Rook No Quarter Teenager restores slumping chess team's winning tradition.

Pawn Mower: Lu’s prodigious play clinched the Rooks’ title.
Photograph by Charles Steck

The Arlington Rooks won the D.C. Chess League’s 2006-07 team title. Last month, in their final match of the season, they clinched the championship by a half-point over the two-time defending league titlists, the Arlington Kings.

It was the Rooks’ first league championship in more than a decade.

When the team got together at a Falls Church restaurant to celebrate, longtime Rooks agreed on who was most responsible for the return to glory.

“Getting Eddie this year put us over,” says Walter Morris, 47, a Rook since 1988 and the team’s current captain.

“Eddie” is Eddie Lu, a Rooks’ rookie. He’s the first new player to crack the team’s lineup in at least 10 years.

Lu is 15 years old.

That makes him the youngest Rook by more than 30 years. All of Lu’s teammates were already playing alongside each other when he was born—some for a few years, some for a few decades. The team’s third-board this season, Hal Mouzon, is an original Rook who just finished his 48th season with the team.

That means Mouzon was a Rook before Lu’s dad, Roger Lu, was born.

Time was when the Rooks didn’t celebrate league championships so much as expect them. The Rooks, formed on the campus of George Washington University in 1961, were once the most dominant squad in the history of D.C. team chess. In the 1990s, the Rooks’ six-man lineup included three players with Senior Master ratings, sort of the chess equivalent of a third-degree black belt. In 2007, nobody in the entire league boasted a Senior Master rating. (Full disclosure: One of the Rooks’ former Senior Masters is Geoff McKenna, who along with being a three-time Virginia state chess champion, is my brother.)

“Break up the Rooks!” declared Washington Times chess columnist David Sands in a May 1996 article about the D.C. Chess League’s talent imbalance, written shortly after the squad had won another in a long string of team titles.

But, after Sands’ story came out, the Rooks stopped winning. And they didn’t even need to be broken up to become beatable.

No, the rest of the league just needed the Rooks to get old. Along with getting the Rooks back to the top, Lu reminded his older mates, all of whom were around when Sands called for the team’s disbanding, of a truism of their favorite pastime: “Chess is a young man’s game,” says Mouzon, 77. “You start playing, and you get better until you reach a point where you stop getting better. I know I’m not the player I was 25 years ago. I’m not even the player I was a year ago. We weren’t getting younger. I didn’t know if I’d ever win another championship.”

Then along came Lu, who Morris recruited last year after deciding his team needed a transfusion of young blood. Lu, a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, came recommended by a tournament director who’d seen him play at the U.S. Chess Center, located downtown.

In his first season of trading pawns alongside a bunch of chess geezers, the teenager played in seven of the Rooks’ nine matches and won every game. He was the only player on the team to win all his games. (My brother, er, McKenna, played in two more matches than Lu, and went 8-0-1 on the season, good enough to win the league’s MVP award for 2007.) Some of Lu’s W’s were bigger than others: His win over the Knights’ Matt Grinberg in March gave the Rooks a tie against the reigning champs, and provided his team with its half-point margin of victory over the Knights in the final 2007 D.C. Chess League standings.

“I knew two of my teammates had already lost that night, so while my game was going on we were on the verge of losing as a team,” says Lu of his biggest victory. “That changed the way I’d normally play, since I couldn’t play for a draw. But I went for it, and I won, and I know that helped the team [win the title]. I learned a lot from that and about camaraderie and the importance of contributing to a team, being a part of something bigger and not just playing chess as an individual.

“But I agree that the game is for the young.”

Asked how, being only in his mid-teens, he could draw a conclusion better suited for somebody Mouzon’s age, Lu says, “Well, I know you need a lot of energy to play chess. And I’ve read articles.”

To the casual observer, it makes no sense that a chess player’s tools would erode at about the same age as a fighter’s or a quarterback’s. It’s a board game, for chrissakes.

But, as Howard Cosell used to say, that’s the way it is.

None of the three aforementioned Senior Masters on the Rooks’ 1996 squad has been able to sustain the requisite 2,400-plus rating over the years, so they’ve all been stripped of that lofty title.

A look at the current rankings of the world’s top players as compiled by the global chess sanctioning body, Federation International des Esches (FIDE), shows a youthful skew, too: 12 of FIDE’s Top 25 players are in their 20s or younger. (Magnus Carlsen of Norway, No. 16 in the world, is only 17.) Historically, the top tier players have been youngsters, also: Bobby Fischer, America’s greatest gift to chess, became the top-rated player in this country when he was just 14 and became the top-rated player in the world when he was 21.

No major studies have ever been conducted to figure out why chess-playing ability peaks before midlife. But Mouzon has a theory: “If you play seriously, eventually chess takes too much out of you emotionally, and you reach a point where the stress is too much,” he says. “It’s a game where you’re playing for four hours, and then you make one mistake and that costs you everything, and then you spend hours thinking of how you could have avoided whatever caused you not to win. You find yourself waking up in the middle of the night screaming, ‘I could have played queen-to-rook-7!’ Physically, I have no ailments. But I can’t take that anymore.” (Fischer was 32 when he gave up his world championship and all the cracks in his foundation began showing.)

Lu, meanwhile, says he now uses chess to relieve the stress caused by schoolwork.

Morris says he hopes Lu will be back next season to help the Rooks defend their title. But the youngster has other ideas. Lu says he’s begun contacting all the best high-school players in the Washington area in hopes of forming an all-teen team to enter the D.C. Chess League next season.

“I know you don’t peak as a player as a teenager,” he says, “but I think bringing together the top high-school talent, and making a team from that, will be a very interesting experiment.”

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