10/6/2011 4:55 AM
Buffalo Grove chess queen sees several moves aheadBy Kimberly Pohl and Elena Ferrarin
A dozen or so young chess novices circling around seasoned veteran Cheryl Liu become increasingly animated as they begin to recognize their teacher's strategy.
In an activity room at the Prospect Heights Public Library, they watch the Stevenson High School senior as she demonstrates one of her favorite moves: make the “box” smaller to corner an opponent's king, and victory will be imminent.
“In your face, checkmate,” Cheryl says to her charges, who now are champing at the bit to try the method themselves.
With two girls state chess titles and a top-10 national tournament finish under her belt, Cheryl knows what she's talking about. But the 17-year-old go-getter focuses on more than just her own game, finding time in her hectic schedule to mentor budding grandmasters.
Yet despite the load she's carrying — from chess tournaments and varsity tennis to orchestra concerts in Europe and state titles in a mock government program — nothing seems to slow down Cheryl or her ambition.
“Juggling school, sports and clubs while trying to maintain some glimmer of a social life can be difficult, but it's definitely doable and actually kind of fun,” she said. “It takes getting used to and finding what works for me to get everything done I need to get done.”
The Buffalo Grove teen acknowledges certain sacrifices — most notably, sleep — are necessary to excel in so many areas. That was especially true junior year when a rigorous course load packed with all Advanced Placement classes meant crawling into bed at 2 a.m. was the norm.
But she's counting on all the long nights proving worthwhile with admission to an elite university. Her top choice is Harvard, where she's applying early in hopes the long-awaited payoff will come sooner.
With straight-A's, a 35 out of 36 on the ACT college entrance exam and a national merit semifinalist nod in hand, her academic resume is stellar. So is her list of activities at Stevenson, which includes peer tutoring, National Honor Society, student ambassador executive board and the Tri-M Music Honor Society.
Of her many accomplishments, some of the most remarkable have come in the chess world, which Cheryl entered at about 6 years old when her parents brought her to a club at Lincolnshire-Prairie View Elementary District 103.
She has won numerous tournaments including the Illinois Chess Association's girls state chess championships in seventh and eighth grade.
Earlier this year, she placed eighth in her age division at the Renaissance Knights Chess Foundation's Girls National Championship against competitors from across the country.
And though she finished in second place in this year's state championship on a tiebreaker, Cheryl got to represent Illinois this summer at the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence at Texas Tech University. She won a $40,000 scholarship to the school should she decide to attend.
“She's motivated and definitely keeps up with the boys,” said friend and Stevenson chess teammate Josh Dubin, who's ranked among the top 100 chess players in the U.S. for his age. “She's always intense, but generally has a great attitude and shows a lot of class.”
Cheryl hopes her poise and strategy during a chess match will be an asset as she pursues a career in law.
To see whether she has a knack for it, she joined Stevenson's Youth and Government team, a nationwide program in which prospective legislators and attorneys debate bills and laws.
After spending a semester writing an appellate brief for a mock case centered around a biased juror, she and partner Jeanne Lee presented an oral argument before their peers in the Illinois Supreme Court chamber in Springfield.
In typical Cheryl fashion, they ended up sweeping all categories in their case, including best overall attorney team.
“Cheryl is clearly very dedicated to her involvement in anything she does, and she knows what it really takes to be successful,” Stevenson Youth and Government sponsor Richard Pierce said. “She has the ability to ask good questions and can rise to the occasion when it's needed.”
The drive to succeed was instilled in Cheryl at a very early age by her parents, who moved to the U.S. from China for graduate school. Her dad, a chemical engineer and marathon runner, and mom, a computer programmer, urged her to try just about everything.
“They're stereotypical demanding parents who just want the best for me,” Cheryl said. “It can be a lot of pressure, but I know it's for my own good.”
For instance, she's thankful her parents pushed her into music because her talent in violin and piano took her to Germany and France for performances with the Blue Lake International Youth Symphony Orchestra. She and sister Shelby, 12, also enjoy playing for residents at nursing homes.
Family ties and recognizing her heritage are important to Cheryl, who speaks fluent Chinese and every couple years goes to visit family in Zhenjiang in the eastern Jiangsu province.
To cut loose, she turns to close friends and makes the most of her weekends. Recent outings included Stevenson's Homecoming dance, a show at the Congress Theater featuring Swedish DJ Avicii, and her all-time favorite, Chipotle.
“For me, it's about trying to get the most out of every situation and having fun when you can,” Cheryl said. “I'm looking forward to the next step.”