At the beginning of every chess game, Skyview High School senior Samir Sen tells his opponents two things: “Good luck” and “have fun.”
Fun is about the most that they can hope for when they sit down to play against the National Chess Master—one of the top 60, regardless of age, in the state of Washington.
Sen, a Vancouver native, learned the game at age 5. His earliest lessons came from his father, a PacifiCorp IT consultant who emigrated from India in 1995 with Sen’s mother, a physician at PeaceHealth. Young Sen initially lost every game, until one was left on the board overnight. He left the game thinking he was in checkmate and would be defeated again. When he returned, he realized that he was not in checkmate; in fact, he was in a position to capture his father’s queen. “That was the turning point that made me really interested in chess,” Sen recalled. He was all of age 6.
The gifted young player continued to learn and improve, competing in tournaments at the Portland Chess Club while enrolled at Truman Elementary School as part of the Challenge program for highly capable students. After attending Jason Lee Middle School, he was accepted to the Science, Math and Technology magnet program at Skyview High School.
“At Skyview, we have a really great SMT program because our teachers and programs help prepare the student to solve real-world problems,” he said.
And problem-solving is at the nexus of the game that prizes the use of tactics and strategy to power through an opponent’s defense. “Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to chess,” said Sen, “because I like to solve problems. Every move you’re trying to solve a puzzle.”
As a sophomore, he placed second in the 2012 World Open under 2200 section and, in the process, earned the title of National Master. Less than 1 percent of rated players hold the distinction.
His performance at the World Open attracted the attention of the United States Chess Federation. Two years later, the USCF selected Sen and two other American players to represent the U.S. in the World Youth Chess Championships.
The tournament, held in Pune, India, in October, was Sen’s first outside of the country. His initial game pitted him against a Grand Master, the highest status conferred in chess. While Sen ultimately lost the game, he valued the experience. “When you play outside the U.S., you see how other players think. You learn new things,” he said.
Sen’s love of new experiences is evident outside of chess, too, balancing his talent with an attitude of service to others.
He supports an organization called Humanity Hospital located in Hanspukur, an impoverished village in West Bengal. In his junior year, Sen donated more than $2,600 to the hospital, which provides free medical treatment to thousands of patients. Last summer, he visited Humanity Hospital and focused his efforts on fundraising, creating the North American Chapter of Humanity Hospital.
Bangladesh was next. In the capital city of Dhaka, Sen helped field test a textbook he is co writing with Sky view English teacher Dr. Beverly Questad. For the past four years, he has worked with Dr. Questad to compile translations from Bangla, one of three languages he speaks, to English for the orphans from the SunChild Home, who use the text to prepare for a national test. The stakes are high.
“If the girls do well, they will be allowed to ad vance to a school for college-bound students. If they can’t succeed at English, they most likely will enter the cycle of poverty of their deceased moth ers and return to the slum,” said Questad.
Sen’s enthusiasm was evident. “He field tested our book, taught the children little games and songs and grew attached,” said Questad.
She added, “His heart wants to solve problems now. He steps right into the chasm to help where he can.”
Closer to home, Sen captains Skyview’s chess team, is a research intern in the physics department at Portland State University and in November became a semifinalist for the prestigious National Merit Scholarship. He also makes time to teach chess at the Boys and Girls Club and volunteer at Peace Health, Oregon Health & Science University and ManorCare Health Services. Of his efforts, Sen says, in his typically unassuming fashion, “It helps other people, so why not?”
Sen’s post-high school plans include continuing his science studies and improving his chess game. He’d also like to attain chess’ second-highest title, inter national master. And after college: the possibilities are as numerous as the number of moves in a chess game.
But in chess, as in life, titles mean only so much. Sen’s compassion, drive and character will give him the real advantage.