Ready for the next move: Hays' Sheena Zeng set to compete in U.S. Junior Chess Championship

Randy Gonzales
Special to Hays Daily News
Hays teenager Sheena Zeng will compete in in the U.S. Junior Chess Championship starting Thursday in St. Louis.

Hays teenager Sheena Zeng had hoped in recent years to be invited to the top chess tournament in the United States. She had never made the field, and was pleasantly surprised when she learned in May she would compete in the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, starting Thursday at Saint Louis Chess Club in St. Louis, Mo.

“I have been watching this tournament since 2018,” Zeng said. “I always wished I could play in that tournament, but my rating was never high enough.

“I thought I would get invited last year, because I hit a new peak in 2019,” she added. “I thought I would qualify, but my rating wasn’t high enough last year, either. So, I was pretty surprised when I was invited this year.”

Zeng has the seventh-best rating in the 10-player field.

“It was kind of unexpected that I got invited, so I haven’t had much time to prepare,” Zeng said. “I’m just going to try to play games I’m proud of, and hope for the best.”

Zeng, now 17, started playing when she was a seven-year-old, and soon started competing in tournaments. Her older sister played chess and Zeng’s father, Hongbiao, played and helped teach her. Hongbiao is a professor of mathematics and computer science at Fort Hays State University, and Sheena’s mother, Michelle, is an instructor in the same department.

Zeng said she had an advantage when she first started playing in tournaments.

“I used to be the youngest one in tournaments,” Zeng said. “I kind of miss those times, too. Everyone would underestimate me. Most of the time, I would beat them.”

It has become difficult to underestimate Zeng in the ensuing years. Among her accomplishments is earning the National Master title in 2019, which requires a U.S. Chess Federation rating of at least 2200. During her chess career Zeng also has been Kansas All Girls champion and National All-Girls Champion. She also has played in an all-world tournament in Greece, as well as tournaments across the United States.

Zeng said she knew chess might turn into something special when she won a big tournament when she was 14.

“It was my first national tournament victory,” Zeng said. “I was thinking, ‘Maybe I can pursue this more than as a hobby.’  ”

Zeng said playing chess allows her an escape from the outside world.

“Thinking through the problems on the board, I like that,” Zeng said. “When I’m thinking about it, I don’t have to worry about my other problems. If I have school, I don’t have to think about that right now. My focus is on the game.”

Zeng watched the popular Netflix series about a chess prodigy, “The Queen’s Gambit,” with her friends. She laughed when she said that she did not see chess moves on the ceiling while lying in bed. Instead of trying to think several moves ahead in a game, Zeng has a different strategy.

“I think the more important thing is evaluating the position after a couple moves,” Zeng said.

Zeng first went to Thomas More Prep-Marian for high school, then transferred to Hays High School and became part of FHSU’s Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science (KAMS). She graduated a year ago from the early college program, earning college credits. She will attend the University of Michigan in the fall, majoring in mathematics.

Zeng hoped to take a gap year and travel the world, playing in chess tournaments. But the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to those plans.

In addition to going bike-riding with a friend and reading for pleasure during the past year, Zeng started learning Chinese and practicing chess in online tournaments.

Now, Zeng is ready for the next move in the chessboard of life.

“I think I will keep playing it, but not sure how seriously in the future,” she said, “because I might be more focused on my academics.”