There are kids who play sports and there are kids who eat, sleep and breathe their sport; 11-year-old, Jack Easton is the latter.
Easton, the second of four children, has been playing chess since the age of 3. As he’s gotten older his interest has intensified along with his skills. Chess is part of his daily home-schooling curriculum.
“It’s a mental game, and it is fun,” Jack said. “I’m not as good with physical sports as I am with mental sports.”
Every day he practices chess problems for 30 minutes, and on Wednesdays he devotes five hours to the game. He spends two hours playing a four-match series on the Internet Chess Club website, under the username jeaston, and the remaining three hours solving chess problems. He also spends much of his free time reading chess magazines that specialize in tactics training.
“Chess is both a sport and an academic subject,” said Jack’s mother, Kelly Easton. “It teaches pattern recognition, calculations, positional advantages, multi-step problem solving and deductive reasoning.”
Easton regularly works with three trainers — two in Kansas and one in Dubai — via Skype.
He is an avid competitor and takes the game very seriously. At various points throughout the interview he stopped this reporter mid-sentence to ensure that she had understood what he was saying about the game.
His obsession started in 2010 at the age of 8 when he played his first tournament at the Kansas City Chess Club, taking third place in a practice tournament against roughly 15 other children.
“The stress level is really high, even for competitors at a young age,” Kelly said.
Since then he has gone on to play in a variety of tournaments, state and national competitions in Topeka, Kansas City, Nashville, Orlando and Las Vegas.
“Before every tournament, Mom makes homemade spaghetti and we have to get up really early,” Jack said. “I have to eat M&Ms; as I need them at certain intervals during the tournament to keep me going.”
From 2010 to February 2012, Easton’s rating increased to where he was able to play in K-8, a more advanced division. He took second place in his first K-8 competition.
He enjoys consistently playing above his age range because he finds it more challenging.
In March of 2011 he competed in his first Kansas Scholastic State Championships, taking 17th place in the K-5 division. Last March, he finished seventh in the Scholastic State Championships, and earlier this month he was the high-scoring individual in an association tournament in Topeka.
“I am always calculating and staying three moves ahead of the position on the board,” Jack said. “My signature move is to start by moving the queen pawn up two.”
He played in his first National Scholastic Tournament in Nashville last May, taking ninth place in the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) 900 and under category for K-5. He won six out of seven matches in that tournament.
Easton continued to challenge himself taking first place in his first adult tournament in Stillwater, Okla., in May, in the USCF 1400 and under division.
“People get put off by Jack because he is particularly good and has been better than average since the beginning,” Kelly said. “Sometimes the adults are not good sports… some of them don’t handle losing to an 11-year-old very well.”
In October, Jack was playing in the K-12 division and won first place in the Kansas Scholastic Tournament held in Topeka. By November he found himself in Orlando, Fla., taking 26th in his second national tournament.
“Florida is one of Jack’s favorite chess memories,” Kelly said. “He had four wins, two losses and one draw. Three of the four wins and the draw were against much higher rated players, so in essence he had four upsets out of seven games.”
In December he played in his first North American Open in Las Vegas; he took second in the USCF 1250 and under division. Since Vegas, he has placed in the top five in numerous competitions and is in hard-core preparation mode for the upcoming scholastic state tournament March 14-16 in St. Louis, Mo. He is also preparing for SuperNationals in April, which are only played every three years, in Nashville, Tenn.
“It’s hard to lose… I still lose to the really tough players sometimes; there are only five of them in Kansas including me, but I have lost to a few of them,” Jack said. “I’m pretty well-known in the chess world.”
Easton, who turns 12 in March, has more than one thing on his agenda. He is on a mission to steal the title of fastest grandmaster in Kansas. The rules for attaining that status are too complex to be explained here, but they typically involve strong performances against other grandmasters, or winning major championships. According to Easton, the age to beat is 18 and he hopes to accomplish it by age 15.
“Kids do amazing things with chess, and Jack wants to beat each and every one of them,” Kelly said.
However Easton realizes that if he has to wait until age 20 or 25, that is OK, too – as long as he achieves the title.
“My mom says I’m really competitive,” Jack said. “I’m not intimidated by adults or older kids; I’m confident in my skills.”
He wants to be top rated in the state overall and later on become top rated in the country. His other goals include someday coaching other kids who are passionate about chess and winning a full ride to Webster University in St. Louis, Mo., by taking first in the Susan Polger National Open Championship tournament.
Easton started with a rating of 711 and is currently rated at 1408 by the USCF.
“Chess requires a lot of study… you have to stay in practice or you might forget your tactics and the ability to see and predict your opponents’ moves,” Jack said. “I know people who have taken a summer off and have not been as good.”