She had passed a room of boys playing the game and immediately asked her mom what the game was and if she could play.
Her mom said no — chess must be a boy’s sport if only boys were playing, her mom figured.
Tianhui told her mom to ask the teacher anyway.
Nearly eight years later, Tianhui, now 13, is now one of 71 students who will represent the United States in the 2014 World Youth Chess Championship in Durban, South Africa, which starts on Friday. The Lincoln Middle School eighth-grader, who also goes by Cindy, is the only person from Florida to qualify for the under-14 section.
Tianhui said she is excited not only to travel to another country to compete, but also to compete as part of a team.
“When you go to a tournament by yourself, you feel all lonely because everyone else has a team, and if you’re sad and depressed it doesn’t help your next game,” Tianhui said. “When you have teammates, they help you cheer back up and there’s a different kind of motivation to get the team to win. It gives you a different feeling.”
Though chess was at first something she played for fun, Tianhui competed in her first local tournament in second grade and won first place in the K-3 grade level division. After becoming a member of the Williams Elementary and Lincoln Middle chess clubs, she began competing in more local and national competitions and worked her way up to a Premier rating over 1,100.
“The chess pieces intrigue me. For each position, there’s always more than one way you can play,” Tianhui said. “It’s kind of like other stuff in life where there’s more than one way to solve a problem.”
Tianhui first qualified for the World Youth Chess Championship in 2011, but she missed the email notifying her while visiting her grandparents in Beijing with her mother.
Her mother, Lucy Pan, will accompany her to South Africa but said she won’t be nervous about her daughter’s competition.
“When she was young, I was nervous, but not anymore,” Pan said. “I like that she does what she likes to do.”
Tianhui credits chess with helping her become more confident and outgoing.
“When I was really small, I was really shy, because I couldn’t speak English and couldn’t really communicate,” Tianhui said. Her family moved to the United States a few months before her third birthday. “Chess has helped me make a lot more friends, and now it’s just a habit. I’m a little too talkative now.”
Tianhui said she hopes to apply the discipline she has gained from chess to her future studies. She is enrolled in AP Physics and Algebra 2 at Buchholz High School and hopes one day to help create artificial limbs.
But for now, she hopes to place high in the World Championship when competition starts on Friday. She also hopes to visit one of the South African zoos.
“I get to travel and see all the beautiful places,” Tianhui said. “I’m so excited.”
– Emily Cochrane