As 8-year-old Awonder Liang begins a round of speed chess with his younger brother, it starts to sink in just how fitting his name is. This bright third-grader from Madison certainly is a wonder, winning the World Youth Chess Championship in the under–8 division in Brazil last November and earlier in 2011, becoming the youngest player in United States history to earn an expert level chess rating – an incredible feat for a player of any age.
When Awonder’s father, Yinming “Will” Liang, started teaching his son to play, he didn’t realize right away just how special Awonder was. His brothers Adream, 10, and Able, 7, are also talented chess players, and Will knew that Awonder was good. “But nothing like this; not this good,” he says. Even though he is an internationally ranked chess champ, Awonder is quick to shed the spotlight. “Yeah, I don’t really like it,” he says about all of the attention he’s gotten recently.
“Awonder is a great class member, he gets along with everyone,” says Wendy Zucker, his third-grade teacher at Van Hise Elementary School. “He is so smart and such a great student and so humble and kind.”
It’s perhaps that humble spirit that has caused his community to rally around him. When Awonder qualified for the under–8 world championships in Greece in 2010, his family didn’t think they could afford to send him. But his first-grade teacher, Katie Mahr, wouldn’t let that happen. She organized an all-school dance to raise money and established a donation fund to help finance the trip. With that help, Awonder was able to travel to Greece. As a virtual unknown in the chess world, he was seeded 64th and matched against the No. 1 seed in the first round. Fearing a sure loss, Will worried how he would break the news to the community who had contributed in so many ways. In an astounding upset, Awonder won that first match and went on to place eighth overall.
“It’s amazing there’s a person who has a gift like this that can take it to such echelons, and with the help of family, school and friends,” says Peg Keeler, Van Hise’s principal. Even though Awonder is so gifted, he is still just a kid who likes to swim and play with his brothers.
Still, the international scene is beginning to take notice. Awonder’s been featured in the New York Times and on NPR, and Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov has invited him to New York for a free two-day tutoring session. An hour with Kasparov would normally cost $1,500, says Will, who continues to act as his coach. Will admits there is little else he can teach Awonder, and it’s very expensive to hire the caliber of chess player who can.
Even without a professional coach, Awonder continues to improve. His father thinks he will reach the master chess level within a few months, and he’s set to compete in tournaments across the country this year. Beyond that, Awonder has his sights set on the ultimate achievement for a chess player: becoming a World Chess Champion.
This article appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Wisconsin Trails.