced opposition. His father had wanted him to try golf instead.
“I didn’t really know anything about chess; I knew how the pieces moved,” David Lu said. “But Max had the interest, so then I started to learn with him. My knowledge of the game is only four years old.”
Max quickly showed his father that he had picked the right game. By 7, he had won his first national championship. In the next three years, he would go on to win another national title and two North American championships.
“I decided I liked chess, so I kept going,” Max said. “I play it because it’s fun.”
He practices about 45 minutes each day, depending on his schoolwork, and plays competitively about every two weeks.
“Max as a chess player has a very mature style, something very uncommon at his age,” said Andrew Ng, Max’s coach. “He has a very intelligent approach to chess which shines across both tactical and positional aspects to his game.”
To improve, Max and his father take a “cross-training” approach, in which they look at playing and psychological strategies popularized in other sports. When Max loses a close game, David Lu quotes tennis great Andre Agassi‘s coach Brad Gilbert, who would tell Agassi “good things … are about to happen” after a tough loss.
After becoming a master, David Lu said Max acknowledged that “good things are about to happen.”
In recent years, he has moved up to international competitions, respectively recording top-25 and top-five finishes in tournaments in South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. He will travel with his mother to Greece later this month to compete in a world youth championship.
“I like strategy games,” Max said. “Chess is basically like your opponent is setting puzzles for you to solve. It’s the person who creates the biggest puzzles.”
- Paul Schott