01/31/2014 06:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ancient Game -- Youthful Galápagos Sensation

When Sophia Jardiel Lituma Llugsa was one year old, she put down her bottle and went to a table where a chessboard was sitting. Fascinated by the pieces, she began to play with them. That would lead to much bigger things for her.

In December, Sophia, now 7 years old, represented Ecuador at the World Youth Chess Tournament in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.


It's no surprise because Sophia has the game of chess in her DNA. Her father, William Lituma, owns a chess school in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos. He also got an early start as a player on the Ecuadorian mainland.

"I learned to play chess at age 5 because all my brothers and sisters were doing it," said William, "At 13, I participated in a provincial tournament and won third place."

Later, after becoming champion in Tungurahua, he coached several teams in the Ecuadorian highlands and Eastern region before love brought him to Galápagos. His wife, Fanny, wanted to return to her native island of Santa Cruz, and it's there that she has a beauty salon while he started the chess school.

Their daughter was born in Santa Cruz and given names befitting a girl who would become a young chess sensation. According to William, Sophia means "wisdom" in Greek and Jardiel "energy" in Hebrew.

William said that Sophia watched as he was teaching chess to students and at the early age of 3 years, 7 months, asked him to teach her how to play.

"At first I said no because she was very small," said William. "But she insisted and I agreed to do so providing she did not neglect her studies."

He said that sometimes, Sophia would get bored when she was learning to play and would turn to her children's books. "But if other children came into the school," William said, "She would come back to the chessboards and ask to play some more."

In a telephone interview with Galapagos Digital, Sophia said, "Chess is for thinking, to clarify the head," adding, "it is easy for me."

She has not forgotten her promise to stick to her studies and now, thanks to a grant from Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund, is in third grade at the Tomas de Berlanga Private School in Santa Cruz where she ranks near the top of her class with a 9.97 grade average out of a possible 10.

Sophia says she has other interests besides chess and adds, "I like painting, dance , music, and reading. The Little Mermaid is the last book I read and I enjoyed it."

She said she does all this on a schedule that includes school plus two hours of chess and an hour doing homework.

At the age of four she first became a chess whiz competing in tournaments against adults. One tournament featured a giant board with adult opponents including the Governor of Galápagos, Jorge Torres.

About that tournament, her father said "When she started playing on the giant chess board, Sophia climbed on the pieces, jumping, going to her knees to move them and didn't even look at her opponents."

Now, in her father's opinion, Sophia takes a more grown-up approach. "She stands with her arms crossed, thinking very seriously," he said, "In three years, her game and personality have matured."

Among her triumphs, Sophia won a silver medal for girls under 8 years old in the Ecuador National Chess Championship. She also placed fourth in the under-8 category in the South American Rapid Chess Tournament. Those achievements led to her being chosen to represent Ecuador in the Dubai competition.

Sophia was the first representative from Galápagos in an international chess tournament and did her country proud. She won four games and qualified 42nd in the world in her age category in the rapid chess competition.

The economic circumstances of the Lituma family made the cost of travel to Dubai very expensive but Sophia's family was able to get help from community members, businesses and charitable foundations. A local radio station also staged a marathon to help raise money.

Among the individuals and organizations that contributed to sending Sophia and her father: Fundación un Cambio por la vida, Federacion Deportiva de Galápagos, Islas Galápagos Turismo y vapores, La Ecuatoriana de Ajedrez, Torre Mar Galápagos, Angel Arias and the Galápagos Conservancy.

While preparing for other tournaments at the provincial and national levels, Sophia says her dream is "to be a worldwide chess champion and win a medal for Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands." She also dreams of becoming a great artist someday.

If Sophia continues along the same path she's followed so far, backed by the support of her parents and community, the odds are pretty good that she'll checkmate any obstacle in her path.