Part-time Passions: September 2014

These IEEE members enjoy competitive chess and flying

8 September 2014

Hon Ki Tsang

Chess Master

One might assume that an electrical engineer would tackle chess with his mind, not his gut. But when IEEE Senior Member Hon Ki Tsang was introduced to the game at age 13 by his middle school math teacher, he was immediately smitten with how much his instinct influenced his strategy. 

“Chess is a very intuitive game, which is surprising when you consider how computers play top-level chess by evaluating thousands of positions per second,” says Tsang [below], now 49. “But it’s impossible for the human brain to calculate everything, so intuition plays a big role in selecting the moves.”


Today Tsang, chair of the department of electronics engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), is a chess champion in Hong Kong and a World Chess Federation (FIDE) master. There are only 6,542 FIDE masters in the world out of a total of about 200 million chess players.

Within three years of his first chess game, Tsang—who was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland—represented Northern Ireland in the 1979 Glorney Cup (an annual chess team competition among England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) in the under-18 age category. He continued playing at Cambridge University, where he pursued an electrical engineering degree. He later competed for Cambridge in the British championships before returning to Hong Kong in 1993 to teach at CUHK.

Tsang believes his engineering background helps, as chess players increasingly rely on computers to gain an upper hand on opponents. In competition at the international level, players are notified who their opponents are just a few hours prior to a match. To prepare, he turns to Stockfish and ChessBase, open-source chess engines and databases that store players’ moves from previous games, to study the way his opponents strategize.

“Computers are extremely useful for tournament preparation, and these databases are mandatory tools,” he says. “You can use them to view your opponents’ previous games. My key piece of equipment at tournaments is a quad-core computer notebook with access to a database that stores 5 million previous games played by the top 10 percent of players in the world.”

Despite a busy academic schedule, Tsang manages to compete in some 20 local tournaments in Hong Kong each year, as well as major competitions around the world that can run up to two weeks. Each game day requires a few hours to study his opponent’s previous matches, plus 3 to 4 hours for the game itself. Every two years, he competes for Hong Kong against teams from 150 countries and territories in FIDE’s World Chess Olympiad, where games can last more than five hours. In the 2012 Chess Olympiad, Tsang placed 22nd.

The game has helped Tsang address problems unrelated to tournaments. “It taught me focus and improved my academic studies as a student,” he says. It has also given him the ability to strategize his career goals.

“Chess requires a vision of long-term goals, like the ideal positioning of pieces. Similarly, in academia, it is important to identify research goals and focus only on problems that can be reasonably tackled. Chess analysis identifies the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. A similar strategy can be applied to engineering.”

Jean-Luc Gaudiot

Up, Up and Away

IEEE Fellow Jean-Luc Gaudiot [below] was born in France, but as a military brat, he spent his childhood moving all over the world. That fueled his passion for travel, and he found a hobby that would let him do more of it.

“I have always been interested in flying,” says Gaudiot, a professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Irvine. “As a kid, I wanted to be an American astronaut, which people laughed at for obvious reasons since I was French. I was also born legally blind in one eye, which made any kind of flying problematic.”


In 1981, when Gaudiot was 26, a friend insisted that he could become a pilot even with his disability. All he had to do was pass a special flight test. At the time, Gaudiot was earning a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was intrigued and took lessons at the nearby Santa Monica airport.

The lessons paid off: Gaudiot went on to earn his pilot’s license that very same year. He earned a license for teaching instrument flight—navigating the craft without visual references—in 1995 and then earned his instructor’s license in 2000.

Gaudiot now belongs to the RI Flying Club at the Fullerton Municipal Airport, in California, where he pilots three types of single-engine planes: a Piper Dakota that he bought with three other pilots, a Cessna Skyhawk, and a Piper Arrow that he uses to teach flight students. The planes can fly as high as 4,500 meters and cruise at more than 250 kilometers per hour.

Each year, Gaudiot flies upwards of 200 hours and trains three to four student pilots. “You don’t know how to do something well until you can teach it,” he says. “It’s all the more true with flying.” He finds it a different kind of teaching than in college—more one-on-one. “It’s helped me consider the individual needs of students, and I try to bring that understanding back to my professorship,” he says.

Gaudiot’s hobby runs him around US $1,000 a year for things like flying club dues, refresher clinics that review flight instruction rules, and insurance. Owning a plane is another story. His 1985 Piper cost $100,000, which he and his friends split four ways. The ongoing engine and structural inspections and insurance for the plane itself run upwards of $3,000 a year for each owner, and fuel costs roughly $72 per flight hour. “What keeps an airplane in the air is money,” he says with a laugh.

Beyond the ethereal feeling of having a bird’s-eye view of Earth and being able to escape from life’s pressures for a time, flying also challenges Gaudiot’s technical side, such as when he pilots the plane based on the air traffic control system (ATC).

“All the individual actions that flying entails—such as maintaining altitude, timing, and communicating with ATC—are relatively easy,” he says. “It is coordinating them and making the right decisions at the right times that’s the hard part. It’s a profoundly satisfying intellectual achievement to handle all of those things simultaneously.”

Top: Hon Ki Tsang; Bottom: Jung-Yup Kang

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