Danial Asaria beat his first grandmaster in a chess tournament when he was 15-years-old, and now the Samohi graduate is on his way becoming a grandmaster himself, thanks to a recent victory in last month’s North American Junior U-20 Championship.

During the tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina last December, Asaria finished in first place with 8 wins in 9 games.

“As a result, I won the title of International Master; the title directly under Grandmaster,” Asaria said in an interview where he shared he was also awarded one grandmaster norm, which you need three of in order to achieve the rank of Grandmaster. “This means that if I have two more excellent tournament performances, then I will be a Grandmaster.”

However, with COVID-19 changing the way of life for nearly everybody in 2020, Asaria said the world of chess is no different so he is unsure when he will have an opportunity to play again. However, the experience from the junior championships will remain with him for life.

“With everything going wrong in the world, I was just lucky to play the game. This was definitely a different type of experience since it was during COVID, so, of course, everything changed,” Asaria said, noting there were constant temperature checks, masks requirements and the event lacked the typical amount of intermingling that players usually enjoy. “I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting much heading into the tournament. I was even behind from the beginning after an early loss.”

Luckily, chess is a game where there’s no elimination, according to Asaria. Instead, you play a total of nine rounds, and whoever gets the most points out of those nine rounds wins. “So, there’s always a chance to come back,” and he did thanks to eight straight victories in the competition.

It’s rare for a 19-year-old to be so close to achieving the rank of Grandmaster, Asaria said. “On top of that, most grandmasters drop out of college and I haven’t so that also puts me apart from the pack a little. I mean, I haven’t even had a coach for the past four years.”

Luckily, Asaria does have the chest community, which he has come to rely on.

“I was preparing the week before with one guy from Cuba, because we just became friends and we started playing over Skype. Then the next day, I connected with someone from North Carolina and a different country. That’s a rewarding experience that I love about chess. We’re separated lately but I can still connect with random people in random streets over this random game,” Asaria said.

But practice isn’t all fun and games. And residents will be reminded of the hit Netflix show Queen’s Gambit when you hear how the former Franklin Elementary School standout studies his chess books.

“Usually you get a textbook and there’s a bunch of games and some commentary. You go through the games to understand it but I don’t physically play the games. I go through all of them by just reading and picturing the games in my head,” Asaria said. “I’m trying to really challenge myself to visualize where all the pieces are and why. I feel mental exercises like this really help me because they’re super challenging but this prepares my mind for when I go into the tournament. I can out-calculate more people because I’ll have this pattern recognition and this ability to hold the position in my mind and see things maybe they don’t see.”

Following his win in the North American Junior U-20 Championship, Asaria expects to be the official representative for the United States in the Pan American Championship, but that is up in the air due to the pandemic.

Until then, Asaria said he plans to partake in a national initiative with the Aga Khan Education Board/Youth and Sports Board to virtually teach free chess classes to Ismaili Muslim kids around the country.

Brennon@smdp.com