Cover photo courtesy of Shivakumar.
Shawnak Shivakumar is not your average freshman. Unbeknownst to most of his peers, he harbors a secret talent for chess. Just last summer, Shivakumar won the world championship for U15s in a chess tournament in Panama. According to the International Chess Federation, he is ranked 5th among 15-year-old chess players globally.
In chess, players are rated based on their ability. A decent rating is anything above 1200. Magnus Carlsen, the best chess player alive, has a rating of 2852. Shivakumar has a rating of 2418, which is in the 99th percentile worldwide. He currently holds the title of Fide Master, the third-highest title possible. In decades of chess history, only 8362 people have achieved that title.
Shivakumar got his start as a chess wizard early. He explained, “My dad introduced chess to me as a hobby. At the time, we were living in New York, and I was a kindergartener. I would play hustlers in the streets of New York and just get destroyed.”
Despite early defeats, chess quickly became his passion. Shivakumar said, “After learning, I became really fascinated with it. When I was little, I used to always ask my dad for his phone and then just go on the chess app and play games against the computer. I’d lose every time, but it’d be a really fun way for me to just pass the time.”
Shivakumar entered his first tournament when he moved to Menlo Park at age six. His chess skills quickly accelerated. “When we moved here, this really nice guy who lived in the neighborhood would come over. He would come over to my house once a week and we would just play chess. It was like this seven-year-old and this eighty-year-old talking over chess,” recalled Shivakumar. “That’s one of the things I love about chess, how it brings people together.”
“My chess game just started skyrocketing,” he explained. “After a year and a half of playing, I got invited to the state championship for third grade and under. It was six games, and I actually went six out of six, and won.”
This was a milestone for Shivakumar. “That’s when I realized that chess could be more than moving pieces in the game; it could also be an awesome way to meet new people, meet new cultures, and travel the world.”
Chess has led him across the globe. He’s attended over 500 tournaments, both domestic and international. After winning the state championship, he explained, “I was invited to the national championships in Tennessee. I didn’t win, but I tied for second place. Then they invited me to the Pan-American in Chile, in 2018, where I represented Team USA. I actually managed to get the bronze medal.”
After the Pan-American, he was off to Spain for the world championship. He said, “That was an insane experience—a whole new level. People traveled from all of Asia, all of Latin America, and Europe.”
It’s clear that Shivakumar holds himself to a high standard. In the world championship, he explained, “In my section—which was U10—there were about 1000 participants, three or four from each nation. I placed 38th. So I did not do that well. I mean relatively I did well. But overall, there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement.”
Four years later, right before his freshman year, he returned to the world championship in Panama. In just a short time, he had majorly improved. “I managed to get first place and a FIDE Master title,” Shivakumar remembered. “That was just an awesome moment, to stand on the podium and represent Team USA.”
Every tournament requires immense effort and patience. Typically, international chess tournaments range from five rounds to double digits. Shivakumar explained, “Rounds can go up to six or seven hours, sitting at a chess board or maybe walking around. But you can hear a pin drop in a chess hall. There’s no talking whatsoever. It’s really just concentration and patience—chess teaches you a lot of patience.”
Shivakumar practices daily and has lessons once a week with his coach, Elshan Moradiabadi. In the summer, Shivakumar recalled, “I would spend two, three hours a day playing chess. But now it’s hard to find that much time.”
For Shivakumar, time is precious. Besides playing chess, Shivakumar is on the M-A Robotics Team, in the M-A Orchestra, and enrolled in online computing classes, all on top of a typical course load. “There’s a lot going on, especially at this time of the year,” he said. “It’s just about working hard, getting the title this year, and putting in as much effort as I can.”
But no matter how much he has on his plate, Shivakumar is always excited about chess. Throughout our interview, his enthusiasm for chess was infectious, whether he was excitedly explaining the “Toiletgate” chess scandal or describing his favorite opening move, the English opening. “It’s the underdog opening,” he exclaimed.
With three years left of high school, Shivakumar has big plans. “I’m actually right now going for an international master title,” he said. Currently, he has trips planned to two international tournaments. If he succeeds at three international tournaments, he explained, “I’ll join one of the 3000 people, alive or dead, in the history of chess that have ever gotten this title.” World, watch out!