WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. (WIVB) — While the world was shut down early in the pandemic, 11-year-old Bryan Lin would play chess — sometimes for up to six hours at a time.
Now, the Williamsville fifth grader is the elementary champion of the New York State Scholastic Championships, meaning he’s the top elementary-aged chess player in the entire state.
“Bryan definitely is a very rare talent,” said John Hanni, the operations manager at the Buffalo Chess Association.
Hanni started working with Bryan when he was in the second grade. The Buffalo Chess Association brings instructors into local schools after the last bell rings to teach students the basics of chess and grow their game. Hanni said after just a couple of months of working with Bryan, the elementary student was beating him. Hanni has played chess since kindergarten and went on to play in college, becoming the president of the team at UB before he started teaching the game.
Bryan then started playing with the association’s president, Mark Johnson. He has a similar chess background as Hanni, starting at 4 years old, but went on to play at a higher level.
“Chess is a part of me,” Johnson said.
And Johnson will admit, Bryan is special.
“I don’t know if ‘exceptional’ really defines it,” he said.
Not long after Bryan began playing, the pandemic hit. So, he took his game online, and that’s when things really started to take off according to his mom, Ning Lin.
He played on the free online chess website called Lichess. His mom said he’d go on there for hours at a time. Ning joked it was almost like the online site acted as a babysitter for the then-8 year old.
“It can get pretty addictive,” she said.
And apparently Bryan isn’t the only one who did this. Ning explained that in the chess world, there’s a term for these kids who got really good in 2020: “pandemic kids.” She said Bryan’s case of getting good at that time is not unique.
Johnson agreed that a lot of kids improved during the pandemic because there wasn’t anything else to do. Bryan is indeed a ‘pandemic kid,’ but Johnson said Bryan goes one step further than many other kids.
“You can only reach the potential that you have,” Johnson said.
After some time in the pandemic, the Buffalo Chess Association started doing Friday night games online. Johnson said kids would get online and be paired randomly, but no one wanted to play Bryan — he was too good. So, Johnson would get online with Bryan on Sundays instead. And once it was safe to do so, the two would meet at Tim Hortons to play.
Bryan now competes in chess tournaments online weekly, and about 5 to 10 tournaments in-person every year. Recently, at the 55th Annual New York State Scholastic Championship, he beat out 1,500 other students, including last year’s champion, taking home the win. Hanni and Johnson said about 90% of the players were from New York City, where schools have more chess programs and support. It’s almost a chess mecca.
“NYC is known as one of the places to go for chess,” Hanni said.
So where does the 5th grader go from here?
Johnson and Hanni said he’ll go to play in the national competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While the event will see Bryan take on a number of talented chess players, the co-winner of nationals last year was a person Bryan beat in this past state competition.
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Kelsey Anderson is an award-winning anchor who came back home to Buffalo in 2018. See more of her work here and follow her on Twitter.