SAN FRANCISCO -- The chess room at the Mechanics Institute is filled to capacity. Dozens of people have paired off over small tables, a chess board between them, a clock at the side. Most of them carry notepads to record their moves. A handful of people who arrived late hover around hoping a table opens up.
Against the far wall, Callaghan McCarty-Snead faces off against Ralph Palmeri. Most of the players are like Palmeri — middle-aged men. However, McCarty-Snead is just 7 years old. He is one of a handful of children playing. His mother brings him a bottle of Gatorade during the match. Otherwise, she leaves him alone.
It's the third time McCarty-Snead has played Palmeri. Their previous match, which took place in Reno, lasted about three hours, with Palmeri winning. The rematch this week ends in about 30 minutes with Palmeri winning again.
There is no shame here, however. McCarty-Snead is one of the best young players in the country. The Albany resident recently won his age group at the California championships and will represent the United States at the World Championships in December in the United Arab Emirates.
The Tuesday night matches at the Mechanics Institute are a regular stop for McCarty-Snead. He also plays on Friday nights at the Berkeley Chess Club. Most weekends, he's playing tournaments.
Palmeri took a minute to talk to Callaghan's mother, Sarah McCarty-Snead, after the match. He said that Callaghan was rushing his play.
"He's going to be a good player," Palmeri said. "He's very knowlegable. I've been playing here for 30 years. I think Callaghan has the potential. He has the motivation. That's what it takes to be a good chess player."
Callaghan McCarty-Snead and his family recently returned to the United States after living in England for four years. The chess prodigy, currently a second-grader at Ocean View Elementary School in Albany, has been playing chess for about two years.
"Callaghan has really, really severe asthma," Sarah McCarty-Snead said. "He couldn't play soccer, he couldn't play football. One day, we just said, 'Why don't we have him play chess. My husband taught him, we got him the computer program then we got him a coach. He wasn't allowed to play video games. To him it was a video game so he just wanted to play all the time."
Callaghan McCarty-Snead said he plays to have fun. The most fun to him is a variation called, Bughouse, played by four players on two boards.
"That's my favorite type of chess game," he said. "There's two players and both of them have a board. And each player has the same color. They give each other their opponents' pieces and then you place the pieces on the board and you try to checkmate the opponent."
McCarty-Snead is rated ninth in the United States and third in California in the 7-and-under ratings by the U.S. Chess Federation. His April rating of 1589 probably went up after the state championships, held in Santa Clara the final weekend of April. A rating that high at such a young age is a sign of a special player, according to Andranik Matikozyan, who has been coaching McCarty-Snead.
"(At age 7), I had just started to learn to move the pieces," Matikozyan said. "Callaghan is already 1600. Chess talent is unique. You can have a bright mind, you can be great in one or another thing. Nothing to do with (being smart). Of course you should be smart. But the talent is completely different. Chess talent is something you can see from the beginning. When I see a kid for the first time I can see if he has talent."
McCarty-Snead said he is improving his game. Right now, he's working on, "More end game because that's the most complicated thing in the whole entire chess game. And I just need more compositional."
But he has advice for anybody trying to learn chess. It's more than just memorizing all of the possible moves.
"You memorize the moves but you also have to understand the moves," he said.