St. Louis, MO – On a rainy Tuesday night in the Central West End in the thick of an election season, TV's in 600,000 homes across the St. Louis area are tuned into the second presidential debate.
The debate is on downstairs at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. But upstairs, the hands of eight players fly between the pieces on the vinyl chess boards in front of them and the switches of their game clocks. It's the Chess Club's weekly blitz tournament, where players play five, five-minute games of chess.
Ten-year-old Margaret Hua sits with her feet tucked under her, paying close attention to her unfolding game. She is the only girl, and one of the youngest players here.
The fifth-grader at Parkway's Pierremont Elementary School started playing chess with her family three years ago. "Me and my family would just play chess for fun, and then during summer, summer school they found a chess class, and then they put me in it, and I won the teacher, and then the, my parents thought I was pretty good, so I started to play chess tournaments," Margaret said.
Those tournaments, and some lessons, have helped Margaret achieve a 1603 ranking from the United States Chess Federation. That makes her the 36th best 10-year-old in the nation, and the 86th best player in Missouri - of all ages.
That ranking also earned her a spot on the 30-person team that will represent the United States at this year's World Youth Chess Championship in Vietnam. "What do you think is going to be the best thing about it?" I asked.
"That I'll be able to visit the beach, and I'll be able to have a good experience playing with other strong players," Margaret replied.
The tournament gives her a chance to compete against the top 10-year-old girls from 70 different countries.
The Chess Club is paying Margaret's way to the tournament. Executive director Tony Rich calls Margaret's invitation to the tournament an honor. And he says it shows just how focused she is on the game.
"Girls under 10, typically they have lower ratings than the average chess population, so the fact that Margaret has a very respectable chess rating indicates just how committed she is to the game and how focused she really is," Rich said.
In her third game at the Tuesday night blitz tournament, Margaret faced off against Joseph Garnier, ranked 38th in the state and the 2005 Missouri Scholastic champion. Garnier gave Margaret chess lessons for about a year. "I would put her in the top three most talented children I've worked with. Now she's so good that I can't even teach her anymore. She might beat me, y'know," he said laughing. "So I have to be humble and admit it, but she's very talented. I know eventually she's going to be beating all of us. It's inevitable."
More than an hour after the blitz tournament was over, Margaret, Joseph, and three other players were still gathered around the chess boards, playing a variety of different games and learning some moves that might come in handy in their next tournaments. "I've got one more for Margaret and then you've got to go home," Joseph told her.
Margaret's parents, Jun and Diane Hua, looked like they'd been read to go home for a while, since it's a 40-minute drive back to Ballwin, where the family lives.
"She's never tired while playing chess," Jun remarked. He hopes his daughter's success at the game gets more girls playing chess in the United States.
"Do you think that with you going in and playing so much chess that maybe more girls will start playing?" I asked. "Umm, maybe because I inspire them, I guess?" Margaret replied tentatively.
She knows for certain though, that she'd like to be a Grand Master - the highest rating possible for a chess player.