"I was a nobody going in; no one expected much from me"...
Michael Brown, age 18, has already traveled the world, all because of a board game: chess. What started as an after school hobby once a week in first grade has led him from Slovenia to Dubai. And now, he’s headed to BYU on the highest possible scholarship, the Thomas S. Monson Presidential Scholarship.
He was accepted to several schools including Cornell, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and UCLA. “It was a pretty tough choice. I visited BYU for the first time two to three days before the application deadline and I felt strongly I should go there.” He plans to study applied mathematics, ideally with an emphasis in modeling and theoretical work.
Michael grew up in Portola Hills and graduated from Trabuco Hills High School in June as the co-valedictorian, but before he ever graduated, he already had world travel adventures that most people only dream of as he represented the U.S. in world championships for youth age 17 and under. In addition to Slovenia and Dubai, his chess matches have taken him to the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey.
Now at age 18, he’s the fourth ranked player for his age group in the U.S. Michael attributes much of his success to his parents. “I’ve been playing chess for twelve years. In second grade, every Friday night my parents paid $20 for me to play in a chess tournament for three hours. . . I realize now that that adds up to a lot over a year. They drove or flew me all over the world, all on the faith that this was what I had to do, that this was my passion. They spent a lot of time and money to make sure my needs were satisfied. I really love them for that.”
His parents support truly made the difference. "At the end of second grade I acquired a chess coach. In third grade I started playing in more tournaments. In fourth grade I played in my first national chess tournament. That was in Florida and it was a single grade tournament. I played against just fourth graders. I was a nobody going in; no one expected much from me, but I ended up taking third place. That was kind of a turning point for me. After that I realized I could be more than an average player. I cycled through a couple of coaches until I found one that raised me to the next level. That’s when I got to play in international tournaments.”
The reason Michael’s last coach was able to push him to the next level was because he got to know Michael as a player whereas other coaches only focused on one aspect of the game. His last coach looked at his entire game, saw his weaknesses, and pushed him very hard to get past them. It’s a long process. As a player gets better, his ranking slows and he has to put in more time to make even small advances.
“Chess did something for me that other things couldn’t".
But Michael put in the time. Despite maintaining the highest GPA in his class and running track as well as participating in other extracurricular activities, he spent 10-15 hours a week practicing his chess game. To Michael, it was worth it, even beyond his national ranking. “Chess did something for me that other things couldn’t. It expanded me creativity-wise and emotionally, and kept me sharp academically.”
In fact, chess has been such a positive aspect of his life that he designed his Eagle scout project around it, building chess tables for a local park for anyone to use.
Experiencing so much success so early has led Michael to some profound realizations. “Sometimes I think of life as climbing a mountain. Sometimes when you start the path it’s not too treacherous. You have a lot of footholds. As you get closer to the peak, you’re going to make a misstep, or something happens that you don’t expect. You have to keep going. Sometimes you have to work harder to keep going. You have to have in yourself that you can do it and have faith that God gave you these talents and He wants you to succeed as well.”
Michael also values his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. “It gave me a group of friends and people I could always rely on to fulfill any requests I had at any time. It gave me leaders to count on and gave me leadership opportunities I couldn’t get other places. In a spiritual sense it helped build a base of faith and morality. It’s a great example of how to live like Christ lived when he was on the Earth."