Julia Sevilla started playing chess when she was still little. Her dad, Fernando Sevilla, was an avid chess player growing up in the Philippines, inspired by the famous chess master of the 1970s, Bobby Fischer. After immigrating to the United States, he competed in tournaments and poured over strategy books. Julia was curious, so he taught her the game.
“I was six or seven when my dad taught me the moves,” Julia said at the kitchen table of the family’s Porter Ranch home one recent night. “It was just a cool thing to me. Also, my dad took me to tournaments and they had free pizza,” she added, smiling.
Fernando still plays chess, said his wife, Emma. “But now she surpasses Fernando,” she added, nodding at her daughter.
Julia admits to being a quiet person, and likes both the social interaction of the tournaments and the silent concentration the game requires. She’s an 11-grade student at Granada Hills Charter High School, where she has a 4.0 GPA and takes advanced placement classes. She’s also ranked among the top youth chess players in the United States.
Now, Julia’s trophies cover the top of several bookcases in the house. More trophies crowd a small corner table, and there are even more in Julia’s bedroom. She’s competed in international matches in Russia, the United Arab Emirates and all around the United States. In July at the SPF Girls’ Invitational tournament, named after world chess champ Susan Polgar, Julia won a $12,000 year scholarship, if she wants it, to attend Webster University in St. Louis.
On Thursday morning, in the early morning dark, Julia and her dad would leave the house for Montevideo, Uruguay, the site of this year’s World Youth Chess Championship by the World Chess Federation (also called FIDE, for Fédération Internationale des Échecs). Julia will represent the United States, along with other top-rated American players, in the invitation-only contest for teenagers.
She’s not nervous about the Uruguay tournament. “I compete all the time,” Julia said, smiling. That doesn’t mean she’s not tough on herself. She’s aiming to be a national master, a qualification based on a player’s rating.
“I feel that’s a minimal level for being considered a really good player,” she said, despite all the trophies upstairs. “Plenty of room for improvement. It’s a good thing. Because of you’re a master, it really appeals to colleges.”
As Julia’s wins and experience grew, her mother told her the game could be a pathway, not an end in itself.
“It was like, ‘lightbulb!’ Ticket to scholarship,” Emma said, recalling the time when Julia started winning games, trophies and money. “I even told her that. ‘Chess is not going to be a career for you. It’s just going to be your ticket to go into good colleges and scholarships.’ … But we always told her that school is the priority.”
Julia has a standard opening move she likes – moving a pawn to D4, if she’s playing the white pieces. It helps her jump into the middle of the board and try to gain control. But there are “almost infinite” ways a match can go. “There’s different possibilities per move. It’s like branching. You have to think of those branches,” Julia said. “It keeps going. I can’t think that far, unless you’re a computer.”
Beyond chess and high school, Julia would like to be a civil engineer. “Plus, I can build my own house,” she said, like her dad, who designed the family’s home and is a general contractor.
Not every game is a win, but Julia has an approach for that, too.
“If you end up playing the same opponent again, you can mix things up and make sure whatever happened earlier doesn’t happen again,” she said.
“You learn from it. You don’t get worked up over your loss.”
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