Experts from Sri Lanka, Yugoslavia mold US prodigies
Twenty-five years ago when Sunil Weeramantry was growing up in Sri Lanka and Svetozar Jovanovic was a chess official in Yugoslavia, who could have guessed they would turn out to be two major forces in developing America's young talent?
Weeramantry, a master player who has represented his country in international competition, settled in the New York area in 1975. He gained a reputation as a chess teacher, and three years ago was contacted by the parents of a boy named John Jarecki.
''At first I told them, 'I don't teach kids,' '' Sunil recalled with a laugh. ''But then I agreed to try - and I soon realized that John had exceptional talent.''
Indeed, Jarecki progressed so rapidly that in July of 1981 at the age of 12 years and 6 months he became the youngest person ever to gain the official rating of master up to that time. He did it the hard way, too.
Playing in the World Open, John reached a point midway in the tournament where he could have dropped out and assured himself of the record. But in a bold move reminiscent of Ted Williams's refusal to sit on his .400 batting average on the final day of the 1941 baseball season, John insisted on playing it out.
The youngster lost his next game, falling below the master rating, but won his last two contests to get it back.
Weeramantry's work with Jarecki gained him a lot of attention, of course, but represents only a tiny fraction of his overall involvement with scholastic chess. The 31-year-old master teaches school chess programs at a number of New York communities including Hastings-on-Hudson, Bronxville, New Rochelle, Larchmont, White Plains, and the Hunter College Elementary School in Manhattan, as well as giving private lessons. And somehow, he also manages to hold down a full-time job on the campus of the State University at Purchase, N.Y
Sunil's formula for teaching youngsters is simplicity itself.
''All I try to do in the schools is get everyone interested,'' he said. ''I don't try to emphasize winning or any top level stuff. I feel my job is to expose them to the game and to communicate my enthusiasm. If they want to go on from there and get strong, they will.''
Weeramantry got his early chess experience while studying in Switzerland and England.
''Junior chess is much more organized in those countries than in the USA,'' he said. ''Maybe it's easier in small countries. In one this big, it has to start at local or state organizations.''
Jovanovic grew up in a far different world from the Geneva and London that Weeramantry knew, but one thing was the same - he, too, saw what can be done with young people in chess if they are given an opportunity to develop their talents.
''Chess is the national game in Yugoslavia,'' he pointed out. ''We started working with kids 25 years ago, setting up one section for those in first through fourth grades and another from fifth through eighth.''
Jovanovic, who was a music professor in Belgrade, devoted much of his spare time to chess both as an active player and as an official, serving variously as a coach, tournament director, and organizer.
When he and his family moved to New York 20 years ago, however, he couldn't find any work in his field and turned to mechanical drafting and later graphic design. He also dropped out of chess for a while, but four years ago - largely because his two teen-age sons were getting into the game in a big way - he returned.
''I like children and I like chess,'' he said, ''so what could be better than to be involved with both? And you have to start when they are young. In high school it is already too late. You should start in first grade.''
The boys were at the Hunter College School, so that's where he got involved. He is now the coach of both the high school and junior high teams from Hunter, but pinch-hit for Weeramantry as the elementary school coach at this event since Sunil was coaching another team in the tournament and didn't want to be involved in a conflict situation.