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This Chester County whiz kid has just published a how-to guide to chess

The 15-year-old’s chess-playing mother joked that she doesn’t “even want to play chess with him.” He recently wrote a book on chess tactics called “Legal Attack.”

Karthik Murugan, a ninth-grade student and chess player, sits for a portrait at his home in Chester Springs, Pa., on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. He recently wrote a book on chess tactics called "Legal Attack."
Karthik Murugan, a ninth-grade student and chess player, sits for a portrait at his home in Chester Springs, Pa., on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. He recently wrote a book on chess tactics called "Legal Attack."Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

When he was 8, Karthik Murugan saw his father playing chess online and got curious about the game.

“He started to ask questions,” recalled Sarav Murugan. “I told him, ‘It is not for your age, but when you grow up, I will teach you.’”

That didn’t sit well with Karthik Murugan, who then asked his mom, Reva Balakrishnan, to show him the basics. (His father eventually got on board, too.)

Murugan loved the game so much, he entered a local chess tournament — and promptly lost all three games.

The experience only fueled his passion. “It gave me a lot of motivation to expand my knowledge and try again,” said Murugan , who began taking lessons.

Now 15, Murugan, a ninth-grade student at Downingtown East High School, has competed in more than 800 games in 170 U.S. Chess Federation-rated tournaments. He’s become so accomplished as a player that “I don’t even want to play with him,” said his laughing mother, who with her husband immigrated to the U.S. from India 20 years ago; the family now lives Chester Springs. “My husband says, ‘Go play with him to get him warmed up.‘”

How good is he?

Murugan is a two-time Greater Mid-Atlantic Elementary Champion and a two-time Pennsylvania State Scholastic Bughouse Champion (bughouse is a chess variant played on two chessboards by four players in teams of two). He also won the 2017 U.S. Open National Elementary Chess Championship, and has more than 70 trophies and medals to his name.

Now, he has another accomplishment to his chess resume: book author.

Just before his 15th birthday, he published Legal Attack: Chess — An Intellectual Board War, which is designed to help novices learn and master the puzzles needed to win games and boost chess ratings. It published on Dec. 30 via Archway Publishing, the imprint created by Simon & Schuster and self-publishing company Author Solutions.

“Most of the ideas for the book came from my students,” said Murugan, who tutors young chess players. Their questions helped him “to see where [new players] struggle and where they need help and improvement.”

The book took about two years to complete, Murugan said. “It was pretty complicated to start, but the [writing] process became easier as I went on.”

He credits his chess coach, Matt O’Brien, for helping with the book, but O’Brien plays down his involvement.

Murugan “did his own research and came to his own conclusions,” said O’Brien, 32, who lives near Allentown and is a national master recognized by the U.S. Chess Federation. “I just reviewed the material, and we checked it with a chess engine” — a computer program that analyzes chess or chess-variant positions — “to make sure there weren’t too many multiple solutions. He did a great job, especially for his age.”

Keith Ogorek, the director of partnerships for Author Solutions, was impressed by Murugan’s focus.

“He is a very mature, very organized young man and obviously knew what he wanted to say,” Ogorek said. “At 14, if you can publish a book that’s available at places like Amazon, you can do anything.”

The game of chess is enjoying renewed popularity thanks to The Queen’s Gambit, the popular Netflix series about a young girl’s rise to stardom in the chess world.

Following the series premiere on Oct. 23, 2020, sales of chess sets jumped 87% in the U.S., and chess book sales rose 603%, according to the NPD Group, which tracks and measures business trends.

So this is a good time a publish a chess book.

Murugan has been tickled to learn that a fun perk of being an author is having customers not only buy your book but ask you to autograph it.

“A lot of my friends wanted me to sign it,” Murugan said. “That was pretty special.”

So will there be an encore for this first-time author?

“I’m not sure yet,” Murugan said. With such positive reactions to Legal Attack, though, “I might write another one.”