When Clarissa Abella needs some quiet time, all she has to do is pull out a chessboard and its pieces.
“The only thing you hear is (the) clock being hit or footsteps,” she said of the sounds during a chess tournament.
The silence during a tournament can be disconcerting to those who aren’t used to it, but for Clarissa, her mind is focused on the task at hand. She thinks about the moves ahead of her and trying to get a better position than her opponent.
“You have to be patient with your opponent,” she said. “You have to be able to slowly develop the advantage of your game.”
At 13, Clarissa, a Hubbard Middle School eighth-grader, is a mid-level chess player (albeit high level for her age) with dreams of becoming a household name in the chess world.
She started playing when she was 6 after watching her dad play and attending some tournaments with him.
Although her first tournaments were less than stellar — she didn’t win a single game her first time out — she stuck with it and under her father’s tutelage has quickly excelled.
Her first solid performance came during a regional tournament in Dallas when she was 6 1/2. There, she won second place in her third tournament.
“I didn’t expect her to win second place, maybe fifth place or in the top 10, that’s what (I was) hoping (for) her,” her father, Angelito Abella, said. “What she got was more than we were expecting from her.”
That win really boosted her confidence and stoked her desire to win more, she and her father said.
In 2009, at the age of 9, she competed in the Super Nationals, a competition held every four years. Although she didn’t place at the event, it whetted her appetite for more competition.
“I knew since then that I wanted to have a name in the chess (world),” she said.
At the end of her sixth-grade year, she moved out of the scholastic tournament world and into the U.S. class where she competes against adults for prize money.
Since then she has gradually moved up in her ratings starting as a Class C player during sixth grade and moving up to Class B her seventh-grade year, a rating she holds today.
Abella said the experience level and tenacity she is exposed to when she plays adults is an invaluable training ground for her.
In November 2012, she represented the U.S. at the World Youth Chess Championships in Slovenia in southern Europe. There she did well considering it was her first international tournament competing against some of the best young players in the world, Abella said. She earned 5.5 points in 11 rounds of play and had a mix of wins, losses and draws.
“It’s still a good showing since it’s her first international tournament,” he said. “Most of the kids who went there, that’s not their first time.”
At this point, her goal is to become a national master player, three ranks up from her current ranking and the fourth-highest-ranking overall.
Although she enjoys the game, she views it as a hobby, not something she aspires to play professionally, although the best do.
That being said, there are college scholarship opportunities available for talented chess players so that is something her father mentioned as a possibility.
He said his focus for her is that she will gain more experience and learn more.
“When you play with more experienced players, then … (there’s more) room to learn,” he said. “Losing is part of learning. They will not get better until they learn from losing.”
Clarissa said it’s the analysis and problem-solving aspects of the game that appeal to her.
“You’re just trying to think how to make your position better for you,” she said. “Are all my pieces developed? Is my king safe?”
To keep up her skills, she practices up to seven hours a week. She sometimes plays online in tournaments or on the computer to practice but said she finds she learns better and remembers more when she plays on an actual board and can touch the pieces.
Her father is the only coach she has ever had. And although he doesn’t pressure her, she said he is there to encourage her to be the best she can be and practice when she doesn’t want to. He’s also good at simplifying the concepts outlined in chess books, she said.
In addition to playing chess, Clarissa also swims competitively for the Hubbard Middle School team, and participates in the A+ Chess Puzzle competition in the University Interscholastic League.
Moving forward, Clarissa plans to continue improving her game but balance it with the rest of her life.
“It’s not something I want to do for a living,” she said of the game. “It’s a hobby for me.”