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Standing Tall

Local 5 year old takes home national chess title.

Barely a year after first learning the game, Jeevan Karamsetty is already one of the nation’s brightest young chess players, and he has the hardware to prove it.

Last month, 5-year-old Jeevan Karamsetty, a kindergartner at Lake Anne Elementary School, was crowned the co-national champion in his age group at the 2003 U.S. Chess Federation National K-12/Collegiate Chess Championships in Chicago. Jeevan’s consistent play during the three-day event earned him a share of the national championship with two other kindergarten-age boys. The annual competition featured more than 2,300 of the country’s best young chess players from more than 40 states. There were 46 players in Jeevan’s category and each one played seven games. Jeevan won six of his seven games, as did fellow winners Benjamin Rabinowitz and Alexander Velikanov.

In the summer of 2002, Jeevan Karamsetty returned home to Reston with his family after a trip to his native India. It was there that Jeevan and his older sister Madhu, 10, were first exposed to the age-old game.

“We saw our cousins playing and we really wanted to learn the game,” said Madhu, who competed in the fifth-grade division at the national championships, where she finished in the top 100.

While their father, Pardha Karamsetty, grew up playing chess in India, he said he had not played the game for 15 or 20 years before picking up the pawns again after returning from India. “Jeevan was practically begging me to teach him when we got back home,” Pardha Karamsetty said.

But Pardha Karamsetty thought his son was too young to learn the intricacies of such a complex game, even though he had started reading at age three. “He wasn’t ready, not yet,” he said.

That didn’t last long. By October 2002, at the age of four, Jeevan started playing chess. By December, both he and Madhu, were regularly beating their father. “It takes a lot of hard work,” Pardha Karamsetty said. “They would be up playing between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. before I went to work just to try and get better. It takes dedication.”

Madhu agreed. “I like chess because it really has improved my concentration and has made me more organized in school,” the Lake Anne fifth grader said.

Her brother likes the game for different, more basic, reasons: “It’s fun.”

NOW BOTH JEEVAN AND MADHU have a chess coach. Sy Samet, a 74-year-old Reston resident and a longtime member of the Reston Community Center’s chess club, tutors the two siblings about twice a week on the tactics and strategies of the game.

“Jeevan is somewhat of a prodigy,” Samet said. “There have been a lot of so-called prodigies in this game before. I wouldn’t say he ranks up there on the list, at least not yet ... As with all kids, it remains to be seen if the interest level remains as high as he grows older and discovers new things.”

Samet, 72, has been playing chess since he was 8 years old and he looks forward to his twice-weekly meetings with Jeevan and Madhu.

And while both children continue racking up victories and trophies for the family’s display table in their Reston apartment, Pardha Karamsetty likes the game for a different reason. “Chess teaches you how to deal with defeat,” he said. “That is so important.”

But like most 5 year olds, even one as advanced as Jeevan, the game is about winning, and to the horror of chess aficionados everywhere, Jeevan doesn’t waste any time. “We have to keep reminding him to slow down,” his father said. “He loves to play fast.”

His coach said that Jeevan’s quick play often puts his opponents on the defensive, including the one time, so far, that the student defeated the master. “He’s a fast and aggressive player and that is what makes him dangerous,” Samet said. “In the long run however, he will need to slow down, and that is what I am trying to instill in him.”

Samet insists that chess is a great activity for young children. “Studies have shown that grades go up and self-esteem rises, even in kids in the inner city,” Samet said. “It really helps young people learn to concentrate.”

Jeevan’s parents hope that his story will help inspire other local children who would like take up chess. “There are a lot worse things kids could be doing than playing chess all day,” Pardha Karamsetty said with a smile.

RATHER THAN GO to pre-school last year, Jeevan stayed home with his mother, Suneetha Karamsetty. Jeevan would play chess, either live or on the Internet, and read about chess strategy for as long as 10 hours each day, working to perfect his budding game. Nowadays, Jeevan attends kindergarten in the morning and then takes first grade-level courses in the afternoon.

His parents insist that Jeevan loves to play and compete, often beating players much older than him, but they know that, as Suneetha Karamsetty said, “too much of anything can be bad.”

That is why both parents say they don’t push either child to practice or play when they don’t want to. “We don’t want him to burnout,” Pardha Karamsetty said. “People always ask us if we have to push him to play. Actually, we have to push him backwards, so he doesn’t play too much … For them it’s just fun, it’s a lot more nerve-wracking for us watching.”

When he isn’t playing chess or at school, Jeevan says he loves to do math problems, especially fractions. When he grows up, Jeevan says he wants to be a scientist and, of course, a “grand master.”

His dad is confident. “I can’t wait to take him to the World Championships next year.”