Chess champion Andrew Hong earns elite grandmaster title

October 19, 2021 — by Christina Chang and Jonathan Si
The junior is one of only 100 grandmasters in the U.S.

Nine years ago, 7-year-old Andrew Hong stumbled upon  his older brother’s chess homework, a worksheet that asked him to solve six positions. After noticing each piece’s unique shape and distinct position, he soon became curious about the board game.

2020 alumnus Jason Hong, Andrew’s brother, then decided to teach him some of the basics of the game, including piece movements and checkmating patterns. A few months later, the young player joined the same chess club as his brother. The club’s teacher taught him more skills like opening positions.

“Everyone has something about chess that they love,” Hong said. “I was captivated by the freedom and the ability to create my own masterpiece.” 

In the years since, Hong’s initial interest has blossomed into some of the most coveted achievements imaginable. Among his biggest is being nationally ranked No. 1 for his age group and, as of Sept. 7, earning the status of grandmaster

The grandmaster title, awarded by the de-facto World Chess Federation, Fédération Internationale des Écheсs (FIDE), is the highest title a chess player can attain. There are 1,357 active grandmasters in the world, with about 100 from the U.S. 

To earn the title, the player must score three norms, which can be earned through achieving a high level of performance in norm-eligible tournaments. Norm tournaments are highly competitive, characterized by having at least three grandmasters from different countries in the competition, consisting of nine rounds, requiring a minimum of 120 minutes per round and having an international arbiter present. 

To qualify as a grandmaster candidate, chess players under the Elo system  — a system that calculates relative skill level of a player in comparison to others using the player’s stats and overall performance — must have at least a 2,600 Elo rating at norm tournaments and cross a 2,500 FIDE rating on the universal rating system. 

Hong became a grandmaster after earning his third and final grandmaster norm at the Charlotte Chess Center & Scholastic Academy Labor Day Norm Invitational in North Carolina.

“The immediate aftermath was that I was just really shocked,” Hong said.

Some notable victories Hong has had include the PRO Chess League Arena Royale in September 2021 against Ian Nepomniatchi and Wesley So, who are ranked as the 4th and 6th top players in the world as of October 2021. 

The game against Nepomniatchi went well until he let Nepomniatchi back into it; however, Hong was able to turn it around in the end. 

He said his game against So was more complex up until So made a wrong move. Although Hong said his conversion “wasn’t the smoothest,” it ended up being enough to win. 

“[The victories] felt good, but honestly it wasn’t that special and didn’t feel different or unexpected,” he said. “Still, it was nice to have the opportunity to play some big names.” 

However, his journey toward his monumental achievements hasn’t always been easy: He recently suffered a five-loss streak in the 2021 U.S. Junior Championship tournament.

“During that period, I couldn’t sleep at night, I didn’t have much energy and I just wasn’t feeling well in general,” he said.

He attributed the losing streak to a spiral in which one loss led to the next. 

“After I lost one game, I was just totally out of it and stopped playing well,” Hong said.

It wasn’t until after he had a rest day after the fifth game of the tournament that he was able to break his losing streak and get back to his normal playing style with a win in his sixth game.

After that tournament, he said he learned the importance of a positive mindset — and sleep.

“I had a bad mindset because when I lost, I felt like I had to really try to win the next game and come back,” Hong said. “The position was initially equal, so it probably would’ve been a better strategy to be fine with the draw and first stabilize my situation.”

Despite the higher stakes, Hong said he still enjoys playing chess as much as he did nine years ago because of the creativity that can be expressed through different scenarios on the board and because of the thrill of playing other skilled players in challenging competitions.

“Chess challenges me to think critically and solve challenges — there’s nothing like finally finding the brilliant solution to a complex position after deep thought,” he said. “But most of all, I play chess because it encourages me to be better and fight through hardships.”

Although his ideal tournament schedule would be monthly, he is now attending them once every two months due to the demands of in-person school. Tournaments typically host nine rounds, with ones in the U.S. running for five days with two rounds per day and tournaments in Europe scheduling one round per day and lasting nine days on average. 

Hong said he usually participates in domestic tournaments, missing an average of five school days for each tournament. As a result, he has to catch up on a lot of material and assignments, an issue he notes is challenging and time-consuming. 

Although he knows that he should practice regularly to prepare for tournaments, he said following a set schedule doesn’t work for him, so he usually practices whenever he has time or is in the mood.

Hong utilizes many training methods, such as analyzing clips, coming up with different gameplay scenarios and playing training games, sometimes online with people from all over the world and other times with friends who are at his level or stronger. He usually comes up with hypotheticals on the board and thinks of different ways to counter the opponent’s moves. Beginning the game with a strong starting position makes the game much easier and smoother, he said. 

“When starting, there’s already 20 legal moves for each side, so obviously you can’t analyze everything,” Andrew said. “I just try to cover the main openings and theorize what moves everyone usually plays.”

In addition to his international achievements, Hong is president of the school’s chess club, which meets every Thursday in Room 506 with the club’s adviser, history teacher Michael Betz. Junior Lisa Fung is the chess club’s vice president, junior Kunal Singh is the secretary and senior Soorya Kuppam is the treasurer. Meetings typically start with a short lesson in which Hong teaches members about various aspects of the game before transitioning into free time where members can play against each other and socialize. 

Even though he now stands near the top of the chess world, Hong said that he still has significant room for improvement. His ultimate goal is to become the chess world champion, though it’s “a long way away and very difficult” to achieve. For the time being, he is working to further improve his skills and ratings.

As advice to his younger self and aspiring chess players, he emphasizes the importance of having a strong foundation and a mastery of the basics. He also stresses the maintenance of patience and resilience, which he believes are crucial for building up to more complex skills.

“You’ll face a lot of challenges; you’ll lose tough games — games you’re supposed to win, and games you aren’t supposed to lose,” Hong said. “And bad things will happen to you. You just have to look past that and keep going forward.”

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