At the 2009 United States Chess Championship in St. Louis, Missouri, junior Robert Hess took second place among 24 highly ranked chess players. As the second place finisher, Hess was awarded 12,500 dollars. A total of 130,400 dollars in prize money was given out, according to the St. Louis Chess Club.
Hess took second place after winning a tie-breaker against his opponent Alexander Onischuk, 34, a Grandmaster with a rating of 2736, around 200 points higher than Hess’. “I surprised him,” Hess said in a video interview by uschesschamps.com, “and I’m playing pretty well.”
Hikaru Nakamura, 21, took first place in the Swiss System tournament, a type of round-robin where each player is pitted against a competitor who is doing as well (or as poorly) as themselves. The two players with the highest score (one point for a win, ½ a point for a tie, no points for a loss) at the end of nine rounds go head to head to decide the winner.
After qualifying for the title of chess Grandmaster, Hess, one of the lower-ranked players, traveled to the tournament, which took place from Friday, May 8 to Sunday, May 17.
“There were 24 high ranking players. The top 12 players were invited,” Hess said. “I was a wild card.” According to the United States Chess Federation, six wild cards were asked to participate in the nine-round event. The other wild cards included young players like Ray Robinson, 14, Josh Friedel, 22, and Alex Shabalov, a four time US Champion, all of whom were chosen by the United States Chess Federation.
“In terms of the number of players, this was not a big tournament. But in terms of importance, this was definitely the most important one in the nation because all the top players participate in it,” Hess said.
Hess is currently the top ranked player in the under-18 division and the 21st ranked chess player of any age in the United States. He is also the 27th ranked player in the under-18 division internationally. Hess hopes his ranking “might be pushed into the top 10″ in the country overall. “Pretty sure I cracked into it,” Hess said. Unfortunately, he’ll have to wait to find out, as the rankings are updated every two months. Still, Hess “didn’t actually expect to do so well, because there were a lot of top players who were ranked above me,” Hess said.
Social Studies teacher Bill Boericke, Stuyvesant’s chess team coordinator, said he believes Hess could become a U.S. or even a world champion. “He could be a contender in the world title in five or six years,” Boericke said. “But he’d have to pay a heavy price to achieve that.”
But Hess isn’t sure he sees chess as a career.
“A lot of people have been asking me if I would become a professional player since I finished second,” Hess said. “My answer is no.” He explained that many other interests and a lack of consistent money were among the reasons.
The junior went on to say that he will definitely continue to play at chess tournaments. Winning second at the National Competition gives Hess a better opportunity to play at prestigious international tournaments.
“[The tournament] was great,” Hess said. “It was one of my best tournaments and I’m really surprised at how well I did.”
His teammates weren’t surprised at Hess’ success. “I think people at Stuy take it for granted how good he is, but he really is one of a kind,” said junior and chess team co-captain Zachary Weiner. Hess helped the team win the High School National Championships in April and “now he’s moved on to better and greater things,” Weiner said. “It really makes us grateful that he was willing to help us out knowing he could do so much more.”
Hess said that it’s not difficult to balance being a world-class chess player, a teammate, and a student. He said that when he gets back from tournaments homework is “a killer,” and that, “if I thought I had no free time playing, I have even less back at Stuy.” He said that it’s impossible to do both homework and chess, citing the preparation that can realistically last for three or more hours and is “essential to my game.”
“The fact that he is able to be a normal kid and do what he does is amazing,” Weiner said.