Petersons raise family of chess achievers

Father, tournament director reflect on history of local chess champions

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Petersons raise family of chess achieversEven if Ridgecrest doesn’t have a concert hall, an Ivy League university or a world-renowned art museum, we may have our own unique cultural claim to fame if the quality of local chess players is any indication.

The four children of Richard and Deepika Petersen — each of whom has at least a national championship under his or her belt — are just the latest in a series of prodigies whose chess careers began in Ridgecrest.

“There is something weird about Ridgecrest,” said Richard. “I just don’t know any other way to say it, but when it comes to the chess players, for a town of our size, we are many standard deviations removed from the norm.”

Mick (13), Dante (11), Gia (9) and Jayani (7) have each regularly played — and usually finished first in their divisions — in the Scholastic Chess Tournament series, hosted by former Sierra Sands educator Dwight Morgan. These monthly events attract a hundred or more students from IWV and surrounding schools.

While only Mick and Jayani played (albeit above their grade levels) in Monday’s tournament, Dante and Gia offered tutorials to students (and parents) in the form of speed chess games at $1 a pop. The youngsters helped raise money toward the cost of the tournament series. And neither lost a game.

Richard dismissed the idea that his children were born with any special talent. “I have always had a bit of a hard time with that word,” he says. “I think it has more to do with hard work. I tell people that persistence is omnipotent.”

His own history with chess started as a youth, when it was just another board game of no particular importance.

But when Bobby Fischer defeated Soviet Boris Spassky in 1972 to become the first American ever to win a world championship, Richard sat up and took notice.

“I was in college at the time. And I don’t know why, but for some reason I was caught on that hook.”

His newfound fascination prompted him to start playing in tournaments. “Now everyone thinks they are the best until they play in a tournament. You can be the best player in the bar or the best player on the ship, but tournament players always beat nontournament players. They are just better.

And as he played more tournaments, Richard got better, too. But his tournament play came to an end when he got married. “Having a wife and children to support takes a lot of players away from the game. So I didn’t play for many years.”

After going through a divorce in the 1980s, he turned back to chess as something he and his eldest son, David, could do together. David had a similarly humdrum start, losing his first 30 games.

“But then, suddenly, he just got it,” recalled Richard. At age 7 David won the Texas state high school tournament, becoming the youngest ever to do so. He went on to win some 15 national championships and captured almost every record imaginable.

David’s sister, Andrea, made a similar splash onto the chess scene, especially when she became the first girl every to win a national championship. “It took 30 years for that to happen,” said Richard. She ended up winning two more after that.

David and Andrea are now a Ph.D and a CPA, respectively.

Richard decided he liked teaching chess so much that he walked away from a lucrative career in investment banking to focus on teaching chess to young people full time. Over the years he has taught the game to more than 3,000 students.

In 1998 he met and married Deepika. In 1999 they had Mick, and Dante arrived in 2001. In 2003 a serious accident left him with a brain injury and five years spent mostly on his back. “I thought I was done with chess,” he said. But Mick and Dante “literally dragged us back into the world of chess.”

Mick was participating in Morgan’s chess club at Inyokern Elementary School. Because Morgan knew Richard’s older children, he made an exception for Dante to join as well. Within a few short years Gia had joined them, and the siblings were practically taking turns winning the local tournaments where they faced players two and three times their age.

Several years ago Gia entered her first national tournament— the Polgar World Open, named for the world-famous chess-playing sisters from Hungary. When she was in kindergarten she tied for third. The next year — and two years after — she won, earning prizes that include a four-year scholarship to Texas Tech.

In January of this year the siblings each won grade-level championships at the state level, then won together as a team. “That is just unheard of,” said Richard. “I think you might have two siblings win at that level, but I’ve never heard of a family doing anything like this.”

This summer Dante’s skill “took off,” and in August he won all six of his games — including two against FIDI masters — at an adult tournament in Los Angeles. “He also had the highest-ever performance rating for an 11-year-old, with 2598. And in the history of the Los Angeles Chess Club he was the youngest to win the tournament.”

But that record only held for a month, when 9-year-old Gia played the same tournament and won. “Her competition was not as strong, but that’s still a pretty remarkable feat,” said her father.

Richard says that although he believes those accomplishments will open doors, and the skills they learn can be applied to virtually any endeavor, he is not advocating for any of his children to choose chess as their life focus.

“I think chess is a wonderful tool. It’s a great ratchet in their toolboxes. But you don’t want them spending their lives examining the intricacies of the ratchet when there’s a whole world out there,” said Richard.

“However, being able to outthink whoever your competition may be in any activity in life has got to be an advantage.”

The two phases of the Peterson chess reign are not the only — perhaps not even the greatest — examples of Ridgecrest-rooted chess excellence.

Internationally renowned Hikaru Nakamura and his high-achieving brother Asuka also started here.

“The way I met them was interesting,” said Richard. “I was in a tournament in the Lancaster-Palmdale area when a man walked up and said ‘Hi Rick!’” It was Mike Phillips, longtime teacher at Burroughs High School, who Richard had known since the two played on the same Little League team in Trona during the 1950s.

Philips had taken Hikaru and Asuka to that tournament. Philips and the boys later joined the Petersens at a national elementary chess championship. “Out of about 1,500 kids David won the elementary division, Andrea was on board one in the primary, and Asuka won the title in kindergarten.” Hikaru was only 3 during that event, said Richard. “But the winners of the main events could all be traced back to the Trona Pirates from 1958.”

Hikaru has since won countless titles, and as a teenager became the youngest chess grandmaster in history. (Although the title has since been broken.)

Richard said that despite being gifted chess players, the lives of his children are pretty normal. Although they attend public schools, Richard said that he has told teachers he won’t enforce repetitive homework.

“That adds no value whatsoever for my child. If the schools perform well on standardized tests it’s a feather in their cap. It helps my children not at all. I wrote a letter to their teachers telling them I would use that time instead to sharpening their critical thinking skills through chess. The amazing thing is that I got a positive response from the teachers.”

Morgan also pointed to the proven benefits of chess, not only in terms of improving problem-solving skills, but the correlation to higher performances in language, math and music. Tournaments also offer social development such as conflict resolution and sportsmanship.

“Chess is possibly the most effective learning tool there is,” said Morgan. “The only problem with it is that it’s fun. People look at it like a game and think, ‘how can they be learning?’ Instead we give kids these worksheets that make them want to tear their hair out.”

Richard said that other cultures have already recognized the important role chess plays in scholastic development — cultures that are producing technical professionals at a much higher rate than the U.S.

“Teaching to the test is holding our children back. Even our president recognizes that,” said Richard. “It is much more important to teach our kids to think.”

Story First Published: 2012-11-14