URBANA -- Talk to Urbana High School student Yue "Penny" Xu, and you'd find her a good-natured, talkative high school sophomore.
But play chess with her, and you might get a different impression.
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Her coach at Urbana, Jeff Davis, has played her in tournaments and said she's focused and serious while playing.
"You wouldn't know she's a kid after you start playing," Davis said.
Hector Hernandez, who coaches the chess team Penny started on in Chicago and tutored her, called her "a technician of the game."
She's "someone who can take it apart and put it back together, knows how pieces work together (and finds) harmony among the pieces," he said.
In October, Penny won the 2012 Illinois All Grade Chess Championship tournament in West Chicago. She also won the Illinois State K-8 Chess Championship in 2010 and has a table full of other chess trophies in her basement.
"I love chess because it's always a challenge," she said.
The 16-year-old Urbana sophomore is the daughter of Yan Zhuang and Yuan Xu of Urbana.
"Many girls are intimidated" by chess, her father said, or feel discouraged when they lose. He said his daughter isn't smarter than other kids, but she works harder and has a better attitude.
Davis said that's true, and Penny also has a special talent of visualizing chess games and moves in her head.
"She's really good," he said, and has the potential to be even better in the future.
Penny has been playing chess since she was a third-grader and got serious about it in fourth grade.
Her family then lived near the University of Illinois at Chicago, and she started playing chess at the Rudy Lozano branch of the Chicago Public Library, home of the Knight Moves Chess Club.
She started going to meet her friends, and they taught her to play.
"Then, I started beating everyone," she said.
It wasn't a painless process, though.
"She cried a lot," her dad said.
Yuan Xu remembers picking his daughter up at the library in Chicago, and she was lost in thought. After pressing her as to what was wrong, he found out she'd played six games and lost them all.
Instead of getting discouraged, she started studying more intensely.
"I wanted to prove I could be someone in the chess club," Penny said. "I take a loss as a challenge."
She took private lessons and went to camps, and has played as much chess as possible, both when living in Chicago and after her family moved to Champaign-Urbana when she was in fifth grade.
She's been playing in tournaments since fourth grade and has competed in adult contests. Those are especially long weekends of playing; Penny once played five games of six hours each at one adult tournament.
She has learned how to deal with the pressure and stress of tournaments and can do well while still being a good sport, Yuan Xu said.
"You definitely have to know how to handle it, and not be arrogant about winning," he said.
Penny, who also plays violin in Urbana High's orchestra and is on the varsity swim team, says chess is her favorite.
"I think chess is the most fun of all," she said, although as she gets older, she said it's harder to manage her schoolwork, other activities and chess.
She wants to go to a college with a good chess club and foresees a career in engineering or another profession that uses problem-solving and logic.
Hernandez, who runs the Knight Moves Chess Club in Chicago, said she's the highest-ranked player to emerge from his club. As a 15-year-old, she was ranked 83rd in the nation in that age group, Hernandez said.
Though Penny is a serious player, she's also lighthearted and "fun to be around" when she's not in the middle of a game, Davis said. She cares about making her teammates better players, he said, and she also volunteers as a coach at the local Chess Club for Kids.
She's also taught at Summer Chess Camp, said Serge Minin, who organized it.
"She is kind, attentive and very popular with the children," Minin said. She coached his daughter, who he said "appreciated having Penny as a role model."
"Penny is sweet," said Shih-Mei Carmody, who runs Chess Club for Kids at the Urbana Free Library. "She comes and plays whichever kids ask for her. And a lot of kids ask for her."
Carmody said Penny is not only talented but patient while teaching club members, who are in fifth grade and younger.
"Parents love her and kids adore her because she's very pa- tient, very nice," Carmody said.
Even there, many of the players are boys, Penny said.
"I'm trying to get more girls to start playing chess," she said.