Josiah Stearman hopes to virtually checkmate his way to a national championship.
The Martinez boy is one of 32 kids nationwide, and one of five from the Bay Area, competing in Chesskid.com's second annual Online National Chess Championships. The tournament began Friday and continues through Monday.
Ranked the top 9-year-old player in the state by the U.S. Chess Federation and No. 4 in the country, Josiah began Friday with round-robin play at the Berkeley Chess School, where one of its employees was serving as a tournament director to make sure players don't cheat while competing online.
"I am going to play normal, because even though you don't see your opponent, it doesn't really matter," Josiah said before competing in his first U.S. Chess Federation-sponsored online tournament. "You are still playing the same person; it doesn't matter if you are playing them online."
Chess online is not a new trend with Chesskid.com's parent company, Chess.com, which has 7.3 million members worldwide. However, what is different is Chesskid.com conducting a national championship online that is sanctioned by the U.S. Chess Federation, the governing body of chess in this country that rates tournaments and ranks players in a variety of categories, said David Petty, Chesskid.com's site manager.
"The online component makes it unique because, normally, national championships require the players to fly in and stay in the same place," Petty said. "We had to ask special permission for the tournament because it is a rated tournament and there is a much higher chance for cheating."
To prevent cheating, players can either play at a local chess house and have the games monitored by a site or tournament director or play at home under the supervision of an unbiased adult and the player's parents. The games are monitored so closely to prevent players from potentially using outside software programs or other resources to gain an advantage.
This year's tournament has doubled in size, with two new divisions, under-10 and girls under-13, added to the under-8 and under-12. The number of players also grew from 16 to 32. There are eight players in each division, and the players were selected based on the U.S. Chess Federation's age rankings.
Josiah has logged hundreds of games since he picked up chess at age 4 after watching his father relearn the game. Since then, Josiah has participated across the world, including the World Youth Championships in Brazil two years ago, and has been invited to this year's world championships in Dubai in December.
"I didn't think he could do chess at that age (4), but Josiah got into it and was occasionally beating his dad," said Josiah's mom, Sarah Stearman. "I was surprised because I didn't think that, intellectually, they could do that much complicated thinking."
But Josiah isn't the only kid in the Bay Area conquering the chess competition.
Ted Castro, the founder and director of Fremont's NorCal House of Chess, has four of his students, who are all ranked high in their age groups, also competing in the national championship, including 7-year-olds Balaji Daggupati, of San Ramon and Rishith Susarla, of Fremont; Tanuj Vasudeva, 11, of Saratoga; and Ashirtha Eswaran, 12, of San Jose.
The NorCal House of Chess began eight years ago in the Newark public library and has grown into one of the best-known kids clubs in the Bay Area.
Castro credits the success of Bay Area kids with access to the game in the area, increased competition level and the ability for kids to play it any time online.
"Chesskid has been very active for the past few years and brought in a lot of kids to the game of chess," Castro said. "But even before Chesskid, there were online websites, and now the technology makes it so convenient, and that is why kids are getting better because they have a chance every minute to play."