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The Champ : 6-Year-Old Queen of Chess Keeps Things in Perspective


Six-year-old Elizabeth De La Torre likes soccer, the movie "Sister Act" and books about the Berenstain Bears. But what Elizabeth really likes is whomping her father at chess.

Elizabeth, who will enter first grade this fall at St. Paul the Apostle School in West Los Angeles, recently did something no little girl had ever done before. She won the kindergarten crown in the National Scholastic Chess Championship, outplaying 36 little boys and four little girls. The trophy she took home is almost as tall as she is.

Elizabeth has been playing chess since she was 4, when she asked her father, Arturo, to teach her. She often plays with her 8-year-old brother, David, a fine player in his own right, who is just beginning to respect her ability. And Elizabeth created a new in-house opponent when she taught her mother to play.

"She was the only one with the patience to teach me," Jessica De La Torre said.

Although Elizabeth is an excellent reader for her age, she is not yet able to sit down and study chess texts. Typically she works with her father or John Surlow, who runs the popular chess club at St. Paul and teaches the intellectually rigorous game at the Westwood Recreation Center.

Surlow thinks Elizabeth could have a great chess future. Surlow's son William, who was recently the highest-rated 10-year-old player in the country, thinks Elizabeth is quite a bit better than he was at 6. And Surlow is clearly dazzled.

"When she plays against me, I have such a wealth of experience, she doesn't have a chance," he said. "But it takes me 15 minutes into the game before I see the inkling of a place to break through. She's very, very talented."

Chess talent has several different dimensions, Surlow said, "and Elizabeth is quite excellent at some of them."

"There's no question she has great logic, great intuition," he said. But he is also impressed with her ability to focus on the game, putting ordinary, 6-year-old things out of her mind.

And he praises the way she "uses time as a resource." He recalled a recent tournament in which he and Elizabeth's parents were concerned that the clock might beat her (each player has a predetermined amount of time in which to move) because she likes to write down each of the moves in her games.

They needn't have worried, Surlow said. Elizabeth knew exactly how much time she had left and used it with preternatural calm. "She has the kind of presence of mind that you don't see in the average adult tournament chess player."

According to Surlow, one of Elizabeth's greatest assets is her attitude toward losing. Instead of her heart being broken, she seems to regard a loss as valuable feedback. At the chessboard, Surlow said, "She's engaged in some sort of search for truth. She's sitting there trying to find out why her ideas didn't work. She's like a scientist. Kids five years older than she don't have that refined an idea of the game."

Surlow doesn't know if Elizabeth will ever achieve the international stature of a Bobby Fischer. Chess is not especially popular in the United States, and there is much less organized chess activity than in other countries, he said. He noted that there are about 60,000 tournament players in the United States, compared with 4 million to 8 million tournament players in the former Soviet Union. "But Elizabeth could definitely be a wunderkind, " he said.

Meanwhile, her parents deal with the question that faces the family of every gifted child: How do you balance your obligation to the gift with your obligation to the growing child? To become a truly great player, Surlow said, "You really have to distort your life, contort yourself and turn yourself into a kind of machine."

The De La Torres haven't been willing to do that to either of their children. "We worry about the pressure in tournaments," Jessica De La Torre said. "Every once in a while we wonder, 'Are we doing the right thing? Should we be exposing them to this?' "

Normal is important to the De La Torres: They aren't raising chess monsters. They always bring a ball with them when they go to tournaments and encourage the children to get outside and run around between matches. Elizabeth is a good basketball player and her parents have encouraged that interest as well as her passion for soccer. Reading and writing and math are all valued in their house. As to chess, Jessica De La Torre said, "We always tell them if it's not fun, don't do it."

Elizabeth loves to do it. "I want to play you," she begs her mother, when no more challenging opponents are around.

A former elementary school teacher, De La Torre believes chess is as healthy an obsession as a child is likely to have. "I think it's a great mind exercise. It calls for a lot of foresight, and I don't see how that can do anything but help you get by in the world."

Although Elizabeth is too young to think of herself as any kind of pioneer, her tournament win was a giant step for girls in chess, a game typically dominated by males. "Girls have to know that there's no reason why they can't do just as well as the boys," De La Torre said, with obvious pride.

As the chess trophies begin to outnumber the stuffed animals in Elizabeth's room, De La Torre is a little stunned at what has happened. Her husband is a counselor, and although he likes chess, he has never played in a tournament in his life. And then along came Elizabeth. "This just happened in our family," De La Torre said. "She just sprouted."

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