Darryl Benbow has been playing chess for more than 50 years and considers himself to be a fine player, so trust him when he says what 5-year-old Celine Atassi is doing isn’t normal.
Not only is she a good player — Benbow puts her on the same level as a strong high school player or an adult — she can also play blindfolded, or without looking at the board.
In the cafe inside Barnes & Noble on a recent Tuesday night, Atassi played Benbow to a mutually agreed draw, and did so playing the first 20 moves with her back to the board, not looking at where the pieces were.
“I don’t know how she does this,” Benbow said. “She knows where everything is in her head.”
Benbow, president of the city’s chess club, Winston-Salem Chess, said Atassi has defeated adults in the chess club.
People in the bookstore stopped their shopping or conversations to stare. Even her father, Sam, doesn’t know.
“I don’t know how her brain can do this,” Sam Atassi said. “I guess you’re just born with it.”
Sam Atassi first started teaching his son to play chess, but he showed more interest in sports, so he turned to Celine. Celine quickly took to chess, having only started playing about seven months ago, Sam Atassi said.
Once he and his wife realized they may have a prodigy on his hands, Sam Atassi began taking Celine to Winston-Salem Chess, where they met Benbow.
“I’ve heard the notion (young children’s) brains aren’t complicated enough for the calculations and strategic maneuvers of chess,” Benbow said. “Well, we can throw that out the window now.”
Celine Atassi’s parents knew she was smart, but now they’re constantly reevaluating what their daughter may be capable of.
Dema Atassi, Celine’s mother, said when her daughter was younger — yes, younger than 5-years-old — she and Sam would do puzzles together. Sam and Celine would race to complete the puzzles and before long Celine could do them faster than her father.
Both Dema and Sam said teachers at Morgan Elementary School, where Celine is in kindergarten, have told them they have a gifted daughter, especially when it comes to math.
“People are always telling us how smart she is,” Dema Atassi said. “It makes me nervous sometimes.”
When Celine first started learning chess, Sam Atassi would call out random squares of the board to his daughter when they were in the car to see if she would know if it was a dark-color or light-color square. Eventually he would make a “move” like directing a pawn to the E-4 square, and then she would make a counter move.
Sam Atassi said that would go on for maybe five moves, before he would be unable to remember where his imaginary pieces are.
The same wasn't true for Celine.
“She will say ‘Daddy can’t you see them?’ and I can’t,” Sam Atassi said.
Despite the obvious potential to become a chess prodigy, Celine’s parents aren’t pushing her.
“I don’t like to put pressure on her,” Sam Atassi said. “If she likes to play chess, we let her play chess.”
Benbow, who’s taken on a pseudo-chess mentoring role for Celine, agrees that balance is key.
“Chess can’t be everything you feed her,” Benbow said.
Benbow also works with a tennis program, and said he’s encouraged Atassi’s parents to bring her to one of the free junior clinics at Hanes Park.
For Celine’s part, she seems a regular kid. She also likes dolls, and the color pink, often running over to the toy section near the chess tables. But she always comes back to chess.
“I like chess because it’s the best game,” she said. “I want to be a (chess) grandmaster.”