Brandon Ho: Chasing a chess title

The years-long process of mastering chess and making a name for himself along the way. USC junior Brandon Ho has taken the chess world by storm.

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His opening moves might make you think twice, but as the game progresses and his tactics turn into a winning position, you will learn to never second guess Brandon Ho.

His style is bold and borderline cocky, but he’s good enough to get away with it.

Ranked in the 95th percentile of chess players nationally, Ho is in elite company — especially for his age. He has garnered respect from just about all those around him, and the consensus is that the junior neuroscience major can take chess as far as he pleases.

“If he wanted to devote himself to chess, and if he wanted to become a professional chess player, the sky’s the limit,” USC professor and chess International Master Jack Peters said. “He’s got whatever talent you’d need to make it.”

Long before he battled against some of the most distinguished talent in collegiate chess, Ho traced his roots to the sport back to his early childhood. Ho recalled a time when he, his younger brother Stephen and his father Michael participated in chess tournaments together. The trio even got to meet Grandmaster and World Champion Magnus Carlsen along the way.

“That was really a family bonding experience where all three of us would just go and play in the same chess tournaments,” Ho said. “We would be able to see how each other did and it was a way of bouncing ideas off of one another.”

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Ho continued to play chess competitively throughout middle school and high school, eventually leading him to the collegiate chess scene. Like all USC students in fall of 2020, Ho was forced to work remotely his freshman year due to the COVID-19 pandemic — but little did he know that media buzz surrounding chess would explode during and after the events of the quarantine.

“When I first went to Chess Club, it was a lot more packed than I expected it to be after shows like ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ came out,” Ho said. “I think there was a lot more interest in chess during quarantine. So our first meeting, I think we had like 70 to 80 people. We filled up three classrooms.”

According to the Michigan Journal of Economics, the world’s most popular chess server saw a monthly increase of 2.8 million members following the release of Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit.” Additionally, the sale of chess sets increased as much as 1100% among the most notable retailers in the two months following the release of the show.

But as many who rode the chess wave know, becoming a chess prodigy like the show’s protagonist is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. That is what makes the skill of a player like Ho so impressive, being able to labor through hours of studying and practice, then combining that with the critical thinking skills required to reach an Elo rating in the mid-1900s.

“A lot of [my practice] has been mostly just playing online, playing a lot of blitz games,” Ho said. “In the past, I used to do puzzles, learn different chess tactics and memorize openings. But I guess nowadays, I rely more on my experience.”

A game of chess can be broken into three parts, the beginning, middle and endgame. At the start, opening moves are usually played “by the book,” where players memorize the specific moves that fulfill the targeted opening concept.

“A lot of moves become second nature,” Ho said. “It’s just automatic, especially during blitz games where you have to move almost immediately. In a lot of our games at higher levels, it’s a lot of positional play. The tactics involved in order to win actual material may involve four to five moves in advance.”

Ho’s play is distinguished in a special way, both by his unique play style and obscure choice in openings. His audacious maneuvers have made Ho somewhat of a legend around his peers.

“He has this opening, B4, or pawn to B4,” USC Chess Club president Quenton Blache said. “It’s called the Polish opening, also known as the Orangutan. What’s great about it is that, weirdly, it’s supposed to be bad, but usually there’s no clear way of combating it. I think it’s a really genius way of playing.”

Rated in the 1700s himself, Blache spoke highly of Ho, even to the point of saying he might eventually succeed him as Chess Club president.

“There’s something about the way he plays that’s very slick,” Blache said. “We always have a really good game when we play. I’m happy to have him as the media chair, and I could definitely see him being president in the future.”

As much of a positive reputation he has in his inner circle, Ho’s abilities are recognized well beyond Chess Club. USC professor and chess International Master Jack Peters detailed a time when Ho’s signature opening got the best of the veteran not once, but twice.

“He was in my class, and they play a game against me for the midterm and final exam,” Peters said. “He won both games. It doesn’t happen too often. I don’t really mind losing to my students, but I’d have to say I was annoyed by both these games because he played an opening which I think is very bad. I was not annoyed with him as much as I was annoyed with myself.”

With all of the high praise Ho receives, he remains driven with a specific goal in mind.

“Ideally, I’ve always wanted to become a title player. So like a national master, which requires a 2200 USCF rating. So at the moment, I’m around like 1950. But although I’m not able to play in as many tournaments as I used to, I hope I can do that,” Ho said.