Dover girl, 7, making moves in chess world

Lillian Poliquin, 7, performs a five-move checkmate at her home in Dover. The Holy Cross School pupil is ranked No. 78 nationally among the top 100 female players her age by the United States Chess Federation. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Clearly an advanced strategic thinker for her age, chess standout Lillian “Lilly” Poliquin of Dover is still every bit of a 7-year-old.

With a hint of prideful glee, the first-grader answers first that “I like beating boys” when asked what she enjoys about the game.

The Holy Cross School pupil is ranked No. 78 nationally among the top 100 female players her age by the United States Chess Federation.

“I feel happy,” she said succinctly when asked what the honor means to her.

Given the choice between playing the game or watching YouTube videos, she’d pick the latter even though “It has bad words.”

The child has dabbled in soccer, gymnastics and jumping on the trampoline as she finds her activity niche.

Oh, and there’s also time devoted to playing “Roblox” on the computer and reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books.

She likes the queen chess piece the most because of course “it’s the one that makes checkmate.”

Lilly started playing chess at age 5 after watching older brother Ronin — a fourth-grader — play in tournaments.

“Her brother is very good,” Mr. Poliquin said. “She saw him playing in tournaments and kept asking ‘Can I go? Can I go?’

“I didn’t think it would be her thing.”

The national ranking came from playing in 16 sanctioned tournaments, and receiving scores and a rating based on results against other players.

After beginning her career with a 110 rating, Lilly has shot up to a 500 player now. The upcoming SuperNationals VI from May 12 to 14 in Nashville, Tennessee could further boost the number.

“Lily is aggressive and she’s very good at putting together checkmates,” Mr. Poliquin said. “She needs to be more patient setting up the attack. She tends to go for the kill quickly.”

While his daughter didn’t immediately reveal immense skills through her play, Mr. Poliquin noticed she kept wanting to play more and more.

“Kids that stick with it generally get better,” Mr. Poliquin said. “The perseverance is something that keeps them coming back.”

Part of a program

Holy Cross has 35 chess-playing students from first through eighth grade and their coach Mr. Poliquin described the demand for chess in the school as “overwhelming.”

The program is in its fourth year, and the coach said many other students want to join. Beginners practice for an hour on Monday and the advance players take to the board on Friday. A Saturday session is open to all area youths.

“We’re not babysitting them,” Mr. Poliquin said. “They’re playing a game and we’re teaching a skill that challenges them to be the best they can be at it.”

Outsiders might have the wrong impression of the youth chess culture.

“A lot of people see chess as a scholarly, serious pursuit,” Mr. Poliquin said. “A lot of these tournaments are like a pizza party with a chess tournament to go with it.”

Moms and dads watching their sons and daughters compete is not drama-free, however.

“There are definitely chess parents out there that are intense,” Mr. Poliquin said. “There’s a healthy balance between pushing your kids and not being overbearing at the same time.”

There’s no self-generated pressure on Lilly, at least not yet.

“She won’t be bothered by a loss or a tie and takes it in stride, so I don’t think she experiences any sort of nervousness or anxiety,” Mr. Poliquin said.

Of course, it helps to be in a dominant position most of a match. Lily has sometimes played with a stuffed animal at her side as she systematically overwhelms a surprised opponent.

“It’s important for each kid to find something they are good at without parents holding their hand,” Mr. Poliquin said. “She’s doing something most kids her age can’t do — concentrate on the world’s toughest game — and doing it well.”

Other Holy Cross players to compete at SuperNational include her brother Ronin, Sage Sawhney, Patrick Sharkey, Alexander Sharkey, Justin Yeung, Ayush Patel, Kosi Umobi, Javen Kwok, Shraman Prasanth, Koby Onugu, Jacob Lu and Cindy Lu.

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