Chess prince

Chess prince
Cyrus Low, 13, is Singapore’s top under-14 chess player, the ninth best in Asia and the 38th in the world in this age group.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Even after a tough day at school, 13-year-old Cyrus Low can often be found in front of a computer, his eyebrows knitted in concentration.

But instead of exploring the digital realms of World Of Warcraft or Defence Of The Ancients, the Secondary 1 Raffles Institution student is continuing to flex his mental muscle, this time at chess.

It is far from relaxing, though. Every game is a battlefield on which he hones his skill in the art of war. It turns out he is rather good at this.

Cyrus has the potential to become a chess Grandmaster - the highest title a player can attain from the World Chess Federation (Federation Internationale des Echecs, known as Fide) - by the time he is 18.

That is still two steps - and years of experience and perseverance - away for Cyrus, who has been playing chess since he received a small game set as a gift when he was six.

He is the ninth-best active player in Singapore, according to Fide.

That makes him the youngest player among the country's top 10, which is quite a feat considering his age, said president of the Singapore Chess Federation Ignatius Leong.

Fide also listed Cyrus as Singapore's top under-14 chess player, the ninth best in Asia and the 38th in the world in this age group.

There are at least 82 active players under the age of 14 in Singapore, and at least 134 active players across all ages here.

Last December, Cyrus achieved the title of Fide Master when he achieved a rating of 2,329 - over the 2,300 criterion - for beating English player Ledger Dave J, 47. This puts him below International Master and Grandmaster, but ahead of Candidate Master.

"It feels nice, since I worked really hard for it, but I still want to improve," said the bespectacled boy, adding that his aim is to get to Grandmaster before the responsibilities of the A-Level examinations and national service claim him.

He believes it is maturity that will ultimately give him an edge.

"There was one game where I knew I was winning, so I got excited. But at the very last moment, I lost because I got careless," said Cyrus. "I learnt that if you want to achieve something, you must be prepared to make sacrifices for it."

That principle could apply to the process of becoming a Grandmaster, as much as to the game itself.

To reach his goal, he had to give up other childhood interests, such as Ben 10 cartoons and Lego, Cyrus' father, Mr Felix Low, 50, told The Straits Times.

The retired teacher, who is married to civil servant Aileen Chia, 47, said: "I had a long talk with him after I learnt how long and tough the road to his goal would be.

"A child may be mesmerised by the bright lights of being a Grandmaster, but not entirely aware of the price he has to pay to get there.

"The next day, he packed up all his toys and gave them to his younger brother. He kept only a small drawer of them, as souvenirs."

Instead of having books and toys, Cyrus, a former pupil from the Gifted Education Programme at Anglo- Chinese School, went to chess professionals who tutored him, and "chess boot camps" abroad, most recently in Chengdu over the June school holidays.

Cyrus also plays training games at the Singapore Chess Federation, does puzzles in chess books to help him visualise the moves on a chess board, and spars with players from around the world via the Internet.

Singapore Chess Federation's Mr Leong said: "He is capable of winning against stronger players, but has a serious problem while playing against those weaker than him. To overcome this, he should play more often against weaker opponents to build up his confidence, and learn not to underestimate them."

The only concession Cyrus gives himself is the daily swim with his younger brother Darius, 10.

There are times he wants to give up, said the young teen, but the fascination of the game continues to pull him in.

His favourite piece? The Queen, for her ability to move quickly from one side of the board to the other.

In his journey ahead, however, there is only one King, said Cyrus, adding: "I'm thankful to my dad, for sacrificing so much for me."

This article was first published on June 27, 2015.
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