Playing chess is all about being like a fox, 10-year-old Shreya Mangalam likes to say.
"I always try to do tricks that people can't really see," said Shreya, a fifth-grader at Barbara B. Rose Elementary School in Barrington.
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Shreya MangalamAge: 10
Hometown: South Barrington
School: Barbara B. Rose Elementary School
Who inspires you? Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the current world chess champion and the No. 1-ranked player in the world.
What's on your iPod? I usually listen to Pandora. I like pop, but I listen to any type of music.
What book are you reading? I just finished "Out of the Dust" by Karen Hesse. I just picked up two more books and I have to decide.
The three words that best describe you? Hardworking. Serious. Humorous.
"I might try to be really sly and sneaky. I play this quiet move, so they try to go on with the regular stuff and they miss something. I'll be very like a fox."
The tactic has paid off for Shreya, who is the top-rated female chess player under 16 in Illinois, and the third-rated girl under the age of 10 in the entire country.
The South Barrington girl also was part of the U.S. chess team that in December played at the World Chess Foundation's World Youth Chess Championships in Al-Ain, United Arab Emirates.
"Shreya has an extraordinary talent at a young age," said Illinois Chess Association board member Bill Feldman. "To be the top-rated female under 16 in the entire state I think is exceptional for a 10-year-old. It's really, really unheard of."
Shreya also exhibits remarkable maturity and sportsmanship during tournaments, Feldman said.
"I teach students of a variety of ages, and it's easy to say she's beyond her years in terms of the way she comports herself."
Shreya started playing chess before she was in kindergarten with her father Badri Mangalam, who works as a technical architect at Bank of America. Her mother, Subashini, works in IT for Chicago-based Orbitz.
"Instead of playing video games, you use your brain to do something useful," her father said. "I used to play with her, but I stopped after she started getting better than me. That was a couple of years ago."
Chess was no love at first sight, Shreya recalled.
"I used to hate it at the beginning. I used to throw the pieces," she said.
Around age 5, Shreya joined an after-school chess program run by Yury Shulman, the 2008 U.S. chess champion, where she discovered the thrill of solving chess puzzles.
"I used to love solving them and getting trophies," she said. "That really encouraged me to do it."
Shreya is a very creative player, said Shulman, who's since become her private coach.
"She doesn't like to lose, so she'll defend any type of tough position. She'll find resources in almost every situation."
Shulman pointed out, however, that there's a difference between a smart player and a wise one.
"A wise person will never get into a tough situation," he said. "I'm hoping she will become wise."
Shreya knows exactly what her coach is talking about. Her role model, reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway, is definitely a wise player, she said.
"Magnus, he doesn't take draws, which I tend to do," she said. "If I'm in a really scared position and I feel like I'm going to lose, I might go for a draw. He always aims for a win, but he barely loses. I try to be more like him."
Shreya gets mostly A's in school, where she's in advanced classes for reading and math, Badri Mangalam said. She also takes private violin lessons and plays in the school orchestra, along with tennis and league basketball through the Barrington Park District.
Chess has made her confident, her father said.
"It has helped with her focus and also improved her patience, because some of these games last for hours," he said.
"It has taught her to lose and win gracefully."
Shreya's proudest win was in her age group at the Illinois K-8 Chess Championships held last month in Schaumburg by the Illinois Chess Association. The win earned her an iPad mini.
"I usually don't try to be too overconfident. I usually try to go one game at a time," she said. "I might feel excited and nervous."
As for her most upsetting loss, that also came last month, when she failed to make the playoffs at an invitational tournament in Skokie, where she was ranked first.
"I might cry for two or three minutes, but I'm not one of those really long criers," Shreya said.
"I just try to forget about it and think about the next game."
Her attitude about losing is indeed philosophical, coach Shulman said.
"She knows there is another game. The quicker you can recover, the more games you can recover," he said.
For the last eight months or so, Shreya's also been getting lessons via Skype from Eric Rosen, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign whose team last year made it to the President's Cup, the Final Four of intercollegiate chess.
She has traveled as far as Nashville, Tenn., and Orlando, Fla., for national championships, but the most memorable trip was to Dubai in December, where she was among six girls on the under-10 U.S. team.
At the start of the tournament, Shreya was seeded 114th among 140 girls from all over the world. She ended up placing 20th, and third on her team.
"Everyone was studying really hard. At normal tournaments (between games) kids go outside an play," Shreya said.
"It really changed my attitude about what happens before the game. It really takes a lot of practice."
Over the years, she's also learned to keep a poker face.
"If they saw your emotions on the board, they would think you made such a big blunder and they're going to try to find it."
Shreya practices daily with chess puzzles in tactic books and online, watches famous games on YouTube and practices on ChessBase software.
She plans to stick with chess as a serious hobby but wants to become a doctor, possibly a surgeon or an anesthesiologist, she said.
Shreya definitely has the potential to play for the U.S. in the Chess Olympiad, a biennial international tournament featuring the best players from around the world, coach Shulman said.
"In three or four years probably she'll start competing for the chance to qualify for the U.S. championship," he said.
"She's a pure example of a student who has a true desire and hard work, and was able to achieve the level that she is at. Just because of her efforts, nothing else, she was able to achieve this."
As for what chess has taught her about life, the answer is ... lots, she said.
"You always have to be brave. If you did something bad in a game, you have to learn to let it go and not worry about it," she said.
It has also taught her to be patient, what with opponents sometimes taking 15 to 20 minutes to make a move, she said.
Most importantly, it's taught her that it's important to support others, she said.
"You also have to encourage some people who are in very tough situations," she said. "I always encourage people and support them. My friends, my chess friends, come to most of my tournaments, and they usually give me some courage."