LONG BEACH — Justin Clark is taking it all in stride.
A third-grader at Minnie Gant Elementary School, he had a busy day Wednesday. At 2:30 p.m. he received a trophy along with two other students for the team's second-place victory in an elementary school chess tournament. Later he helped instruct a class of chess enthusiasts--some nearly twice his age--at El Dorado Park.
Leaning his 60-pound, 4-foot, 4-inch frame against a wall at the park's recreation center, Justin--wearing a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the moniker "Chess Wizard"--surveyed the scene with seeming indifference.
For the past year the 8-year-old has spent at least an hour a day practicing chess. He has competed in Berkeley and soon will travel to Spokane, Wash., for a national chess tournament. And recently, according to his instructor, he was ranked by the U. S. Chess Federation as the top player in his age group (8 and under) for the Western United States.
"It is possible that Justin Clark could become the youngest chess master in the country," said Robert Snyder, Justin's instructor and himself a master of the game.
Best 8-Year-Old Ever
Chess masters, said Snyder, are those ranked in the top 1% nationally among players rated by the federation. Of the 20,000 youngsters he estimates he has introduced to chess in his career, said Snyder, Justin is "one of the very top" and certainly the best 8-year-old ever. Snyder said the youngest master ever was almost 12 years old.
But the boy seems unaffected by his growing success. He still does the things he's always liked to do, said his mother, Susan Clark, a Long Beach lawyer. Like working his way through the complete works of Charles Dickens. And inventing his own hieroglyphic code that only the two of them--she with the help of a special key--can decipher.
"He's just a kid," said Clark, who also has a 19-year-old daughter.
Added Justin of his various talents: "I don't know how I get the ideas--(they) just pop into my head. I'd like to be a (chess) master, but I don't really want it to be my life."
The youngster's adventure in chess began a year ago when his parents, concerned that a grass allergy made it impossible for Justin to participate in outdoor sports, enrolled him in one of Snyder's beginning chess classes offered through the Long Beach Recreation Department. "We wanted something for him to compete in, and he didn't like swimming," his mother said.
Neither she nor her husband, Edwin, a Northrop Corp. toolmaker, had any background in chess. But Justin "took to it like a duck to water," she said. And the rest is fast becoming school-ground legend.
Clark said she believes her son's skill at the game stems primarily from his propensity for "deep concentration and analysis" and the fact that he can "think 15 moves ahead."
His abilities have long been recognized by the Long Beach Unified School District. He is enrolled in a special program for gifted children, and he excels in science.
"He's always inventing things," Clark said. "They're all over the house." In addition to the secret code, she said, he's invented several magic tricks. And early in the morning when most people are still asleep, Justin generally has his nose buried in a book.
"The other day he woke me up at 5:30 a.m.," Clark recalled. "He said, 'I have to know how to spell 'sinuous.' "
But life with Justin also has its advantages. Often, she said, he accompanies her to work to proofread her legal briefs. And recently he said something that she has been thinking about ever since. "He said he'd discovered what the fifth dimension is," Clark related. "He said it was deja vu ."
To help him practice chess, the family purchased an advanced computer devoted exclusively to the game. And to get practice playing real human beings, he makes frequent trips to the Anaheim Chess Club where his favorite opponent is a 76-year-old man.
"(They get along because) they're at the same level," she said.
Since learning to play chess, according to his mother, Justin--generally shy except at a chessboard--has become more confident and outgoing. In addition, she said, he has improved his math scores which, though still far above average, are generally his weakest.
"I think chess should be taught in all the schools," Clark said.
Yet her son doesn't plan on devoting his life to the game.
Enroute to the park for Wednesday night's class, he confided to her his life's ambition. "He told me he wanted to be a free-lance scientist who writes medical books," she said. And, oh yes. He would like to perform surgery "if he has the time."