Young chess phenoms represent Michigan in competitions abroad

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
Clarisse Woods, 13, who will compete in the World Chess Championships in Greece, at her chess practice at University Prep Science and Math Middle School in Detroit on Oct. 2.

Detroit — Charisse Woods studies the chess board so intently, she’s barely breathing.

She smoothly captures her opponent’s piece. Checkmate. She’s composed and humble in victory.

That same mastery of the game will be on display in an international arena when Charisse becomes the only chess player representing Michigan at the FIDE 2018 World Youth Chess Championship at the Porto Carras Grand Resort in Halkidiki, a peninsula in northeastern Greece, beginning Friday. She will compete against the world’s best chess players in her age category.

Not bad for a 13-year-old who’s been winning since she began playing in second grade and has a high chess rating of 1,872. Her reaction was one of jubilation when she learned she qualified and was invited to Greece.

“I was so super happy, but I waited until I got home, and then I jumped up and down on the couch,” said Charisse, an eighth-grader at University Prep Science and Math Middle School in Detroit. “I couldn’t stop smiling for two days.”

According to both the Michigan Chess Association and the Detroit City Chess Club, Charisse also might be the only chess student from Detroit ever to qualify and attend a World Youth Chess Championship. There were three Michigan students who qualified in the World Youth Chess category, but Charisse is the only student to accept terms of paying her own way.

She will travel with her mom, Jadie Woods, an IRS attorney, who said the trip is estimated to cost around $9,000.

Charisse will be in the mix with 600 players from around the globe, including 29 from the United States, in Greece.

“I’m not nervous, just excited,” she said. “I like when my opponent misses a move or underestimates me.”

She continued: “It doesn’t happen too often, but sometimes younger boys will say, ‘She’s just a girl.’ I happen to think girls are smarter anyway. There are more girls in my honors classes than boys.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan knows something about Charisse’s chess acumen. She nearly trounced him in a chess game in January 2014.

At the time, Charisse, who was 8, modestly said “it was a draw. I was both really nervous and excited to know that someone really important has something in common with me, and it was good to know he used to play chess when he was still in school.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan plays Charisse Woods, a member of the Detroit City Chess Club, in 2014.

Also at that time, Duggan good-naturedly called for a rematch.

When told that his young opponent would be representing Detroit and the state in Greece, the mayor expressed delight.

“She is an extraordinary young woman, and the other contestants in Greece better watch out,” he said. “She made a great impression on me.”

He continued, chuckling, “You know, I was sandbagged because in the lobby I was just told I’d be playing chess against an 8-year-old. But after she took my bishop, I realized she was thinking three moves ahead. So I had the good sense never to play against her again.”

Asked what Charisse’s accomplishments mean for the city and the state, Duggan said, “there’s such talent here in our young people, and Charisse is an example that everybody can look up to.

“We’ll be cheering for her.”

Charisse’s mom said the idea of competing in Greece has been “kind of overwhelming.”

“Even now, we look at each other and smile," Woods said. "This is really going to happen. It has been a dream of hers for a long time, and it’s good to see her dream come true."

But she’s not surprised. Her daughter is so comfortable with her skills, she can even play without looking at the board.

“She wanted to play chess with me but said she’d play with her back to the game board,” Woods said. “So she told me which chess pieces to move for her without seeing the board, and she still beat me.”

Sal Chehayeb, president of the Michigan Chess Association, expressed pride in Charisse’s accomplishment.

“We are very honored that she will be representing the state in Greece,” he said. “For her age, to get a rating over 1,800 is very impressive.”

Chehayeb said the average for all rated players is around 1,100.

Kwabena Shabu, a Michigan Chess Association board member and one of Charisse's former chess coaches, credits her parents for much of her success. 

"When you see her, you see her parents because they have three kids, and they put 150 percent energy into each of them, " he said. "To have both parents engaged is amazing. It takes money and time, but that doesn't mean that a child who doesn't have this support can't excel."

Charisse’s dad, Lynn Woods, a Detroit police officer, is an accomplished chess player and introduced her to the game.

Meanwhile, Michael Zheng, 12, of Canton Township, will be one of only two chess champions from Michigan who qualified among younger players for the FIDE 2018 World Cadet Chess Championship, which is for those younger than 12, in Galicia, Spain, on Nov. 3-16.

Champions must pay their own way, and Michael, who is in seventh grade at East Middle School in Plymouth, is the only young chess champion in Michigan who accepted those terms.

Michael, who’s been playing since he was 6 years old, was ecstatic to learn he would be traveling to Spain.

“I felt really good when I found out about it,” he said.

And Michael said he’s not nervous.

“I’m more calm and confident,” he said. “I’ve been preparing a lot and working really hard, so I’m confident.”

His mom, Lei Wu, an information analyst at the University of Michigan who will travel with him, said the trip will cost between $7,000-$8,000.

The Michigan Chess Association provided small stipends to Charisse and Michael to help defray costs.

Charisse is taking a positive stance on the opportunity.

"You can't let your opponent get to you," she said. "And you can't be afraid to challenge people who are better than you."