It was a chance not to be missed: a two-time World Champion in Rome is not something that happens so often. If I tell you that the champ is only 14 years old and has just played the World Junior Championship 2017 in Tarvisio, you would surely guess that I am referring to Awonder Liang. Together with his father Will, the teenager has participated to the opening Press Conference of the Festival Internazionale Roma Città Aperta and UnoScacchista seized the opportunity for a short interview.
[Picture by Uberto Delprato]
While waiting for the start of the simul, I started to talk with Will Liang. He is a Chinese immigrant who enjoys chatting and speaks quickly with his not-yet-polished and colorful American.
1S – You have just arrived from Tarvisio. Quite an experience over there, I guess. Snow included!
WL – Indeed. The results in the Championship was not what we hoped for, but it has been a nice tournament anyway.
1S – You are from Wisconsin, aren’t you? Therefore about snow…
WL – .. we are expert, yes: we have a lot of it where we live (smiling)
1S – From Tarvisio to Rome: quite a trip!
WL – Right, and after Rome we move to Barcelona and then to Stockholm before going back to the USA.
1S – A real tour de force! After Tarvisio [13-25 Novembre] and Roma [3-10 December], you play the Sitges in Barcelona [14-23 December] and the Rilton Cup in Stockholm [27 December-5 January]! How can Awonder reconcile chess with school?
WL – Well, we received a number of invitations and for Awonder it is very important to play as much as possible and get as much experience as he can (Note: Will Liang is also the manager of Awonder, therefore he is the one who plans his schedule). His instruction is very important to us and we follow a home teaching program. He has to follow it: in the days between tournaments, he had to do his homework!
1S – How big is your family?
WL – We have four kids, three boys and a girl: following Awonder to give him the chances he deserves is a time consuming occupation and I take care of it, while my wife, who stayed in Wisconsin, is looking after the other kids.
1S – How did Awonder discover chess? Maybe somebody in the family was a chess player?
WL – He came to know it at school. One of his brothers came home with a medal won in a school tournament and Awonder, 5 y.o. at that time, asked me to teach him the rules. I gracefully did it, because chess help young kids to learn how to focus and educate them to discipline: regardless of the outcome, learning chess would have been useful anyway, I thought. Then things evolved quickly: Awonder started to win tournaments and… here we are! (smiling again)
1S – How does Awonder study chess? Has he got a trainer?
Here Mr. Liang slows down a bit his speech and become more pensive.
WL – Actually he just practice and trains himself with the help of the computer. (I stare at him). Yes, a professional trainer may cost a lot. A one-hour lesson may cost 100-150 USD and we cannot afford that, therefore Awonder does his best with the help of computer programs.
1S – Isn’t this a possible limitation to the potential of the boy? It is virtually impossible to master the game without any qualified support!
WL – Yes, it is and we are aware of that. We try to collect money wherever possible, with tournament prizes and appearance fees (fortunately invitations come abundantly). Sure, a sponsor would be very useful.
Only later I came to know that the Liang family launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise the money for support the boy’s preparation and cover the travel expenses: they raised 3.000 USD, that were of course welcome, but far from what would be needed for a full-time trainer.
1S – Speaking about sponsors and foundations, have you reached out to Rex Sinquefield or to Susan Polgar?
WL – Yes, of course. Thanks to Mr. Sinquefield, Awonder managed to get invited to some sessions with Garry Kasparov and Mrs. Susan Polgar invited us more than once to her training camps. Susan does a lot for young players: she takes care of them and sometimes she even cooks for them. Yes, she does a lot for the kids. Anyway, so far we have not secured a sponsor, yet, and Awander’s career can only count on incomes from tournaments and exhibitions.
1S – Besides chess and school, does Awonder practice any other sports or enjoy some hobbies?
WL – He does like to play badminton, but the time left for that is very limited. We do our best to make him feeling how much the family loves him. This is very important to us.
1S – What about Social media? Does he use Facebook, Twitter or the likes?
WL – No, he does not use any. Social media absorb too much time. On top of that, Awonder is still too young. They would be too much a risk and a distraction.
1S – Some time ago I had the chance to talk to Wesley So’s stepmother and she expressed similar concerns.
WL – Wesley is a nice and very talented guy, but I think that all the fuss about him improving from being a good player to a 2700 player and to one of the top players has somehow overshadowed the support and the training he got when he still was in the Philippines. Being both from Asia, I feel that more credits should be given to what was done for him before he moved to the USA.
1S – Actually the junior scene in the USA sees a lot of players of Asian roots.
WL – Indeed, and Awander became USA Junior Champion in 2017 even if he was the youngest participant, with the status of GM-elected. The title was officially awarded just afteer the end of the Championship.
I am sure that Mr. Will would be capable of going on and on talking about his son and his achievements, but it was about the time for some questions to the youngster, who was calmly and silently sitting close to us.
1S – Hi Awander, thank you for having agreed to this conversation, How are you doing?
The boy thinks about my question a bit, and I start wondering if I made myself understood. He starts answering soon, however, with a calm speech and showing a very pleasant American accent. A thoughtful approach, different from his fathers’ one. I am not sure if he ponders on my questions to be sure he got them right or for building a good answer, but anyway the short interview flows very nicely.
AL – I am fine, thank you.
1S – During the press conference you have been introduced as a very talented young Grand Master. What does being a Grand Master exactly mean for you?
AL – Let’s say is both a title, a sort of label, and a recognition, but it not something that changed me. I still prepare myself and play chess the same way and with the same joy.
1S – For you chess are mainly something you enjoy, right?
AL – Sure! Results are very important, of course, but if I would not enjoy chess, it would not be the same for me.
1S – Are you planning to become a professional in the future?
AL – It is too early to say. Definitely it is a possibility, but I am too young to tell if in a few years I will have achieved enough results to justify that and I will still enjoy playing.
1S – Did you set yourself some targets for the next 3 to 5 years?
AL – No, I did not. I’ll keep playing at my best and then we’ll see where I will be. Without fixed targets but with my full commitment.
1S – What do you expect from the tournament here in Rome?
AL – I wish to play well, to win the tournament and to improve my play for the next tournaments.
1S – Are you planning to do some sightseeing in Rome?
AL – I am not sure, it is not easy to find enough time for everything.
And, indeed, the time I was given for the interview is coming to the end. Awonder is being called for starting the simul and for the usual pictures. I take some few additional minutes to thank him and to ask him to sign a few of the “UnoScacchista” postcards: who knows? Maybe in some years from now they will show the signature of a Classical World Champion!
1S – Thank you very much, Awonder. Best of luck for the tournament.
AL – My pleasure.
The young lad starts the 16-boards simul, that he will complete winning all the games in a couple of hours, with a very clean and efficient play. When eventually the last game has finished, I approach him again to congratulate him. I also take the liberty to ask him the reason of a particular choice in one of the games: “Wouldn’t have been better to move your Rook to c7 instead than chopping off the pair of rooks?”
The light in Awander’s eyes changes and he looks at me directly (something he almost never did during the interview), recalls the position, thinks about it and smiles at me: “Yes, you are right, it would have been a more efficient continuation, but I saw that I was winning anyway and did not look for better moves“.
Talking about chess and not playing the question/answer game, I eventually manage to break the ice. It is so true that chess is a universal language! It can wipe away any age, culture and (frankly speaking) talent gap. We still chat a bit about chess and then we say each other goodbye. His father brings him away to the next commitment, maybe just to lunch.
All the best, young champ. I’ll be following closely your next tournaments, hoping that the value of my signed postcard will increase with time 🙂