Imagine the sport, game or hobby you had as a child, then doing everything you could to learn and become better at it as an adult. It’s actually not too uncommon in the world of music or athletics. But chess…?!
Theo Slade, a 16-year-old young man and new Laureate Park resident, started playing at the age of six when, living in England at the time, his father, Andrew, took a chess set out of the cupboard. “It could have been Monopoly, it could have been tiddlywinks, it just happened to be chess,” said Andrew, “but within weeks of learning the game, he was beating me!” he laughed. Today, he can beat his dad “blindfolded,” without looking at the board for the whole game! “Most people wouldn’t think of chess as something people do professionally,” Theo said. “I didn’t, to start with, but as soon as I realized that I could do what I love, travel the world and meet interesting people, I made up my mind that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life!” Ten years after seeing a chess board for the first time, how has he been faring?
“It was a steep learning curve to start with,” commented Andrew. “I knew how to play chess, but clubs, tournaments, coaching? I didn’t know where to start.” Eventually, they found a club, but it was an adult club an hour from home on a Monday night. “From the age of about seven or so, we went there every week; sometimes it would finish at 10 p.m. or even later, and I used to think, ‘I must be a really bad dad!’ We were getting home at 11 or 12, and he had school the next day.”
Through the chess club, Theo was encouraged to play in tournaments, single-day competitions to start with, then weekend-long play tournaments, which is where he really began to polish his skills. “Most people probably don’t realize,” remarked Theo, “just how complicated chess is. Apparently, there are more possible chess moves than there are atoms in the universe!” That’s why Theo is often mentally exhausted at the end of a tournament; typically, a chess congress is five games over a weekend lasting up to four hours per game. Longer tournaments can last up to two weeks, with games taking up to seven hours! And it’s not just the game itself; these days with the advent of computers, his opponents’ games are available on the internet, so the information is there to prepare against your opponent before the game. Sometimes, Theo spends three hours analyzing how he thinks his opponent is likely to play before sitting down and playing the actual game. After the game has finished, what do you do? Go through the game with your opponent, of course – another hour or so!
The more Theo played, the better he became, winning countless trophies and also prize money! He started to earn international recognition, representing England in 13 different countries, including China, when he played in the World Under 16 Olympiad when he was just 12. Theo and his family moved to Orlando a year ago, and he has continued to improve under the guidance of Grandmaster (GM) Lars Bo Hansen. He has been in the top 10 in his age group in England for the last six years, and he is currently ranked in the top 1% of juniors in Florida. Back in July, he won his first tournament in the U.S. with a perfect score of five wins, winning $1,500 to take his total winnings in the U.S. in the last year to just over $2,700!
Not only has Theo been playing in top tournaments for a long time now, nearly always against adults rather than juniors, he has also had the chance to play against the top players. In December 2014, in London, he was paired against GM Hikaru Nakamura, currently ranked 2nd in the U.S. and 8th in the world and, although Theo lost, it was a great experience. Nakamura’s signed photo is proudly displayed on Theo’s bedroom wall! Chess players, perhaps unlike some of the so-called superstars of more traditional sports, are generally very approachable and happy to help up-and-coming players. Nakamura, for example, spent 20 minutes going through the game with Theo after they had finished!
In addition to playing, Theo also coaches and writes a monthly column for the British Chess Magazine, the oldest chess publication in the world. He has been writing since he was 12 and is their youngest-ever writer! “If I wasn’t a chess player, I don’t know what I would do,” he states. “I can write, I can coach, but really I just want to spend my time studying chess to become the best player I can be.”
Theo’s family supports his goal of becoming a professional chess player and has done everything they can to make sure he is afforded the opportunities necessary to achieve his dream. Andrew has become a master in logistics and manages the entire process of not only getting Theo to tournaments but setting him up for success against his competition. “It used to be driving 30 minutes to a local tournament, now it’s booking hotels, trains, planes and sorting out visas!” laughs Andrew.
Theo’s quest continues every day. He takes all his high school courses through Orange County Virtual School, which allows him to have a more flexible schedule to practice chess and attend tournaments locally, throughout the United States, and abroad. Theo’s perseverance, coupled with the dedication of his family, is a real-life example of how the highest achievements can be reached through hard work and the support of loved ones. It just shows what can happen when you have a dream and you never give up! How will it all end up? Watch this space! As Theo states, “Success is a journey, not a destination!”