Ethan Hinds spends much of his free time on the computer, playing games with friends. But these aren't video games or any other average pastime for an 11-year-old.
Ethan is playing chess — and lots of it.
His focus and commitment to the game have paid off.
Ethan won his first national chess tournament this month, outwitting eight of nine opponents to take first place in the K-6 division of the United States Chess Federation National Youth Action East Championship.
More than 330 students from across the country competed in various divisions at the Miami tournament where the Tampa Chess Club — including fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders from area schools — earned a first-place title, as well. Ethan is also a member of the team.
"I expected I'd place in the top 20, but I didn't expect to win," Ethan said of his individual win. "I was really excited."
Before the tournament, five of Ethan's opponents had been rated stronger players than him. The sixth-grader's skills, however, have progressed, said his coach Jeff York, who also coaches the team and is director of the Hillel Academy chess club.
"In the last six months, he's gotten really strong," York said. "His maturity has brought him to a higher level of playing."
Ethan's parents taught him how to play chess when he was 4 years old, and it wasn't long before he was winning consistently.
He joined the chess club while in kindergarten at the private Hillel Academy on Fletcher Avenue.
"The coach told us he showed promise and suggested he get chess lessons," said his father, Jeff Hinds. "I didn't even know chess lessons existed."
At Ethan's first chess competition, he placed in the top 10.
Still, his father said, Ethan is no prodigy. He just spends a lot of time on the game.
"To have a kid with this much focus for so long is unusual," said York. "There's a lot of material to read that's too dense for even some adults."
In addition to chess lessons with York, Ethan takes lessons from a Ukrainian grand master once a week via Skype.
He and his 7-year-old sister Miriam keep their parents busy. Besides chess, Ethan also plays soccer for two teams, and Miriam now plays chess as well.
Jeff Hinds is an attorney; his wife, Terri, works for a market research company. Traveling from their Carrollwood home to tournaments from Nashville to Dallas has become a family pastime.
"It's as much about seeing the world as it is about the competitions," Jeff Hinds said. "I see it as a way for my kids to continue to broaden their horizons."
For Ethan, playing chess is just fun.
"I like that each game is different," he said. He enjoys meeting friends at tournaments, then playing chess with them online.
At the Miami competition Dec. 10 and 11, Ethan made it through nine rounds of "action chess," in which each player is given only 30 minutes for all of their moves. Other tournaments have fewer games that take longer. The time constraint for these rounds, as well as the playing conditions, made this tournament even more challenging.
"We were in a busy convention center with a convention right beside us, so it was really, really loud. Typically you could hear a pin drop at a chess tournament," York said.
Ethan didn't seem too daunted by the noise. "Sometimes I get nervous," he said, "but I just try not to think about anything else."
Elizabeth Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.