Making her moves: Staples grad is chess standout

Alexandra Wiener, an 18-year-old recent graduate of Staples High School, practices chess strategy at the Westport Public Library. She already has several national and state chess championship titles to her credit.
Alexandra Wiener, an 18-year-old recent graduate of Staples High School, practices chess strategy at the Westport Public Library. She already has several national and state chess championship titles to her credit.Meg Barone

Alexandra Wiener is used to making strategic moves. She's done it successfully on the chess board -- and in life -- since she was 9 years old, racking up an impressive list of stellar academic achievements, sports awards and chess championships.

Wiener was introduced to the cerebral game when she was 9, which has led to multiple championship titles, among them the 2010 United States All Girls National Chess Co-Champion (16 years and under category), six-time Connecticut State Female Scholastic Champion (2005-2006 and 2008-2011) and 2012 Chess Player Scholar Award.

While others celebrated the Fourth of July with picnics, parades and fireworks, Wiener spent her holiday competing in the first day of the five-day World Open Tournament in Philadelphia.

"It's probably one of my favorite tournaments. It's a hard tournament, but it's really fun. People come from all over," Wiener said.

Her first exposure to chess came as a child when her grandparents bought her a giant chessboard rug, which came with a bag of large chess pieces. Soon after that her mother, Nancy Sachs, enrolled Wiener in chess classes at Norwalk Community College where she picked up the game quickly and her instructor took notice. Wiener entered her first chess competition only a few months later.

So, she really grew up playing the game, which some think of as the domain of the highly intellectual. "In the U.S., chess has a nerdy personality but in other countries it's like playing soccer," said Wiener, who straddles both worlds.

The recent Staples High School graduate, who will study at the Ivy League's Brown University in the fall, maintained a 3.87 grade point average in high school and played varsity soccer at Staples, on which she was a center defender and the designated team corner/penalty kicker. She received the 2012 High School Scholar Athlete Award for that sport.

"I've spent almost every day of the last 10 or 11 years playing soccer," she said.

Wiener is a great defender on the chessboard, too.

Ethan Segall, 15, of Wilton, who met Wiener through local chess circles, calls her a "grinder." "She'll play for six hours if she has to and really takes her time to make the right move. If someone's going to beat her they'll definitely have to work for it. She never makes stupid mistakes -- She never really loses focus -- She just grinds and grinds and grinds. It's tough to play someone like that," said Segall, who competed in the World Open Tournament.

At Brown, Wiener will not declare a major right away. She chose the school because of its open curriculum, in which students are not mandated to take particular requirements. "That's why I was drawn to the school in general. I've always liked doing things in different areas. You get the chance to branch out and try other things," she said.

Still, Wiener is leaning toward education whether it will lead her to a formal classroom or a non-traditional setting. "Chess has a lot of parallels with education," said Wiener, who in 2011 became the first student to be appointed to the United States Chess Federation National Committee on Education. "This committee does a lot to integrate chess and education," she said, adding that studies have shown that children who play chess improve their reading and math scores.

Wiener said playing chess also develops critical thinking skills and teaches people to deal with stressful situations. "You play chess with a clock. There are different time controls in competitions. It teaches you to play under pressure," she said.

Wiener has worked as a private chess instructor and coach since 2008 and she earned coach certification from the U.S. Chess Federation last year.

"I will always play chess; I will always teach chess," she said. Wiener is particularly looking forward to taking a course at Brown next semester called Empowering Youth because she wants to do just that through chess. There is much to gain from chess, she said.

There are innumerable moves on the chessboard and many life lessons contained within those 64 squares, Wiener said. "The most important lesson for me was definitely learning not to quit something," she said, admitting that there were a few times when she almost walked away from chess. "I look back and I'm definitely glad I didn't. I have to thank my mom for that. She said it would pay off and it did."

Wiener has gained other skills and lessons from the game that she said are applicable to life and to the business world. "In chess you're always thinking ahead and planning your next move because if you're only looking one move into the future you'll probably not be a very good chess player," she said.

Wiener sees chess as an art as well as science. "That's what I love about it." She said books on the subject can teach almost anyone, regardless of their talent or lack there-of, how to play the game "but after a certain point you need the talent because you need the creative mind." Those who only learn chess through reading books will only be familiar with certain moves. "Coming across a position that you've never seen before is the real test of your chess ability," said Wiener, who constantly pushes herself to learn more about the game.

Wiener is currently rated 1900, but is striving for an expert rating of 2000. Chess masters have obtained ratings of 2200 range and grand masters, those chess players who are among the best in the world, have ratings between 2500 and 2700.

Segall said the ratings don't always reflect the skills of a chess player but Wiener's is on target. He said some players' ratings may go up because they performed well at a specific tournament but that their skill level may not really be as good as their rating.

"She has worked at it for a really long time and she is definitely where she's supposed to be," Segall said.

"I'd love to spend my time this summer getting up to 2000 because that's such a milestone, especially for women," Wiener said. That rating would put Wiener in rare company. It would rank her within the Top 40 women chess players under the age of 21 in the U.S.