Local chess prodigy looks beyond the board

Madison’s Awonder Liang was a grandmaster by 14 — now he’s got his sights set on college.
Side by side photos of Awonder Liang. On the left he is shown smiling and winning a prize in Jamaica and on the right he is wearing a blue shirt and serious face.
Courtesy of Awonder Liang's family
Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness presents Awonder Liang with a gift at the 2017 Jamaican International Chess Festival.

Madison’s Awonder Liang was a globetrotting chess champion before he was a teenager — winning the 2011 World Youth Chess Championship in Brazil at age 8.

On returning, he gave his first national interview to Lynn Neary of NPR. Two years later, at age 10, Liang won another world championship, this one in the United Arab Emirates.

He was a grandmaster at 14. On the cover of chess magazines, in demand for tournaments and exhibitions from Reykjavik to Rome. At home, he was nearly unstoppable, winning an unprecedented three straight U.S. Junior Championships.

This fall, Liang, who turns 18 in April, plans to acquire one more appellation: college student.

“I’ve applied to a few colleges,” he told me last week. “I’m still waiting to hear back.”

It is a decision that will likely remove Liang, at least for a time, from the highest echelons of tournament chess, given its unrelenting travel and practice demands.

He’s comfortable with that. Liang still loves the game, he says, but he wants to experience life — learn more about the world — beyond the chessboard.

“A lot of thought went into it,” Liang said. “But for me it was really a simple decision. Even though I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a lot of different places, there is still a lot for me to know. I felt through the academic world — high school and college — there’s really a lot to learn and a chance for me to expand my horizons.”

The seeds of his decision date back to 2019, when Liang enrolled at Madison West High School as a full-time student after years of home schooling and online classes that allowed him to travel the world playing chess.

He continued to compete in tournaments, winning his last U.S. Junior title in 2019. In October 2020, Liang competed in the U.S. Chess Championship against the top American professionals and, although he didn’t win, he scored an upset victory over defending champion Hikaru Nakamura.

But he did it as a student who excelled at chess, rather than as a full-time professional player who fit in studies when he could.

“At some point I had to make a decision about whether I would pursue chess full time or pursue school more,” Liang told me.

He chose school, a decision fully supported by his parents, Will and Helen Liang. His grades at West have been excellent. He was upbeat and laughed often during our phone conversation, especially when I told him I had yet to see the limited series Netflix sensation “The Queen’s Gambit.”

“You should totally watch it,” Liang said. “I watched the first episode and got hooked. It’s great to see chess portrayed and have people talking about it.”

I’ve been privileged to watch Liang grow from a shy young boy to a thoughtful and articulate young man. While Lynn Neary interviewed Liang when he was 8, I’d found him a year earlier — and played a game of chess against him in his second grade classroom at Van Hise Elementary School for a newspaper column.

When he won his first world championship in Brazil the next year, I interviewed him again, and asked what he was thinking at the moment he realized he was a world champion.

He answered as only an 8-year-old could.

“I wanted to go to the water park, but it was raining.”

Liang learned chess from his dad (who came in the early 1980s from China to study at UW–Madison) and was a regular presence at Sequoya Library’s biweekly chess club from the time he could walk.

Last week, I asked Liang about all his travels over the past decade, whether a particular memory stood out. He cited an invitation to attend the inaugural Jamaican International Chess Festival in October 2017.

“It was a really fantastic experience,” Liang said. “For me it really showcased the ability that chess has to bring people together. It’s not only about playing at the highest levels, playing with grandmasters, but it’s really about the local players and club players who love the game and have been playing a long time. It showed how everyone can take part in this wonderful game.”

He visited schools and played exhibitions, sometimes taking on as many as 15 or 20 opponents simultaneously (when Liang did this in Rome, the mayor of that Italian city was one of his opponents). In Jamaica, he met and was presented a gift by Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

Liang says that at this point he thinks he’ll be studying economics or political science at college this fall.

“But I’m not really sure,” he added. “I’m just looking forward to everything about the college experience.”

And chess?

“I think college is a little more intense, so I think chess will have to take a backseat,” Liang said. “But we’re always going to make time to do the things we love. I’m sure I’ll be able to play some tournaments.

“To keep competing is definitely one of my wishes,” he continued. “But we’ll have to see. The past year has shown us life can be unpredictable. You have to roll with it.”

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