The Schneider family of Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester is running out of shelf space. The bookcase in their living room is packed with the chess books, in Russian, that Dimitri brought from his native Riga, and the ones in English he bought after the family immigrated to the United States eight years ago.There are the chess sets that Dimitri likes to buy. And the trophies he keeps winning.Dimitri, 14, is the top-ranked player in the country in the U.S. Chess Federation’s 18-and-younger age group, a skill which he honed on the chess boards of Manhattan soon after his family moved here.The latest addition to his shelf is the fifth-place trophy he earned this summer at the U.S. Juniors championship in San Francisco, for competitors 20 and younger.
“I have a lot of trophies in the basement,” he says offhandedly.Dimitri, a sophomore at Hastings High School, has been a nationally ranked player in his age group since he was 8.“I think the first time I played, I won,” he says, sitting over a chessboard in the family apartment, indulging a visitor’s desire to trade moves. He’s wearing a T-shirt, one of several he’s picked up at chess tournaments around the country, and jeans.
That first game was in Riga, the capital of Latvia, when Dimitri was 6. His father, Yuri, an air-conditioning mechanic, introduced him to the game and to an expert, a pensioner who instructed the child in a Riga courtyard.“He was very smart, analytical,” Dimitri’s mother, Rita, a physical therapist, says of her son. “My husband decided he would be good at it.”
Within a few months, before the family left their homeland to escape growing anti-Semitism, Dimitri won a youth championship.Within three years he was beating his father, who arranged private coaching with older players — champions from the former Soviet Union — in Brooklyn and Queens. He quickly found that players in his hometown offered no challenge (“Maybe in White Plains,” he quips), and he started commuting to the Manhattan Chess Club in the Theater District and other chess venues for advanced competition. While holding his own against Manhattan’s finest, many of whom have roots in the former Soviet Union, he has lost his share of matches, he admits. He says the experience has sharpened his skills that he has used in subsequent tournaments. He’s played hundreds of them, often accompanied by his parents, who use their vacation time for the trips.
A traditionalist, Dimitri has not entered the realm of speed chess, played against the clock for minor wagers, which has flourished around Bryant Park and City Hall for decades. One day he’d like to give it a shot.
Rita Schneider says she has lost count of how much money she and her husband have spent on chess lessons for Dimitri and his brother Igor, 11, an aspiring champion. The family is looking for sponsors now.At the U.S. Cadet Championship last year and at other American tournaments, he has climbed to a senior masters ranking, and an American rating of 2,460 points. Grand masters, the highest level, have a rating of about 2,600.Dimitri has won a few hundred dollars in prize money. “I use it for other tournaments,” he saysTo all appearances, Dimitri is a regular teenager. He spoke “a tiny fraction” of English when he arrived in the U.S., but after a year and a half of ESL classes and eight years in public school, he is fluent and accent free. An honors student and chess tutor, he plays tennis at Hastings High and has lined the walls of his room with photos of tennis star Pete Sampras. He watches “The Simpsons” and listens to hard rock.The allure of chess?
“I like the battle,” he says. “I like the psychological part of it.”He plays an aggressive game — “I like to attack” — using unorthodox openings to unsettle opponents and control the center of the board.“He is very talented. He loves chess,” says Rafael Klovsky, Dimitri’s coach for four years. “He can be one of the best grand masters in the world.”Klovsky, an international master who immigrated from Ukraine six years ago, lives in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens.Rita Schneider says her son, a “normal” kid, does his share of chores in the apartment. “He knows what we’re going through,” she says.
The family, which applied for political asylum when it arrived and took several years to obtain permanent resident status, made financial sacrifices to help Dimitri’s chess education.“We started sending him for lessons when we had no money. He appreciates it,” she says.
Despite his exalted status in the chess world, Dimitri says he is not treated like a star in school. Chess victories are more impressive among peers in his homeland. “It’s not that popular here,” he says with a shrug.With an eye on “something in computers” as a career, he already has received offers for collegiate chess scholarships.Next month comes an international championship in Spain. And maybe before that the Chess Olympiad in Ukraine.“I want to be a grand master,” Dimitri says. “I think I have a good chance.”