by Shelley Daily
It's lunchtime at Huron High School, and a couple dozen students have gathered in teacher Ken Long's room for chess club. Sophomore Atulya (pronounced ah-thul-ya) Shetty, sixteen, sets up his board to play "quick chess" using a timer. Eating lunch from a Thermos container between moves, his fingers fly across the board as he defeats one opponent after another. "I got crushed!" says club president Jinwoo Lee, a senior.
Shetty smiles often through his braces, looking like a typical teen in his Michigan sweatshirt and athletic pants. But the other kids find him awesome. Not only is Shetty the reigning Michigan Junior Champion for grades K-12, last year he became the youngest-ever champion in the Michigan Open and in April he placed fifth in the USCF National High School Championships.
Very strong adult players have USCF rankings of around 1900, Shetty's ranking is 2379. "No one has ever come through here with his talent," says Long, who has run the club for two decades.
Atulya's father, Sharat, a software developer at Ford, jokes that he's the "official baggage handler" when his son competes in youth chess championships in places as far away as Greece and the Republic of Georgia. His mother, Sujata, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Toledo, usually stays home with his sister Mira, thirteen.
Sharat Shetty grew up in India playing chess with friends and cousins, and had planned to teach his son how to play when he was six or seven-but Atulya beat him to it. At age four, watching his caregivers at Gretchen's House child-care center play chess with a magnetic set, he asked to join in.
The preschooler soon was so fascinated by the ancient game, his father says, that they spent the next couple years "practically living at Chess Express," the former store on Main Street that hosted open chess games. The store owner, impressed with the kindergartner who sometimes knelt on his chair to reach the board, sponsored Shetty's
trip to Dallas for his first tournament. His father recalls how, when they'd return to their hotel room, he could re-create games from memory, move by move.
As a King Elementary student, Shetty took Rec & Ed classes from chess teacher Ray Garrison. "He had natural talent and easily grasped the concepts from the beginning," Garrison recalls. In first grade, he brought home a major title-first place in the USCF National Grade Level Championships in Atlanta. With Shetty as a member, King's chess team also won several state championships. "I think he definitely inspired others to greatness," says Garrison.
Shetty is now coached by Grandmaster Gregory Kaidanov, formerly of the Soviet Union. Kaidanov lives in Kentucky; they talk via Skype while interacting through an online chess interface. Kaidanov gives him chess puzzles for homework, and together they analyze competitors' moves using an Internet database. "Since I started working with Atulya, he always surprises me with how mature he is," Kaidanov writes by email. "As a chess player, you have to make lots of decisions in the course of just one game, and a lot of times emotions take over. However, Atulya is much better than many young players at keeping his emotions under control."
Top chess players can visualize the game in a way hard for outsiders to understand. "When I first started playing, my game was based more on instinct," Shetty explains. "I was able to recognize patterns, and that was the core of my game. For the past few years, I've been studying more, so now my game is less instinctive and more calculated."
He credits careful preparation for his recent win over his friend Michael Bowersock at the Michigan Junior Championship. (Shetty will represent Michigan in August at the Denker Tournament of High School Champions in Vancouver.) He says he knew Bowersock had studied his opening moves, so he deviated from his usual opening line to throw him off track.
Shetty's USCF ranking already qualifies him as a Master player. His goal is to become a Grandmaster, the highest honor in chess aside from world champion. He says he'll probably follow a career in math or science, since "it's difficult making a living off of chess," but he can't imagine ever giving up the game. "If I'm winning I'm encouraged, and if I'm having a hard time it motivates me to study harder," he explains.
He says he's usually not stressed before a competition, but "it's a nerve-wracking game whenever it's close or there's time pressure." His father points to the life lessons inherent in chess. "The game itself teaches patience and that each move you make has consequences, like in life. And there are rewards when you do the right thing." Whenever possible, Shetty challenges himself to "play up" against tougher opponents to constantly improve his game, either in person or through the Internet Chess Club.
Still, "chess isn't the only thing I do," he emphasizes. Schoolwork always comes first, and he's maintaining a 4.0 average. He also plays percussion for Huron's concert band, is on the school's drum line, plays video games, takes karate, and hangs out with friends.
It's nearing the end of lunch period at Huron High, and the White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" blasts from speakers as junior Valerie Peng tries to beat Shetty in their third game. "I've come close to winning before," Peng says. Shetty nods in agreement. "One of these times I'm going to do it!" Shetty-whose first name translates as "there is no equal"-looks up at her and grins.
[Originally published in May, 2012.]