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Six-year-old moves up ranks of St. Albert chess enthusiasts

New St. Albert resident Platon Bilyk captures attention, along with opponents' pieces

Suits with the International Chess Federation might not be oohing and aahing at every move he makes, or calling him the world's next child prodigy, but six-year-old Platon Bilyk, one of St. Albert's newest residents, has raised every eyebrow at a local chess club.

Platon and his family have only called St. Albert home for about two months, prior to which they lived in Turkey. At the family's request, the Gazette is not publishing their country of origin.

While getting adjusted to a new place to call home for a six-year-old might mainly involve making friends at school or getting adjusted to the weather, for Platon, getting adjusted meant finding somewhere to play chess. Wearing a chess-themed T-shirt, the youngster is now a regular at an informal weekly chess club organized by resident Michael Ludwig at Mission Fun and Games on Thursdays.

Platon, despite being all smiles all the time, means business at chess club, especially because he's just six months removed from winning an eight-and-under tournament in Turkey. With the Gazette in attendance on April 11, the youngster, who knows just enough English to communicate his way through a chess match, challenged anybody he thought could put up a fight without hesitation, including players 40 or 50 years his senior.

To be fair, Platon doesn't win every game he plays, but he actually knows when he's going to lose. Halfway through a match against local player Mickey Khan, a formidable chess player himself with a provincial medal under his belt from his elementary school days, Platon suddenly resigned by knocking his own king over before slumping back in his seat.

Dumbfounded, Khan asked: “why?”

Platon, without speaking, sat up and leaned over the board, and proceeded to play out the next 20 to 25 turns with both sets of pieces to show that he was doomed to lose. It took almost two full minutes to play out.

Khan, still stupefied, responded, " well, don't just resign next time. I didn't see that coming,” but Platon was already setting the pieces back up for a rematch while simultaneously taking in the game going on beside him.

Platon, with his mom Alexandra translating, said playing chess simply makes him happy.

“Thinking far in advance is his preference,” Alexandra said for Platon, when asked what about the game, the strategy or the competition, was his favourite part.

That's not to say that he shies away from competition, because when he was asked if he likes tournament style of play more than friendly matches against St. Albert's most dedicated, Platon said he was more interested in tournaments.

"Not because of the cups [or trophies], it's more interesting [the] real competition,” he said.

In what was likely the toughest question put to the young maestro, Platon said he thinks he's a perfectly average six-year-old, but when it comes to chess, he just has “some abilities that let him win over others.”

“Chess is cool,” he said.

Alexandra and dad Zakhar said Platon started playing almost by accident.

“When he just turned four, we took a book from the library, and we didn't expect that he would like it, but he certainly loved it," Alexandra said. "And it was about characters of various fairy tales mixed up together, and they were playing chess and some basic rules of chess were explained in there. That's how he started and I had to acquire it myself because I wasn't good at chess at all.”

“Then he wanted something more advanced, but it was still very basic, and between four and five years old, he watched videos from a chess club and they also explained rules, basic tactics, etc., and after that, when he turned five and a half, we found a very good teacher.”

The teacher, Dmitry, as well as two other coaches in Turkey, Ufuk and Hussein, made a world of difference for Platon. After just a year or so of mentorship he was winning trophies in Turkey.

“He competed, and he has two first-place cups in two cities in Turkey and one second-place cup in another city in Turkey,” Alexandra said. 

“We want him to play in tournaments here, but we need to change his chess federation [membership] now, and we need the paperwork. It sounds strange because it's just kids, but we need to do like professional sports person paperwork,” Zahkar said. “We're in the process and waiting on documents.”

While the family waits, Platon will be working on his game on Thursday nights at Mission Fun and Games, and online.

“He likes both [online and in-person matches],” Alexandra said. “He likes earning points because there's a clear system of points in online games of chess, and he always keeps track of how many points he earned or lost [in a day].”

“It's annoying,” she joked.

Future grandmaster?

Michael Ludwig, the organizer of the Thursday night chess club and secretary for the Alberta Chess Association, said for Platon's age, he's an “exceptional” player.

“What I find with the youngest players, and I have taught in schools and with kids for a while, is the exceptional ones have a knack for knowing how to use their pieces together rather than picking one piece and playing with it a bunch or just kind of randomly choosing what moves to play,” Ludwig said. “He actually has a sense of coordination for making things happen.”

“Does that mean he's going to be a grandmaster? Well, no, there's a lot that can happen before then, but if you're going pick someone who might, then yes, [it's Platon].”

In chess, the grandmaster title is awarded to the best of the best of the best. There are numerous boxes a player must check in order to be awarded the title by the International Chess Federation, which goes by the acronym FIDE. 

One of the most basic requirements is that a player must have a chess rating score of 2,600 or more at the end of their most recent tournament performance.

The youngest person in history to earn the grandmaster title is Abhimanyu Mishra from the United States. Mishra earned the title in June of 2021 when he was 12 years, four months, and 25 days old, less than three months younger than the previous record holder Sergey Karjakin of Ukraine.

The grandmaster title is one of many that competitive chess players can obtain. For example, Ludwig, who is currently listed in the FIDE player database as the 681st highest-rated player in Canada, holds the title of national candidate master.

“The next step, national master, is where that becomes, let's say, more prestigious,” he said. “That starts roughly around the 2,200 level.”

Ludwig said he wouldn't be surprised if Platon's rating was around the 1,500 mark, which is considered to be the adult average.

While competitive play and ratings are all very nuanced, complicated, and regulated, Thursday night chess club is much more informal, as players are there to have fun and help each other get better.

Chess big with kids? You'd be surprised

While Platon might be the youngest club regular, about a third of the dozen or so players on April 11 were under the age of 14.

Both Ludwig and Khan cited the COVID-19 pandemic, famed Netflix mini-series The Queen's Gambit, and online chess content creators like Andrea and Alexandra Botez as a few reasons why the club has a dedicated group of youth, and why they think chess in general has become so much more popular in recent years.

“COVID happened and chess really blew up in popularity,” Khan said. “Maybe that's something to do with the online generation and it's just so much more accessible to them and it's easier for the game to be learned.”

“The game is in an interesting place.”

Khan said he thinks this influx of youth and non-youth alike being interested in chess is nothing but positive.

“I think that we should have more kids involved in it,” he said. “There should be a greater scene and people teaching the game, and we should get more girls involved in the game.”

“Chess is a beautiful game. I think it's good for the brain, and I think it's good for development.”

If you want to try your hand at the game, or if you want to see if you can beat a six-year-old, you can get in touch with the local chess club and Ludwig by visiting, or just head down to Mission Fun and Games on Thursday nights between 6:30 and 8:30.

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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