At age 13, Mooresville eighth-grader Carson Cook is a chess champ. He has been playing competitively since the third grade while chalking up multiple tournament victories and even earning a North Carolina state ranking.
He learned to play chess from his father, Philip, in the summer after second grade, but his initial interest in the game came from a different quarter. “I had played checkers at Cracker Barrel, and I thought chess might also be fun,” he said.
He joined the newly-formed chess club at Lakeshore Elementary School in Mooresville in the third grade. “I began playing a lot more then,” he said, “and so I went online to a website called chess.com to see how really good players played.
“I read a bunch of stuff on chess but I probably didn’t understand all of it,” Carson said. “I must have learned something, though, because I knew I was becoming a better player.”
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Carson’s mother, Sharon, recalled that she did not realize how good her son was getting at the game.
He continued playing chess in the club at school, as well as with his dad. “I don’t remember him ever beating me,” Carson said, “although he might have been going easy on me. Well, maybe at first, but not for very long.”
With about 40 kids actively involved in the chess club at school, Carson said he was about eighth best and that he could beat anyone his age or younger.
He also played baseball and basketball, but chess remains his main focus. He called it fun and challenging, and enjoyed the strategic aspect of it.
Becoming increasingly adept at chess has had one drawback: the only place he can play now is in the competitions.
“I’ve played at the K-12 state competition four times in the last four years, but I didn’t do very well the first two years, not placing in the top 10,” Carson said. “By the third year, though, I tied for third place. This February, my fourth year in the competition, I took first place in my section, K-12, under the 1600 rating.”
To achieve that victory, Carson played five games over a two-day period, winning four matches and playing to a draw in one.
How does he feel during these highly competitive chess tournaments? “I’m pretty relaxed, but I’m also very focused,” he said. “If I make a mistake, I’ll try to maintain a poker face and begin to think of ways to make up for my situation.”
Carson plays in a competitive tournament just about every month, while continuing his studies in the game with a professional coach, Ken Baxter, head of the Academy of Chess Excellence in Mooresville.
“Many young kids who play chess at Carson’s level are brainiacs but they are not as well-rounded as Carson, excelling as he does in so many areas,” Baxter said. “I think of him as a Renaissance kid because he’s so good at everything.”
Baxter believes that if Carson continues to work hard, he could be a chess master one day.
Carson has taught chess to other students at Lakeshore Elementary School and Mt. Mourne School.
Despite his level of play, losing is always a possibility. “I don’t like to lose at any of my pursuits, but I don’t get mad if I lose,” Carson said. “I take it as a learning experience, to figure out how I can get better and not lose the next time.”
Carson has also excelled in academics for the past several years. With whatever time he has left after pursuing his other interests, he plays fantasy football, baseball and basketball.
His advice to aspiring young chess players is simple. “Play a lot because you’ll begin to notice common opening moves, tricks you can use and good set-ups. You should also go online to look at professional games.”
Carson’s goal is to keep improving at the game and improve his ranking. “I think if I really worked at it for a few more years, I could become an expert.”
Bruce Dunbridge is a freelance correspondent. Have a story idea for Bruce? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.