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He's Beginning His Own Search for Bobby Fischer

January 20, 1994|SUSAN PATERNO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most of the kids at Justin Sheek's elementary school in Long Beach apparently think his chess-playing abilities are pretty impressive.

But "a few use it against me," said Justin, one of the country's premier sixth-grade chess players. "They call me egghead. But I don't really care."

Why should he care? Justin, 11, took second place in November at the national sixth-grade chess championship in St. Louis, coming in a few points behind a Los Angeles sixth-grader, Harry Akopyan.

At a Northern California tournament in May, Justin had the highest score in the elementary school division, said his chess teacher, Robert Snyder, who runs the 130-member Chess for Juniors club in Garden Grove. Justin was a member of a Chess for Juniors team that won the competition.

"If not for him, our team wouldn't have won," Snyder said. "People were astonished by him because they had never heard of him. I kept hearing, 'Where did this kid come from?' They never saw him coming up through the ranks."

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Snyder thinks the chess world will see a lot more of Justin. After only a year and a half of serious play, he has the abilities of an average adult tournament competitor. He can think abstractly and logically and recognize patterns, all crucial to winning chess matches, according to his coach.

"He sits down and spends time figuring things out," Snyder said. "He sets up the problems, learns the openings and knows how to tie it all together."

He also takes lessons, reads books about chess and practices. "But it's not like he studies five hours a day," Snyder said. "He learns very efficiently.

"Some kids' whole lives revolve around chess," Snyder said. "I'm proud to say that I train kids who study (chess) a couple of hours a week. And they do as well as those kids who make it their life. I don't burn out the kids. I let them have a life."

Justin, who attends Bethany Christian School, has also competed three times in regional spelling bees. He loves to read and play baseball, but he likes chess best, he said.

"Chess is better than baseball," he said. "Chess makes me think. Baseball only makes me think a little bit. Chess is pure analysis.

"I love thinking. I love the analysis. It's actually kind of exciting. At nationals, when I thought a lot, I got a headache afterward. But then I'd go to sleep and the headache was gone. So it wasn't any big deal."

The bottom line, said Justin, is that he likes to manipulate things. "Like when we get candy at school, I trade small pieces for larger pieces, then I trade the larger pieces for more smaller pieces than I had to begin with." He said he usually doesn't eat the candy.

Justin started playing chess with a friend at school, then signed up for a summer Long Beach Parks and Recreation program taught by Snyder. He quickly became one of the best players and joined Snyder's Chess for Juniors club.

"He's been beating me for a while," said Justin's father, Lonny. "He knows at least a dozen openings. He's a real problem solver. He'll analyze his opponent 10 moves into the future, in all possible combinations. He's got an excellent memory for something he's interested in."

Justin says he wants to keep his options open for the future, but he wants to keep playing chess. "If I get good enough fast enough, I'd like to be a professional. But I don't think I'll be world champion."

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Four former Long Beach City College students were inducted into the college's Hall of Fame recently. They are: Byron Allumbaugh, chairman of Ralphs Grocery Co.; swimmer Susie Atwood , medal winner in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics; Robert Cornthwaite, actor, director and playwright; and abstract painter Ed Moses.

Material for this column may be sent to People, Los Angeles Times, 12750 Center Court, Suite 150, Cerritos 90701, (310) 924-8600.

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