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TIANJIN - Wang Run, 13, boarded his first bullet train to go from his rural home to Tianjin, one of China"s biggest metropolitan centers, to play checkers at the country"s 13th National Games.
Seven months ago, Wang was an ordinary student in remote Yingshang county, Anhui province, where he had been left behind to live with his grandparents after his father and mother went away for work.
"Checkers has changed this young man"s life," said coach Shi Zhengbin, who brought four left-behind children, including Wang, to the Tianjin tournament.
Shi himself began playing in 2007 when China"s sports authority began to promote the game. He placed sixth and eighth in the first two national competitions.
Then he retired - feeling "too old" - but he regrets never winning a national title, so he decided to cultivate young players.
He gave up a good-paying job in Guangdong province and moved to impoverished Yingshang, where the local education authority hoped to teach students to play checkers but lacked coaches.
Shi began his coaching at Tianchi Primary School, where there are 1,300 students. He soon found that left-behind students had few after-class activities, though he was impressed by their diligence and persistence.
In less than five months, the training paid off. Four of Shi"s students entered the final round after the preliminaries of China"s National Games in May.
"The result once again shows the great potential of these children," Shi said. "All they need is opportunities."
With the help of the Yingshang government and parents, more than 40 checkers players were able to travel outside Anhui province with Shi.
Wang Run even snatched a national title in the under-14 division of the competition.
But Shi didn"t expect too much at the Tianjin tournament. He told his players that having two draws or one victory in all nine rounds would be good enough.
The four youngsters played beyond expectations. Wang Run ranked 25th among 32 players in the tournament, which concluded on Saturday.
Now Shi has set a goal of his own. He plans to edit a book on checkers for students in Anhui province, and train more players and coaches.
He has never regretted abandoning his easy life in Guangdong. He is happy to see more young students playing checkers.
"Bringing the four left-behind children to the National Games," Shi said, "is just the start of my grand plan."