San Luis Obispo High School junior Taylor McCreary knows how to think ahead.
The 16-year-old will be matching wits with some of the best young chess players in the world over the next couple weeks.
Taylor is playing in the World Youth Chess Championship in the United Arab Emirates, which started Tuesday and continues through Dec. 28.
The event, held in Al Ain about 80 miles from Dubai, is considered the elite competition for young chess players.
“I study chess every day,” Taylor said before departing Sunday. “I go over games, I practice endgames, I read books, I study chess tactics. It’s addicting. For how much pain you get from losing, the joy you have from winning keeps you going.”
She’ll compete in the under-16 division because of the birthday cutoff for her age group, among 117 players from more than 50 countries, including Russia, Turkey, Iran and South Africa.
Taylor is rated 51st best female player under the age of 21 in the United States by the U.S. Chess Federation.
And she expects to move up in those rankings after scoring well in a recent Santa Clara tournament.
Her father, Michael McCreary, started teaching her chess in the third grade, and she became a member of Pacheco Elementary School’s chess club. By sixth grade, she was beating her dad regularly.
Taylor travels to tournaments in the Bay Area or near Los Angeles about once every other month.
But this will be the first time she has participated in an international competition — and the first time she has ever traveled so far.
“It’s going to be really cool to get to hang out with people from the international chess community,” she said. “We’re competitive and want to win, but you make friends at tournaments. I want to enjoy the experience.”
Before leaving, Taylor was busy collecting small gifts because it’s customary between players at the tournament to offer a gift to an opponent.
Without a local youth chess club or one at San Luis Obispo High School, she regularly plays against adults in the local San Luis Obispo Chess Club, which meets Thursday nights in San Luis Obispo and Saturdays in Morro Bay.
In an Oct. 19 tournament in Morro Bay hosted by the San Luis Obispo club that attracted 25 players from throughout California, Taylor placed third. That was best among San Luis Obispo County residents.
One of her two coaches, Santa Maria resident Eduardo Ortiz, won the tournament in Morro Bay, which was open to males and females of all ages.
Besides learning from her father, Taylor also picked up tips from 66-year-old Szaja Gottlieb, a member of the local chess club who has known her since she was 12 and helped improve her game. Taylor has since surpassed Gottlieb in her rating as a chess player.
“Taylor has a talent for chess, but what she really has is the special talent to develop, work, learn from her losses, and grow,” Gottlieb said. “She is strong in calculation and analysis and does not make bad mistakes, which is very important at higher levels where one mistake is often fatal.”
Taylor said that she enjoys the challenge of sustaining her concentration for long periods of time while playing chess. Games typically last up to two hours, but some competitions have four-hour games.
At San Luis Obispo High, she’s among the top of her class academically and is one of two juniors in an advanced calculus course filled with seniors.
In addition to playing on the high school golf team, Taylor’s interests include spending time with friends who don’t have much interest in chess.
“But they have just kind of accepted that it’s something I do,” she said.
Gottlieb believes Taylor can reach the esteemed “master” status by the time she’s 18. The next status would be grandmaster.
It can be difficult for her to find opponents of her ability in the county, but about “10 players can give her a good run for her money,” Taylor’s father, Michael McCreary said.
She also plays games with opponents online and receives Skype lessons from renowned Bulgarian coach Valeri Lilov, who can show her moves through a chess app.
Taylor says she doesn’t see herself going professional, though she envisions doing some teaching.
“To be a professional chess player, you have to give up a lot of your life,” Taylor said. “And it’s hard to earn much money or make a living that way. I just want to continue to play and play competitively and do as well as I can.”