Jonathan David Phillips, Associate Editor
Like most great journeys, his began over a girl.
Chris Mabe started the road back to chess prowess after, he said, he broke up with a girlfriend.
"It's always a girl, right?" he said in a phone interview from Charlotte Monday.
The 32-year-old Boonville native wasn't a stranger to dominating the game of kings and queens. At age 11, his older brother Mike taught him the basics.
"He taught me how to play, then couldn't beat me anymore," Mabe said. "So he quit."
Mabe joined a local chess club and competed in scholastic chess tournaments for ages 10 to 12.
He was good and a winner, but chess gave way to soccer and adolescence. For 12 years, he wouldn't pick up a piece.
That is, until a certain relationship ended.
On Dec. 16, 1999, he got the itch again. He found an old chess set in his basement and set up the pieces.
He wanted to play again. He tracked down a mutual friend and decided to see if he still had the moves in him.
"It was terrible," he said of that first game back. "I lost all my pieces real quickly."
Mabe knew he needed to work on his game.
"I started to hit the books and work," he said. "You have to study more than you play."
One month later, he was playing in his first rated tournament -- where players earn or lose points based on how much they win and lose. The ratings are guides to tell a player how strong they are.
As a youth he had been rated, but he quickly realized he was better than he thought.
"I got to be stronger than I was when I was a kid," he said. "I can process the information faster."
At first, he played to increase his rating, "how high I could get." That changed the more he concentrated on becoming a professional.
Mabe now travels up and down the East Coast competing against national and internationally ranked opponents. A move to Charlotte and a flurry of tournaments propelled him to where he is today, in the midst of his breakout year.
This year, Mabe was crowned the North Carolina champion. In addition to that, he holds titles at the Southwest Virginia Open, Atlantic Open, Miami Chess Open and a third-place finish at the South Carolina Championships.
He also claimed his biggest purse of $14,000 for winning the World Open in Philadelphia, Penn.
For the past three years, he was stuck in the 2,200 and under ratings. Now his rating is 2,293.
Most of the time, players only receive ten points per victory. Mabe's rating has placed him in the top one percent of players.
"A year ago I was 2,114, now I'm 2,293," he said. "Within a year, that's just crazy. I'm just trying to catch up."
The victories and his talent have afforded him the freedom to put chess first in his life. He attends the University of North Carolina at Charlotte part time and teaches chess when he can.
But success has brought him to a transition point in his life. "Do I want to really be a grand master?" he said.
Being a chess grand master means a player is the best, he said, and it's very hard to accomplish. To become one, a player must play in a nine-round tournament where only 40 percent of the other players can be from the United States.
Mabe would have to play and beat three other grand masters, and another player with a rating of 2,600. He would also have to have an international rating of 2,500.
And he would have to do all of that three times.
How hard is it for an American to become a grand master? America just got its first grand master in more than 10 years in June.
"We have no chess education in the United States," Mabe said. "Other countries do. They take classes and teach it."
He said he does feel like he is at a disadvantage, but that's part of the appeal.
"It makes the prize much sweeter," he said. "I believe that hard work will take you further than talent."
Since winning his last tournament on Nov. 11, Mabe is busy prepping for one in Washington, D.C., Dec. 27. He'll read through the more than 300 chess books at his home and he won't play a rated game before the tournament.
"You brush up on your openings," he said of his preparation. "You don't want to be surprised in the first ten moves. I study old games that strong players have played, get to a critical position and figure out how I would play it and compare it."
For Mabe, the chessboard is a story waiting to be told. Each move is his narrative.
And he's hoping more children will listen to his story -- especially in his hometown of Boonville where scholastic chess is still being played.
"It's a small community," he said. "There's a perception there. I never thought there was so much in chess. In Charlotte, I can meet up to 400 children interested in chess. There's nothing like that there."
He said he wished he would have known what chess could have offered when he was young -- college scholarships, money, travel and competition.
"It's a great opportunity to make a living," he said.
Mabe might have company from Boonville sooner than he thinks.
Yadkin County held its 2007 scholastic chess tournament between area elementary schools and Boonville claimed the top prize in team and individual honors.
"Yes," Mabe said. "That's awesome. Get some of those guys to come and beat me. That way I can get better."