'She's a blessing to us all': 18-year-old chess prodigy is special in more ways than one

·5 min read

Percy Yip is not a parent who will lose on purpose to his child. His daughter, Carissa Yip, learned this the hard way.

After learning the game in an elementary school chess club, she played with her dad every day in their Chelmsford, Massachusetts, home. And she lost more times than she can count.

Admittedly, she was a sore loser then. Yip asked her mother to persuade her father to let her win.

“She tried to convince him and he was like, ‘No, absolutely not,’” she said. “I was pretty disappointed about that.”

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The losses continued for months, but Yip never stopped requesting rematches — until she finally beat her dad. Yip still recalls when she checkmated him.

How young, you might ask.

“I think 6. Oh, my dad said, ‘No, 7,’” Carissa said smiling after her dad corrected her.

On Thursday, Yip begins competing in the U.S. Junior Championship as the only woman among 10 competitors.

Chess dominance

Yip, 18, is the second highest-rated chess player among women in the U.S., according to the International Chess Federation, and an international master, the second-highest title in chess. She became the youngest American woman to beat a grandmaster at 10 years old and the youngest American woman to reach national master status at 11.

She describes herself as a dynamic player who attacks her opponent's pieces, and her favorite part of the sport is the creativity that it fosters.

She was crowned champion in the 2021 U.S. Women’s Chess Championship at the St. Louis Chess Club. She defeated 38-year-old grandmaster Irina Krush, the highest-rated U.S. chess player among women, and became the first to defeat four former U.S. champions in the women’s field.

Eighteen-year-old International Master Carissa Yip was crowned U.S. Women’s Champion with a round to spare, finishing with an 8.5/11 score. The tournament was held at the Saint Louis Chess Club in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Eighteen-year-old International Master Carissa Yip was crowned U.S. Women’s Champion with a round to spare, finishing with an 8.5/11 score. The tournament was held at the Saint Louis Chess Club in Saint Louis, Missouri.

While her accolades are vast, she is not as self-absorbed with her abilities as one may think.

“I don’t give too much thought to my chess successes,” Yip said. “I'm honestly not anything special.”

Despite her successes, Yip's father says her positive attitude is what stands out.

“She’s very optimistic and that in turn, I think, is very good in terms of playing chess, because she's not afraid of losing,” Percy said.

Still, her optimism was temporarily shaken by a string of losses.

In 2020, Yip played against the best women chess players in the world at the Cairns Cup, entering as the lowest-rated player. She came out flat, losing consecutive games for the first few days of the tournament.

“I got just totally steamrolled,” Yip said. “I just felt like everyone was just watching me fail miserably.”

At 16, this was her first time on the world stage. She said she wasn’t living up to the standards of the tournament or her own expectations.

But just like when she was losing to her dad as a child, her optimism prevailed.

She won four of her last five games, taking home $8,000 in prize money.

'I do feel extra pressure'

Yip starts competing Thursday in round one of the U.S. Junior Championship at the same venue in St. Louis, the mecca of chess and her favorite city to play. While excited, Yip is a bit more nervous than usual — it will be her first time playing in an open section against men at this level. She will be the only woman out of 10.

“I do feel extra pressure,” Yip said. “There's more on the line here, there's more at stake than just my personal satisfaction with my performance.”

This pressure as a woman chess player is something she accepts and “learned to carry.” Her passions for philosophy and her favorite TV shows, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "Fresh Off the Boat," give her an outlet against chess expectations.

'Blessing' in more ways than one

Yip wants to reach the grandmaster level at some point, in the short term, she will attend Stanford University in the fall and will likely pursue liberal arts.

While many chess prodigies are homeschooled to focus on the game, Yip opted against that route because she wanted to indulge in traditional learning in the classroom, which she did at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

Carissa Yip hopes to be a grandmaster, but before that happens, she will attend Stanford University in the fall.
Carissa Yip hopes to be a grandmaster, but before that happens, she will attend Stanford University in the fall.

Even more important, she wanted to be “treated like a normal person” and was unwilling to let her chess talents jeopardize her ability to form meaningful relationships with others.

One of those relationships is with Frank Zhou, 18, a classmate and close friend. In May, Zhou organized a public demonstration calling for Andover’s divestment from fossil fuels. Yip attended to support the cause and her friend.

That Saturday afternoon, Zhou exerted all his energy leading hundreds with his megaphone in hand. By the protest’s end, he was completely drained when  Yip approached him with  exactly what he needed: a fresh salad from the dining hall.

Upon delivering the meal and hearing a faint “oh my gosh” from Zhou, Yip said, “I know.” She not only knew the exact ingredients he liked in his salad but also that  Zhou did not eat that day.

“Her gentle affirmation — and even gentler friendship — left me with tears in my eyes,” Zhou said. “She’s so loving and so good at finding what the people around her need … she’s a blessing to us all and I mean that as a person not as a chess player, though she is a blessing to the chess community too.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Carissa Yip, 18-year-old chess prodigy, special in more ways than one

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