Simon Whitehouse photo/Telegraph Journal

Saint John chess champ conquers the nation

by SIMON WHITEHOUSE - Wednesday, June 10, 2015

This article is courtesy of TELEGRAPH-JOURNAL

Few may have thought that Saint John could offer the crème de la crème of the chess world, as the Murray Head song goes, but last month the city had a student standing above all else in the country in chess.

Ziyuan (Sam) Song, a 15-year-old student from Saint John High School, won first place in the 27th Annual Canadian Chess Challenge in Quebec City on May 17 and 18.During the tournament Song scored his best achievement with a perfect and undefeated nine-point score

- one point for a victory against every other province.A New Brunswicker has not been champion of this tournament since 2006,but the win didn't come easy.

Song has been in Saint John since arriving in February 2011 with his mother, Yang Bai, and the two attained their Canadian citizenships this year. Song's father, Richard, came to Saint John in 2012 and still awaits the day he becomes a Canadian. It is the game of chess that has helped the family connect with the community and thrive during their settlement process, they argue.

The practice doesn't necessarily run in his family,though his mother,Yang,is a chess referee and coach, and since arriving in the city, Song has been strongly supported by his mom and dad in entering the national competition every year. In 2011 he finished in third, and between 2012 and 2014 he finished second,which included coming up short on a draw and scoring an 8.5 in 2013.

The route to getting at such a high level has meant that each year Song has had to finish in the top three at the district level. From there he has had to place first in the provincial championships before he can qualify to compete against the best in Canada. It was on his fifth and most recent attempt that he finally broke through to become national champion of the Chess and Math Association.

"I felt really excited after I won, and my mother was so happy that she ran and hugged me and she almost cried," said Song, quickly pointing out teasingly that this year was clearly his best performance.

Members of the Saint John Multicultural and Newcomers Resource Centre, which has helped the Song family settle and has served as a point of contact during their adjustment,see Song's achievement as a sign of the potential attributes that new immigrants can contribute to community life in the city.

"We want to highlight the positivities of people who arrive in Saint John and to show what it really means for the province to receive newcomers who have talents or passions or enthusiasms to make life here better," said Li Song, newcomer assistant volunteer engagement officer with the resource centre, and no relation to Sam and his family.

"New people are here for the quality of life, and I do believe that Saint John can provide that. But we also need to provide in the environment and make people comfortable staying here and make people feel the positivity so that they can stay."

Sam Song has been playing chess since he was about five years old, first falling in love with a chess board in the town of his birth, Guangzhou, China. Since then he has worked to improve his practice, most recently at the Saint John Chess Club on most Sunday afternoons at the New Brunswick Community College. In his spare time, Song also plays numerous instruments, especially the soprano saxophone, piano, violin and guitar. He also plays basketball and badminton when he can fit them in.

But chess is his first love, and looking ahead, he has big goals, which if achieved could put Saint John on the map for being a strong chess-playing bastion in Canada.He is currently training hard to participate in the Canadian Youth Chess Championships, which are to be held in Windsor from July 6 to 9. If he is successful in placing among the top three in the under-16 category, he will qualify for the World Youth and Cadets Championships in Halkidiki, Greece, Oct. 24 to Nov. 4.

His preparation includes practising chess tactics and studying his potential opponents in future tournaments.

Sam Song is quite confident in his ability to reach such heights,but he is under no illusion that he has to work harder.

"The thing is that you have to practise and then you have to have the talent, I guess,"he said, adding that he typically practises every day for about an hour to two hours."If you just practise sometimes,you won't get as good as you might want.You have to do it every day."

He is also working on building great players both through online coaching and practising in person at the community centre.

In all, he is helping between 10 to 15 students locally and two students through the Internet.

He said that having a good memory is key to being successful because his game is so polished that he can play blindfolded or against multiple opponents at one time.

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