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8-Year-Old Harlem Chess Whiz Plays Surgeon Who Helped Fix His Eyesight

By Ben Fractenberg | April 24, 2015 4:03pm | Updated on April 24, 2015 6:33pm
 Sami Uyanik, 8, plays chess against Dr. Mark Steele in the NYU Langone Medical Center after the doctor helped fix the chess enthusiast's eyesight, April 24, 2015. 
Sami Uyanik Plays Surgeon
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GRAMERCY — An 8-year-old chess wunderkind was supremely confident when he played against the New York City surgeon who helped fix his eyesight.

"I knew you were going to lose by the first move," Sami Uyanik told Dr. Mark Steele after quickly putting him in check while they played at the doctor's NYU Langone Medical Center office Friday afternoon. 

The Harlem family of Sami, who played his first tournament at age 5, feared he would never be able to play competitively again after contracting a rare eye condition in 2013 that caused him to see double.

“He became like this empty shell of a kid,” his mother Jeannie Uyanik told DNAinfo New York about Sami’s spirits toward the end of the nearly yearlong ordeal.

Sami Uyanik Chess
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Uyanik Family

“At first grade, all of a sudden you stop being able to read. He was a nuisance in the classroom.”

Jeannie, 41, happened to be at Sami's school, Dalton, in October 2013 with his younger sister when a teacher came to find her.

“She said, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong with Sami and he can’t see,” Jeannie recounted. “It was really surreal."

The family immediately took Sami to his doctor.

“She was really worried,” Jeannie said about their pediatrician.

Fearful that he could have a tumor, Sami's family had him undergo an MRI.

“We saw everybody — ophthalmologists, neurologists,” Jeannie said, adding that nothing, including getting her son “Coke-bottle” glasses, helped.

Sami took things in stride and still tried to play soccer and chess, but it was a struggle.

“You would see him knocking [chess] pieces over. It’s important to notate moves. It was really hard for him to write,” she said. “We had him play soccer, but he could never find the ball. It was kind of comedic.”

But Sami was determined, and the family brought him to the state chess tournament in Saratoga, N.Y., in early 2014.

He failed to place, but Jeannie met two parents who were doctors and offered to help.

They recommended the family meet with the pediatric ophthalmologist and surgeon.

“From the moment the first person picked up the phone it was an entirely different experience,” Jeannie said about working with Dr. Steele’s office.

Dr. Steele was able to answer all of the family’s questions and put Sami at ease immediately.

He explained how a nerve that helps control the outer muscle of the eye was not functioning properly, causing his right eye to be crossed.

The family decided to go ahead with surgery last July within weeks of meeting with the doctor.

Dr. Steele described Sami as a mature child with “the insight to understand what is going on.”

He added that while the surgery was not life-threatening, there was a chance it would not work the first time and Sami might have to go under the knife again.

But the youngster was undaunted and went ahead with the procedure on July 31.

“He woke up from the surgery and the first thing he said was, ‘Mommy, I can see,’” Jeannie said.

“It was unbelievable. He looked like a different child when he said that.”

When he got back home, he played chess against his father.

He kept playing and went back to the state championship this year, where he placed 11th in his group.

He also wanted to honor the doctor who helped put his burgeoning chess career back on track.

However, it would probably not be much of a competition, the doctor admitted.

“I looked it up online and found out chess is a game where you don’t jump — that’s checkers,” Dr. Steele said jokingly before the match.

After they started to play it was quickly apparent how overmatched he was. 

"I am more nervous now than for your operation." 

But seeing Sami back doing what he loves should help soften the likely defeat.

“Seeing kids out of the office and better then when they first came in is always rewarding,” he said.

Sami was a good sport about the match and expressed his appreciation for Dr. Steele. 

"I couldn't see straight, so it was hard for me," he said about playing before his surgery. "It's actually really fun. I say thanks a lot [to Dr. Steele]."

Dr. Steele is set to be honored Wednesday, April 29 at the annual KiDS of NYU Langone Springfling at the Plaza Hotel. Proceeds from the event will go toward child life services at the medical center.