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Check mate

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

Imagine what youngsters had to talk about when they returned to school Tuesday, fresh off the long winter break.

Which techno gadget they received this Christmas. Cousins they got to see who come to visit only a couple times a year. How much fun they had sledding after the New Year's Eve snowfall.

One 8-year-old Hays girl might have topped them all.

Sheena Zeng, a fourth-grader at O'Loughlin Elementary School, had a story that surely matched no other when she told classmates and friends about the $2,000-plus she won playing chess during the break.

Sheena spent the holidays traveling to chess tournaments in two states, capturing second place, and $1,837, in her age division at the North American Open in Las Vegas and another $364 at the New Year's Open in Santa Clara, Calif.

She also competed in another tournament, in the Winter Open in San Jose, Calif., but "didn't do so well because she was sick," said Sheena's dad, Hongbiao Zeng, who also competed in a few tournaments, claiming a cash prize in one of the adult divisions.

"But I didn't win the money she won," he said with a chuckle. "I won $50 and $160."

Hongbiao is a math professor at Fort Hays State University, where his wife, Michelle, is an instructor in the same department. Hongbiao has an older daughter from a previous marriage who first introduced her younger sister to chess when Sheena was 6.

The Zengs want it all for Sheena, who plays the piano and was a whiz at chess almost from the first time she laid eyes on a rook and a knight.

"I never shoot any hoops," admitted Shenna, who said she is too busy for sports. "Everybody makes fun of me."

What they don't know is Sheena actually is an accomplished athlete. The 8-year-old daughter of Chinese and Vietnamese natives, Sheena is a 4-foot, 1-inch, 47-pound dynamo who already has earned a black belt in tae kwon do.

Sheena started playing chess a few summers ago "for fun" at Hays Public Library. She picked it up quickly, winning the junior division of the annual summer tournament.

Sheena's impressive resume now includes a U.S. Junior Open championship and top four finishes in numerous other national and international competitions.

An avid reader, Sheena also won the accelerated reader contests both her first- and third-grade years at O'Loughlin.

What about second grade, you might wonder? She skipped second grade, thus the reason she's yet to reach her ninth birthday as a fourth-grader who attends fifth-grade math class.

Coaches at Anatoly Karpov International School of Chess in Lindsborg in 2011 were so impressed with Sheena's potential, her parents received more than one call, inquiring about coaching the prodigy.

Now, Sheena does have a grand master coach, from whom she receives an hour of online instruction once a week.

That's when the Zengs started looking for larger chess tournaments.

"She's doing well, so we want to encourage her," Sheena's mom said.

Sheena takes advice from her parents, for example, socking away the money she earned from her winnings.

"Whatever she does, I just do with her," said Hongbiao, who also earned a black belt in tae kwon do along with his daughter.

But Sheena won't play her dad in chess.

"I don't like to lose," she said.

"Someday," Sheena's dad said. "Maybe next summer."

Trophies half as tall as Sheena decorate the top of the entertainment center in the family's home.

A huge portrait of a young girl with long dark hair hangs on another wall of the living room.

That's Sheena, who looks a bit different with her game face on. When it's chess time, Sheena sits up and is as serious as they get, with her fiery dark eyes peering studiously over her glasses.

"You're not supposed to smile when you play chess," she said. "It makes people think you're not serious."

But make no mistake, Sheena is dead serious about chess.

Nevermind she has to sit on her legs to reach the board.

Last year, Sheena finished fourth out of 146 competitors in the grade 3-and-under division, and was the top third-grader overall at the Kansas Scholastic Chess Association State Championships in Lawrence.

After Sheena's success during the winter break, this year's fourth-graders should beware.