All the Right Moves

At only 15 years old, a Mililani chess champ is checking opponents at the national level.
Almost every week, chess whiz Robert Lau takes on opponents at the Mililani Chess Club. photo: Rae Huo

Fill a room with 2,000 competitive school-children and, in most cases, you’d be creating a pretty raucous spectacle. That’s not true at the U.S. Scholastic Chess Championships, where thousands of children, ranging in age from kindergarteners to high school seniors, often compete against each other in almost complete silence. Robert Lau, a 15-year-old from Mililani and a two-time National Chess Champion in his age group, certainly knows a thing or two about these remarkably quiet competitions—although he’s quick to confess his first time was intimidating.

“Yeah, it was a little scary,” he laughs. “There were a lot of people and a lot of boards.”

Lau’s extraordinary talent in front of a chessboard has earned him a number of different trophies and titles, so many, in fact, that he admits it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep track of them. A few of Lau’s recent accomplishments, however, stand out. Last December, he won his second United States championship in Houston, a feat he’d first accomplished in 2002, at age 11. This March, he continued his run at the Hawai‘i State Scholastic Championships—Lau’s now won or shared the state title at his grade level five out of the past six years.

“He’s an extraordinary individual,” says Randy Prothero, Hawai‘i Chess Federation president. “Nobody in the history of Hawai‘i had ever won a United States title at any level before. So Robert’s not only done that, but then he went out and repeated it.”

The youngest of three children, Lau, who, like his older sisters, has always been home schooled, says his father introduced him to chess when he was around 5.

“Basically, he just showed me how to move the pieces,” Lau says.

Those early lessons were enough to thoroughly interest Lau, and he joined the Mililani Chess Club a year later. It wasn’t long before he was competing in local tournaments, and his first experience at the U.S. National Championships came when he was just a second grader.

Lau’s involvement at such an early age becomes even more impressive when you consider that tournament competitors often play six different matches and that each of those matches can last up to six hours. At a number of National Open tournaments, he regularly faced and beat adults. In fact, Lau’s take on the challenge of competing against adults says a lot about his competitive spirit.

“I don’t think it ever really bothered me,” he laughs. “But maybe it psyched them out a little bit, because I was really little.”