Irene Jiao Fei, who will be a 4th grader at Gilbert Intermediate School this fall, sits on the floor inside the living room of her north Ames home and rapidly shifts her eyes from side to side as she studies every piece on the chess board that has been set up on her family’s coffee table.
She’s playing just for fun, but fun to her is winning. On this Tuesday morning, the outcome is never in doubt though. It’s her dad, Zhe Fei, who sits on the opposite side of the board and he readily admits he’s no match for his 9-year-old prodigy.
Irene smirks from time to time as her dad moves his pieces. She’s already six moves ahead in her mind, and soon enough — less than five minutes removed from the start of the game — they both stand up. Zhe chuckles as Irene takes a step back and does a short and spirited celebration dance.
When it comes to the game of chess, Irene is in a league of her own.
In early June, Irene took her game global when she claimed the FIDE World School Chess Championship U9 (under 9) in Panama City, Panama. Over the nine-day tournament, she won seven matches with two draws to claim the title handily over runner-up Jose Guevara Ruiz Santiago of Spain.
It was the culmination of what has been a whirlwind few years for the family. Zhe and Irene’s mom, Yan Jiao, first introduced Irene to the game when they enrolled her in a Gilbert Elementary after school chess club organized by Iowa State student Anthony Swindell. Then in kindergarten during the 2018-19 school year, Irene attended the club once a week and she says Swindell immediately saw her potential.
“My parents signed me up for a chess club so that I could stay at school a little longer,” Irene, who celebrated her ninth birthday while in Panama, said. “(Swindell) said that I was good. After the second time, the coach said I was very good.”
Irene’s aptitude for the game came as a surprise to her parents, but it didn’t take them long to support their daughter’s passion. Soon enough, they entered Irene, then a first grader, in her first tournament — the US Chess/Chesskid Online Elementary Championship — and she placed ninth out of more than 500 entrants.
“She really surprised us,” Zhe said. “No one (in the family) had played chess before. I also studied chess at the same time as her, but she progressed much more (quickly).”
Since then, Irene has steadily built a resume that very few young players possess, highlighted by the world title. She’s twice won the K-5 Iowa state championship, and later this month she’ll represent the state at the 3rd Annual John D. Rockefeller III National Tournament of Elementary School State Champions in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Irene lights up when she mentions that she’s traveled to Panama. She plays tournament chess primarily in Iowa and neighboring states, and has also been to New Jersey to compete.
“It’s a really fun activity and she can also compete with people,” Zhe said. “She likes winning too, and she also enjoys traveling.”
The success comes from hard work. Yes, in the beginning chess came naturally to Irene, but she’s put in the work to build her game to its current state.
She’s always looking to improve, and she’s always looking to use her opponents’ weaknesses against them, which is why she studies them when possible before they sit across the table from one another.
“Usually, in small tournaments, there are two to three (games) a day and I don’t have much time to study them,” she said.
“You always have to study your opponent,” Zhe interjects. “Before games, you have to study theory from other peoples’ games.”
Zhe thinks his daughter’s calm demeanor also plays a role in her success. Despite her young age, Irene is able to keep her emotions in check for the most part, and she never celebrates her victories for long. She’s always looking toward that next game, that next challenge.
And when she does get frustrated? Her mom says a bowl of chocolate ice cream lightens her mood immediately.
“Her mental strength is really strong,” Zhe said. “She’s normally quite calm and I think that’s one of the reasons she does so well. In the final game (at the world championships), she knew she was going to win the entire tournament and she was still calm.”
Irene and her parents now hope they can give back to the game that has brought them so much by helping new players learn and appreciate it. Irene will take part in the Chess Camp at Gilbert Intermediate School next week, July 18-22, and will share her experiences with her fellow campers.
“She wants to share the fun parts of chess with them,” Zhe said. “It’s quite important to us because she really gained a lot of support from organizations in Iowa and the country, so we want to give back. We want to support other kids and help them play games with other beginners.”
Amy Griffin, the principal at Gilbert Intermediate, is excited to have Irene involved in the camp and a part of the Gilbert Schools family.
“The intermediate school is very lucky to have Irene as a student leader,” Griffin said. “Irene has such a fun personality and always works hard to be her best. I’m excited for Irene to share this experience (of winning the world championship) with other students this upcoming school year as we celebrate her achievement.”
The Chess Camp, which will be run by the Des Moines Chess Academy, will be held from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. each day. There will be four different grade groups: preschool-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12.
All Gilbert students wanting to attend the camp will receive a 50 percent reduction in tuition.
We hope to see all of our new aspiring chess players at the camp next week and — who knows? — maybe there’s another Irene Jiao Fei waiting to unleash his or her potential.