Coach Interview: IM-Elect Parker Zhao

I think there’s something special about having a tremendous player like Parker Zhao teaching chess lessons to beginners. Chess and teaching have been major threads in his life. Check out what an accomplished player and academic has to say about his journey!


When did you start studying chess?


I first started playing chess when I was 4. My dad had just purchased a desktop computer for work, and to keep me occupied, he bought a single disk of games. This disk was one of those game compilation CDs that were popular in 1999, and my version boasted a total of 1001 games.

According to my dad, he initially set 4-year-old-me up to play a shooting game, but when he came to check on me later, I had somehow found the game of chess from the list of 1001 games, and I was trying to learn the rules. My dad, thinking that chess was too complicated for a child my age, decided not to help me learn the game and figured that I would eventually give up and find another game. Fortunately for me and my chess career, computer programs back in 1999 were already sophisticated enough to tell you when a move you want to make was an illegal move. Eventually, through hours of trial and error, I figured out the rules, and chess became one of my favorites among the 1001 games.


What was your first significant chess memory?


One of my first significant memories ever was playing at the Manhattan Chess Club (which sadly closed in 2002). I was 5 at the time, and my mom entered me in a 4-person round robin tournament with cash prizes. I ended up taking 1st place, winning against each one of my adult opponents. After I had won, the tournament director handed my mom an envelope with my cash prize. It was a pretty exciting experience for me to compete on an equal footing with adults and to be paid for the first time.


What advice would you give a new player? 


Learning to play chess is like learning a new language. There is no point unless you have fun and enjoy the process. If you don't think chess is fun, then learning the rules becomes a chore, and it can get boring really fast. I would really encourage new players to just have fun playing chess games with their friends and other players of their skill level. As they learn the rules of the game, their games will become more and more interesting, and it will give players motivation to continue learning about the game.


Why do you love teaching chess?


I think teaching is like a logic puzzle or a game in and of itself. Different people have different ways of learning, and I enjoy thinking of multiple ways to teach a concept to suit the style of a particular student. It's especially rewarding when a certain teaching method succeeds and you get to see their progress.


When do you think kids should start to play in tournaments?


From personal experience, it's never too early to consider having kids play in tournaments. However, it does depend on personality and what draws the kid to play chess in the first place. If a kid really likes to win, then they should play in less competitive tournaments. If a kid likes to play against other kids, scholastic tournaments might be more suitable. If a kid is not competitive and just likes to play with friends, it might be a good idea to take them to see a real chess tournament to see how they feel. There are many ways to ease kids into playing tournaments, so I would not put a hard age cut-off on when a kid starts to play in them.