Waimea resident is Hawaii’s Chess Player of the Year

  • Contributed images LEFT: Movie poster of Netflix original series "Queen's Gambit". RIGHT: “Hawai‘i Chess Player of the Year” Waimea's Li Aipa.

The Queen’s Gambit is a Netflix series about a young chess prodigy, Beth Harmon. It parallels the real-life story of American prodigy Bobby Fischer, who battled the great Soviet chess machine almost single-handedly through the 1960s before winning the world championship in 1972. The seven-part mini series is one of the most popular in the history of Netflix, and has topped the Nielsen rating for the last three weeks. Serious chess players around the world applaud how well it captures the drama of real tournaments, and how the mannerisms and moves so accurately portray real grandmasters.

During the pandemic, online chess saw a huge rise in popularity. Hawai‘i fielded three teams that competed internationally: An adult team from Oahu, a K-12 Scholastic team from Oahu, and a team from the Garden Island. Kaua‘i chess aficionados will be happy to learn that a member of the Team Kauai was just recognized by the Hawaii Chess Federation as “The Hawaii’s Chess Player of the Year” for 2020. The Kauai team placed well in the 2020 World Online Chess Teams Championships with a score of 4.5 out of 7. They lost only to the Oxford University A team and a team from Honolulu, which finished at 5-2.

Kauai currently has five team members who play above the 1800 level in rapid chess: Chad Badgett, Valor Mexia, Fernando Ramos, Likeke (Li) Aipa, and this author. Ratings above 1800 mean each team member ranks above 95% of the members at the world’s largest chess website, Chess.com. For such a small island, it is a remarkable collection of chess talent. Mexia is a Junior at Kauai High School. He moved up from board five to board one for the team over the last 6 months. Badgett is a Contractor, Ramos is a Cook, and Aipa is a new engineer at PMRF. As team captain, I was a teacher at Kauai High for seven years. But this story is not about me, even though I somehow won the Hawaii Blitz (5-minute) championship in September. It is not even about Kauai’s 16-year old prodigy Valor, who just won the Hawaii Rapid (15-minute) championship last weekend.

It is not even about 12-year-old Punahou student Mark Chen from Honolulu, who became the youngest state champion in Hawai‘i’s history in 2020, and who appears in the October Chess Life magazine ahead of Beth Harmon. This article is about the official “Hawai‘i Chess Player of the Year:” Li Aipa from Waimea.

When I first met Likeke he was just 16 years old, playing in the 2011 US Open in Orlando, Florida. We participated in a side event, the first national championship for Chess960, which is just like chess, except the pieces on the first rank are shuffled before the game begins. I watched Li’s game with Grandmaster Larry Kaufmann. The other games were finished, so a crowd gathered around the game. In a wild position, Li made a move that caused onlookers to gasp, because it seemed impossible. GM Kaufmann looked at the move in astonishment for a minute or two, then he quietly and gracefully resigned. The crowd erupted into applause. That moment had all the drama of a Beth Harmon victory in the Netflix series. I knew at that moment Li would one day become a strong chess master.

After high school he took a long break from tournament chess to earn his mechanical engineering degree at UH, but now he has rejoined the Hawai‘i chess community, stronger than ever.

Li’s performance for Team Kaua‘i was the highlight of the season. He played sixteen games for the team and won 15 of them! With zero losses, he gave up only a single draw to an opponent from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Most impressive were his powerful 2-0 wins over the top player from Oxford University and another 2-0 versus a strong master from Dundee, Scotland. After each match the players reviewed and analyzed games on Zoom. Li’s games have a special kind of power and beauty. His deep ideas and energetic plans often lure his opponents into dazzlingly complex positions, fraught with danger on both sides. Then his ultra-sharp tactical intuition finds the perfect sequence of moves, finishing the game quickly and with flair. Li had similar results for two other Hawaii clubs he plays for at chess.com.

Nash, Badgett and Aipa also played for the Hawaii State Team in the 2020 US States Cup. Again, Aipa’s games were the ones that consistently drew most of the attention from match commentators on the Twitch.TV channels. He averaged more than 2 points out of 4 against master-level players from the Western USA, the best result for anyone on the team. In the final round Hawaii played Washington State, who went on to win the event. He played each one of them and ended up with a positive score (2-1-1) against the national championship team.

After the games, when asked how he did it, Li usually said, “I just got lucky.” But despite his humble attitude, luck favors the well-prepared in chess. His phenomenal score of 15-1-0 happens very rarely in chess, despite how easy Beth Harmon made it look in the TV series. In fact, his result was the best overall score of any player in the 2020 World Online Chess Teams Championships tournament. He was chosen as the “Player of the Stage” by the organizers of the event after he finished Stage 6 with 11 wins and 1 draw. So far he is 4-0 in the new season. As 2020 draws to a close, it is clear that Li is the great warrior carrying the torch for Hawaii chess, even among so many young rising stars.

Li loves his job at PMRF and living in the little town of Waimea. The pace of life suits him well, with mild traffic, abundant nature and wildlife, and traditional culture. He enjoys hiking and exploring and sharing his love for the game of chess. Currently, he is helping Dan Abadilla plan and run chess events for kids in Kekaha. He is willing to do “simultaneous exhibitions,” once COVID subsides, where he will play many opponents at once, for any Kaua‘i school or community group, just like Beth Harmon did in The Queen’s Gambit. The Kaua‘i club will provide all the boards and pieces. Li is also happy to coach anyone who would like to learn or improve their chess game. He can be reached at LiAipa@yahoo.com.

If you would like to find other chess players or a local club on Kauai contact damian@kauaichess.com.

Competitive Kauai players are welcome to join Team Kauai at chess.com.

  1. VVNV December 23, 2020 8:17 am Reply

    Excellent article and actually very very impressive for the Kauai Chess World and all chess lovers.
    Thank you.

  2. Ed Hayes December 23, 2020 8:27 am Reply

    Great article Damian! More Chess!

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