Checkmate: Big Island keiki to represent Hawai‘i in national chess tournament after state championship win

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It’s been 2 years since Apollo Van Brunt of Kailua-Kona saw his first chess set. It was given to his family by a neighbor who was clearing out some items from his home and thought Apollo and his younger brother might be interested in the game.

A 4-year-old Apollo Van Brunt tries to teach his younger brother Atlas how to play chess at their home in Kailua-Kona. (Photo courtesy of Anne Van Brunt)

The eldest Van Brunt child has liked puzzles and games since before preschool, but this was no Candyland or checkers.

Apollo, who was 4 years old at the time, was instantly fascinated as he gazed upon the chessboard after his dad Alex Van Brunt set it up, with the Kings, Queens and other strategic pieces all lined up on each side in a face-off between black and white.

He wanted them to battle, to which his dad said OK; his son just had to learn how.

That’s exactly what he did, going head-to-head with his parents on the chessboard at home, playing matches online, experimenting with a chess program on this tablet and practicing daily chess puzzles.

Now, at just 6 years old, Apollo is one of the best keiki chess players in Hawai‘i and will represent the state on a national level later this year.


He was selected to attend the 5th annual John D. Rockefeller III National Tournament of Elementary School State Champions from July 27-30 in Norfolk, Va., after winning the individual elementary school championship for grades K-5 during the 2024 Guy Ontai State K-12 Chess Championship.

The state scholastic chess tournament was hosted April 20 at Washington Middle School in Honolulu.

Apollo, a kindergartner at Innovations Public Charter School in Kailua-Kona, claimed the championship after winning four matches and accepting a draw in his fifth against eventual second-place finisher Jasper Watanabe-Hiromasa, a fifth-grader at Hawai‘i Baptist Academy in Honolulu.

It was the biggest story of the tournament, especially since he chose to play against older and tougher opponents in the grades 3-5 section.

Apollo Van Brunt poses with his trophies after becoming the individual elementary school champion for grades K-5 on April 20 during the 2024 Guy Ontai State K-12 Chess Championship on April 20 at Washington Middle School in Honolulu. (Photo courtesy of Anne Van Brunt)

“I’m just so excited for him,” said his mom Anne Van Brunt, adding that her son is intelligent beyond his years and more than able to compete against older students and even adults. “I cannot even imagine, knowing how far he’s come since last summer, how far he can take it.”


Apollo’s teacher Catherine Hawkins said he is an incredible student. He is a bright critical thinker who is engaged, focused and enjoys challenging activities.

She is in awe of his state chess championship.

“Apollo is one of the students that I look forward to seeing what the future brings for him, and for our community, as I am sure he will be a great contributor,” said Hawkins.

Apollo’s fascination for the game became a passion. Once he started winning, he kept winning, and his love for chess grew with his enthusiasm to play more, even as matches got tougher.

Honing his skills at home with his parents, who had to relearn how to play the game themselves, and against online and computer opponents was one thing. He needed to go up against other kinds of players to further his skills and also build his sportsmanship.


That’s when he started attending the weekly chess club at the former Hawai‘i Keiki Museum in Kona, which Anne Van Brunt helped found. Apollo then played in his first tournament just for fun in June 2023 while the family was on vacation in the Chicago area, where his mom grew up.

He was one of the youngest players there.

Upon returning to the Big Island, Apollo’s parents started looking into chess tournaments available in Hawai‘i. There were a few on the Big Island, but Van Brunt said O‘ahu seems to be a hotbed for chess.

So whenever they had a chance, such as a scholastic event for grade school students during a long weekend, one of them would take him to O‘ahu to compete.

“He’s incredible now,” Van Brunt said. “He can hold his composure far beyond, I think, his years in terms of whether he wins or loses. It’s super impressive because he’s a kindergartner. He just continues to thrive.”

Caleb Stroud, adviser for the after-school chess club for students in grades 6-8 at Innovations Public Charter School, was blown away by Apollo’s state victory.

Apollo Van Brunt, as a preschooler, plays a chess game during the Innovations Public Charter School chess tournament at the end of last school year. At the time, Apollo was an incoming kindergartner at the school and given special permission to play in the tournament. (Photo courtesy of Anne Van Brunt)

Stroud first met the child chess phenomenon during an informal tournament he hosted at the end of last school year at Innovations. Apollo was able to participate after his parents reached out and asked if he could since he was an incoming kindergartner at the school.

