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It’s All About This Greenburgh Elementary School Student and Her Next Moves

What do you get when you take an eight-year-old, a love of board games, and a predilection for problem-solving and then throw them all together in a pandemic? A child prodigy chess master, that’s what. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the game of chess is having an explosive moment. There are three reasons they point to - a popular Netflix series,, and the pandemic. As a Highview Elementary student, Lilianna Gao was drawn to the game of thought and strategy during the pandemic, teaching herself how to play. Learning all the right moves, just two years later, Lilianna is now ten-years-old and the number three female player for her age group in the country, with a peak rating of close to 1900. 


After learning chess from a program that had been in place at Highview Elementary School and playing at the Greenburgh Public Library, her confidence was rising, and she decided to enter the tournament arenas - starting with scholastic tournaments and eventually moving into big league ‘open tournaments’ where she competes against people of all ages. Even in her first tournament, Lilianna knew she was ready for competition when she chose to play in the Championship section, the highest section. “I knew I could get a higher score if I competed in the lower section, but I wanted more of a challenge and to learn more by competing at the highest levels,” said Lilianna.


Her debut proved impressive, landing her in fifth place right out of the gate. Since that fateful day, she has been bit by the tournament bug and has attended several tournaments nationwide, including Philadelphia, PA, Foxwoods, CT, Parsippany, NJ, Albany, NY, Newark, DE and Chicago, IL. 

“Chess has given me the opportunity to travel. I really enjoy meeting new people who have the same interests as me,” she said. “Actually, I met my best friend playing chess. We met at the chess club we both go to, and even though we compete against each other, we also learn from and support one another.”


For Lilianna, the benefits of playing chess go beyond just the game play and competition. It has helped with her ability to focus and trust her decision-making abilities. These are qualities that can translate to school work, and not surprisingly, there has been an improvement in Lilianna’s grades, particularly in math. Lilianna’s mother, Leigh Wang, has noticed other important areas positively affected by her daughter’s mastery of chess. “Since Lilianna started playing chess, I have seen an increase in focus and also a growth in maturity and self-confidence,” said Leigh. 


This summer will bring more significant competition for Lilianna; she has qualified for her first-ever international competition, the 2023 World Cadet Championship in Egypt. Every year, the US Chess Federation sends a team delegate to represent the country and compete internationally. Called the world youth and world cadet team, this is the highest honor for a young chess player.


“This is the big tournament, and it will take a lot of work to prepare for it,” Leigh emphasized. For Lilianna, it would be an honor to represent her school and country. Meeting new people at tournaments is always part of the fun, and she is particularly excited about the opportunity to meet competitors from China. “I understand and speak Chinese, so it would be really great to have the opportunity to talk to them about chess in a shared language,” said Lilianna.


Chess is more than just a pleasure for Lilianna; it is her true passion. Nothing would make her happier than spending hours studying games and playing them. “I could easily spend three hours a day just thinking about chess,” she joked. Luckily for Lilianna, chess is becoming a family affair. Her seven-year-old sister, who attends L.F. Jackson is starting to take to the game too. “I’ve been teaching her,” said Lilianna. “It’s been a lot of fun.”