Teen chess champ stays one move ahead

April 15, 1999


photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

SMITHSBURG - Stephen Kurz has masterminded more battles than most kids his age.

He's sacrificed pawns to protect queens, and shielded kings with bishops. He's used strategy and tactics to outsmart opposing forces.


The eighth-grader at Smithsburg Middle School has all the right moves.

"Chess is a thinking game," Kurz, 13, said. "It strains your brain."

He can even play blindfolded.

The son of Corriene and Peter Kurz, of Smithsburg, Kurz said he competes in chess tournaments throughout the East Coast.

He challenged players from around the world to win the 1995 National Championship for Class E in Syracuse, N.Y.


His team placed in the top 10 at the 1994 Hungarian National Championships in Debrecen, Hungary.

"They did respectively well in a country where chess is life," Correine Kurz said.

The Kurz family lived in Hungary for a year, during which time Stephen, who began playing chess when his father gave him his first set at age 6, said the game became an important part of his life.

"They take chess very seriously in Hungary," Kurz said. "It's considered a sport."

Kurz said Hungarian children are encouraged to learn the game at a young age. There are chess clubs and tutors to further skills.

Kurz fit right in.

He joined one of Hungary's top chess clubs, the meetings of which featured lectures on strategy as well as tactical demonstrations.

Despite the language barrier, Kurz said his club membership and Hungarian mentor proved to be invaluable to his development as a chess player.

"He inspired me, and showed me a whole new approach to things," Kurz said. "It was the year that I improved the most."

Kurz said one of his most memorable experiences was playing chess against Hungarian champion Zsofia Polgar, who is one of the top 10 women chess players in the world.

She played him blindfolded, a technique Kurz said he has been practicing.

Armed with a photographic memory, Kurz can predict moves and stay one step ahead of his opponent.

"I can picture the board and the pieces in my mind," he said.

Kurz entered the third grade at Smithsburg Elementary School upon his family's return to the U.S. Unaware that the town's high school had a chess club, Kurz's parents drove him to Silver Spring, Md., to play in a club there once a week.

In fourth grade, Kurz began competing with the Smithsburg High School chess team. He was 9-years-old.

"When I sat down to play, I didn't think about the opponent," Kurz said. "It's all about strategy. It doesn't matter how big you are."

Scholastic chess teams are organized according to player skill levels. The top player is considered "first board."

When Kurz began playing with the Smithsburg High School chess team, he said he was ranked third board. He said he moved to second board in fifth and sixth grades, and to first board in seventh grade.

Due to the resignation of the coach, the Smithsburg High School Chess Club disbanded this year, Peter Kurz said.

Yet, Stephen Kurz continues to hone his skills, and compete on the tournament circuit.

He said he practices at home with his father, who is "a very good chess player." Kurz also tests his tactics on a computerized chess board, which he said he can program to different rating levels.

In addition, the Internet offers a broad range of information about the game, Kurz said.

He said hastiness is the easiest mistake to make.

"If you don't think, you're done," Kurz said.

Though chess's many rules and moves can prove frustrating to novices, Kurz urged budding chess players to stick with the game.

"There's all kinds of opportunities," he said. "It's a great way to meet people."

But beware of the chair.

Kurz said he finds sitting still through matches that can last up to six hours to be the most challenging aspect of the game.

"It's hard for an active young boy," he said.

And Stephen Kurz is active.

He said he is on the student council, plays trumpet in the school band, and has made distinguished honor roll with straight-As since sixth grade.

Then there's soccer.

"I love to play soccer. It's my favorite thing to do in the world, even more than chess," Kurz said.

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