Sometimes attaining a goal can be a struggle, but all one needs is a single opportunity for a breakthrough moment.
For Hays teen Sheena Zeng, that time came at the beginning of this month when she was able to represent Kansas at the Denker Tournament of High School Champions and earned the title of national master in chess.
Zeng, however, was not originally supposed to attend the Orlando, Fla., tournament.
“In order to get invited to that, you have to win your state high school championship, but I actually only got fourth, so I wasn’t expecting to go,” she said Thursday morning.
But the state high school winner decided not to go to the Denker Tournament, as did the two finishers behind him.
Although Zeng and her parents, Michelle and Hongbiao Zeng, had decided she would play in the U.S. Open chess tournament also in Orlando, she decided to take the opportunity for the Denker Tournament.
She won two games and went to a draw on four — including one to the highest-rated player in the field — earning 4 of 6 points in the tournament. She also won the Ursala Foster Award, given to the top finisher under the age of 16. It includes a $500 prize.
But maybe more importantly, during that tournament, her U.S. Chess Federation rating increased to 2200, earning her the title of national master. That’s just one rating category below the highest title of senior master.
“I know a lot of people work for that title, and some people might not be able to get it. Some people get it easily, but some people also struggle, so it’s really good that I was able to get that title especially at such an important and prestigious tournament,” she said.
Attaining that title had become somewhat of a struggle for Zeng. She had hoped to do so last year.
“I was trying to get it ever since last June or July, but after that it was really hard to increase my rating above 2090 to 2100 goal, so definitely breaking through finally is important to me,” she said.
Zeng has been playing chess since she was 7. She has earned the title of Kansas All Girls chess champion and National All-Girls Champion, playing last year in the World Youth Chess Championship in Greece.
At Thomas More Prep-Marian High School, she was a member of the Chess Club and helped the team win the 3A state championship in her freshman year. She also started a chess club at O’Loughlin Elementary School, which she attended, and plans to continue working with the club.
But in looking for a greater academic challenge, she was accepted for her junior year in Fort Hays State University’s Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science, earning college credit while finishing her last two years of high school.
While she says she enjoys KAMS and the more professional level of communication with the professors, the increased classwork cut into her chess training time and contributed to her early summer struggle this year, she said.
“I just wasn’t practicing hard enough,” she said.
The death of one of her coaches in February also had an effect on her, she said.
Predrag Trajkovic, a grandmaster from Serbia, was her coach since 2014.
“That was very sad for me. I feel it had an impact on how I played a little bit. My achievements this summer should be dedicated to him because he gave me some information that really helped me with the games I won. And he was a very good coach,” she said.
Now, she works with two coaches in Europe through Skype and digital chess boards.
But she also credits her earlier coaches in Hays: Randy Brull and Kevin Nyberg at TMP, as well as Erin Holder, now the Hays High School chess club sponsor.
She also said her parents have been supportive.
“I’m very grateful they want me to do this, and they’re giving me the opportunity to go to all these places,” she said.
Zeng said she’s not sure yet were she would like to go to college after she graduates from KAMS next spring, but thinks she would like to major in a mathematics field.
And she expects chess will be a part of her life for at least a while longer.
“I feel like when I’m playing, all my responsibilities ... I just don’t have any responsibilities during a tournament. I can just relax and think and play,” she said.