When asked if she is good at chess, 14-year-old Sheena Zeng might respond with a modest shrug. But the many large trophies lining the wall in her family’s living room tell a different story.
Zeng, who just completed her sophomore year at Thomas More Prep-Marian, is this year’s Kansas All Girls chess champion and also holds the title of National All-Girls Champion following a contest in Chicago last month.
Those titles also have earned her the right to play in the World Youth Chess Championship, representing U.S. Chess. That tournament will be in Greece next fall, and Zeng is the only Kansas student attending.
“I know a lot of people think it’s like a nerd sport, or that it’s not even a sport — it’s just a board game,” Zeng said. “But it feels like a sport. You get tired if you sit for too long, especially your brain — it gets tired too. I just like thinking, I guess, and you have to do a lot of that in chess.”
She got her start in the game at the young age of 7 after watching her sister play with some chess pieces.
“I thought they looked interesting, so my dad taught me,” she said.
A board is set up in the family’s living room, and Zeng estimates spending approximately 15 hours in practice every week. While most students look forward to rest and relaxation during summer months, Zeng usually crams in as many chess tournaments as possible, said her mother, Michelle Zeng.
The sport is quite competitive, and a player’s rating is affected by every win -- and every loss.
“In order for her to improve, she has to keep playing,” Michelle Zeng said. “Just like any sport.”
This won’t be Zeng’s first trip to the world finals. She first played for the United States youth chess team in 2014, traveling to South Africa. The red shirt with the American flag logo still fits, the teenager said.
Zeng also this year helped begin a chess club at O’Loughlin Elementary School, which is the school she previously attended. She had about a dozen students at the end of the school year, and hopes to continue the club as long as she’s in Hays.
“When I was at O’Loughlin and I played chess throughout the school year, I didn’t have a team to play with and it felt kind of lonely,” she said. “Now that I know what it’s like to play on a team, I wanted other people to feel that way too.”
She is a member of the TMP Chess Club, and helped lead the group to a 3A state championship this school year.
Between chess and a long trip to Europe with her family, Zeng said her summer will fill up pretty fast. And a whole new adventure awaits her this fall — the Hays teen has been accepted into Fort Hays State University’s Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science, which will put her on the fast track to a college education.
Zeng and other KAMS students will live in a dormitory on campus for their last two years of high school, and the program will provide a high school diploma and 68 hours of college credit. The advanced curriculum is geared toward academically gifted high school students and offers hands-on research and college-level instruction.
“I just felt like the academics at TMP, they’re good, but I felt like I wanted more of a challenge,” Zeng said. “So my parents suggested KAMS. And I saw that you could live in a dorm, you could be like a college student. So I thought hey, that sounds fun. I decided to do that.”
She’s obviously got a few years to decide what her next chapter will be, but it’s clear Zeng is intending to aim high. She hasn’t yet decided on a college, but is interested in learning more about Johns Hopkins University and other top 10 schools, she said.
And her future career path likely could be a science-related career — definitely something that makes her think.
“I was considering like science careers, such as being a doctor, biochemistry, that kind of stuff,” she said. “I’m also really interested in biology, so maybe something in that field too.”