All of the middle school students were surprised to see a preschooler participating in the tournament. Apollo quickly wrapped up his first match, defeating an older student in just four moves, and buzz filled the room after he beat a few of his next opponents.

The 6-year-old now comes to chess club twice a week.

He’s there Tuesdays, while his dad — who is also his chess coach — volunteers to give students some skill-building challenges and instruction, and Thursdays to play a few games before he heads off to ballet class at West Hawai‘i Dance Theatre.

“He has really leveled up his game in the year that I’ve known him,” Stroud said. “He may lose a game here or there, but he usually wins. I’ve been able to win a few games against Apollo, but he demolishes me most of the time!”

Part of the appeal of chess is that you can’t judge how good someone is based on any outside indicators. Apollo might be small, but he is mighty.

Stroud has never seen another 5- or 6-year-old with Apollo’s skill level. He is continually inspired by the kindergartner.

The 2023 Chicago Summer Open chess tournament took place in June 2023 at the Hyatt Regency Schaumburg in Schaumburg, Ill. It was the first chess tournament Apollo Van Brunt, second from right in the gray shirt holding the pencil, ever competed in and he was just 5 years old at the time. The Kailua-Kona resident was among the tournament’s youngest entrants. (Photo courtesy of Anne Van Brunt)

“Apollo undoubtedly deserves to play at the national level,” Stroud said. “We’ll be rooting for him to have fun and play well!”

His talent and love for the game are amazing, Stroud said, and his mom added that he constantly wants to learn about chess, including the strategies and tactics of his grandmaster heroes and new openings, along with memorizing specific lines.

That combined with how much he practices his art is what makes Apollo such a skilled chess player. He’s also played enough to recognize many of the most popular moves.

Apollo can see threats to his positions, anticipate his opponent’s attacks and find his own attacking positions, checks and checkmates. Stroud said the 6-year-old is amazing at observing positions of pieces on the board, quickly analyzing his and his opponent’s next moves and their consequences while selecting high-quality maneuvers for himself.

Other than chess and ballet, Apollo is an accomplished sports player who is learning golf and preparing for competitive swimming with Kona Aquatics, a USA Swimming team and U.S. Masters Swimming master swim team.

He also plays soccer with an American Youth Soccer Organization team.

But chess is not just a phase or fad for him. His mom thinks it’s here to stay as Apollo continues to find interest and joy in the game.

She and his dad will be right there with him, supporting and encouraging him while nurturing his talent, as long as he wants to keep playing.

“I hope he takes it as far as he wants to,” Van Brunt said. “If it becomes something that stresses him out more than it is fun, then I hope he has the comfort of knowing that we’ll support him whatever he decides. So as long as it’s fun, we’ll keep doing it.”

  • Apollo Van Brunt, right, plays a game of chess during the Hawai‘i Action Chess Championship in February on O‘ahu. (Photo courtesy of Anne Van Brunt)
  • The Hawai‘i Action Chess Championship was conducted Feb. 17 at Washington Middle School in Honolulu. The tournament was open to all ages, with the first four rounds divided into grades K-5, 6-12 and open categories. Apollo Van Brunt of Kailua-Kona won the K-1 category. (Photo courtesy of Anne Van Brunt)
  • Apollo Van Brunt, right, won third place at an all-ages, non-rated tournament in January at the former Hawai‘i Keiki Museum in Kona. (Photo courtesy of Anne Van Brunt)
  • Apollo Van Brunt, top, plays chess with his ballet troupe before taking the stage for the “Nutcracker” production in December 2023 at Kahilu Theatre in Waimea. (Photo courtesy of Anne Van Brunt)
  • Apollo Van Brunt plays in a non-rated all-ages tournament in December 2023 at the former Hawai‘i Keiki Museum in Kailua-Kona. (Photo courtesy of Anne Van Brunt)
  • Apollo Van Brunt, center, poses with his trophies and others after the 2024 Guy Ontai State K-12 Chess Championship on April 20 at Washington Middle School in Honolulu. (Photo courtesy of Anne Van Brunt)
  • Apollo Van Brunt, right, plays a 3-minute game at the World Chess Festival in December. The Kailua-Kona kindergartner later placed higher than his opponent in this picture during the Hawai‘i Action Chess Championship in February on O‘ahu. (Photo courtesy of Anne Van Brunt)
Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at
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