As she walked the halls of the St. Louis Chess Club, she paused, taking time to glance over a series of headshots mounted on the wall. Zoey Tang was admiring a group of select players — that year’s competitors in the US Girl’s Junior Chess Championship.
One day, she hoped, it would be her own picture on that wall.
This week, it will.
Tang, a 14-year-old Portland resident, is one of only 10 chess players to qualify to compete in this year’s championship. The tournament will be held at the Saint Louis Chess Club, located in the nation’s chess capital of St. Louis, from July 6-16. The tournament will be a round robin format, with each player getting up to 90 minutes of time control per game. Each competitor is under the age of 20 and the winner will be granted a prize of $20,600 in addition to the national title.
Her selection into the tournament was a full circle moment for Tang, who, after picking up the game just over six years ago has become one of the nation’s premier players in her age group.
She has the titles of Woman FIDE Master and National Master, both of which she won in 2021 by winning the North American Youth Chess Championships in her age group. She tied for second place in the 2019 Susan Polgar Girl’s Invitational, as well as tying for first in the 2021 National Women’s Open.
“It wasn’t my choice to start playing chess,” Tang said, reflecting on her dazzlingly swift ascent.
It started at the library. Then an eight-year-old, she picked up the basics from a tutor.
“In the beginning, I kind of treated it like a lot of the other extracurricular activities I have,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh, this is something to do for my parents or for me to do for fun.’”
Soon, the tutor wasn’t enough to keep Tang challenged. Next came a local chess coach and later, an online instructor.
Her first tournament came in 2017 — The Oregon Open, where, surrounded by chess lovers of all ages, she first recognized her interest in the game had become something far deeper.
Tang had fallen in love with chess. It consumed her life in the best of ways. The one-time extracurricular event that she balanced alongside her love for the piano, studying math, playing tennis and reading, had taken the mantle.
“My parents were always there for me,” she said. “They made sure I could get my meals on time, I could sleep on time… It helps a lot to have people supporting you.”
She began attending monthly local tournaments as well as national ones during her summers. She recorded every move of every game, later analyzing her play to diagnose her weaknesses and find patterns that could be exploited. Soon, her name appeared on the leaderboards.
A national competitor — she liked the ring of that.
When Tang enters the club on Wednesday, she might have some butterflies. It won’t be nerves, she admits, rather excitement for a moment she’s envisioned for some time.
The title would mean everything. As for that prize money?
“I would save it,” she said before pausing. “But also I would spend some money at Universal Studios, because I’m going there this summer.”