McCandlis, Arkansas' state chess champ for two consecutive years, first played in a chess tournament when he was in the eighth grade. But the Oxford teen-ager, who recently graduated from Izard County Consolidated, the school he attended all his life, has loved the game even longer.
"(James) Ferguson and my dad used to play all the time. I wanted to learn, and they taught me, and I've loved it ever since," he said. "In sixth grade something clicked. I started winning a few games."
Ferguson, who would later become one of Derrick's chess coaches, realized he had potential about that time as well.
"One night I wasn't paying attention and he beat me, and I had to concentrate from then on," Ferguson said.
Two years later McCandlis entered his first chess tournament when Viola's gifted and talented program hosted one. Some did not believe McCandlis would hold his own, and even McCandlis' mother, Laura, was skeptical that her son would win. McCandlis credits her partly with his win.
"She told me if I won she'd buy me a chess computer," he said. "That really got me motivated to win."
He got that chess computer.
Since then McCandlis has been to over 30 tournaments and has finished first in over 25 of them. He has beaten the best players from the 127 schools in Arkansas that have chess teams to be named top contender. Not once, but twice.
To get to state, chess players must make it past regionals. Any A and AA schools may enter. According to McCandlis there were seven other schools competing this year.
"Whatever team has the most points wins," he said. "You don't have to play everybody. That'd take forever. You play different players from each team."
"Just because you win regional doesn't mean you necessarily go to state," he said. "Not only did I have to be ready, but my team."
Luckily, ICC did win regional.
Four players -- Mike McConnaughhay, John Davis, Aragon Wyatt and McCandlis -- overcame 40 students representing 10 schools from all over the state, including large AAAAA schools, to be named the best chess-playing school in the state, and McCandlis was named the best individual chess player.
McCandlis said his biggest obstacle in getting to state was all the practice it took to get himself and his teammates ready for the competition.
"He's real conscientious and studious and determined," said Fred Walker, ICC superintendent. "I followed him all the way through, even before we really had a chess program. He's gotten better every year we've had the program.
McCandlis' chess advisers in the years he's been playing have been James Ferguson, Bill Grinnell, Steve Manes, Walker and his father, Mike McCandlis.
"My dad taught me the moves and how to be a good sportsman," McCandlis said. "Mr. Ferguson taught me the basics and how to hold my own. Mr. Manes and Mr. Walker took us to a lot of tournaments and supported us. Mr. Grinnell furthered my knowledge and taught me how to compete with masters and play blindfolded."
Grinnell also plays a key part in McCandlis' proudest moment.
"I was at a tournament in Batesville and for the first time I beat Mr. Grinnell. He had been teaching me for two years. That was even better than drawing Bruce Pandolfi, the most sought after chess coach in the United States -- he's a master, he said.
McCandlis explained there are eight categories in the game of chess: grand master, master, expert, A-class, B-class, C-class, D-class and E-class.
McCandlis is in the B-class. The only way to enter a new category is to keep winning, which McCandlis said takes a while.
To move up from B-class, McCandlis must stay prepared for any chess challenge.
"There are 30 million different ways (to practice)," he said. "Study games you play in tournaments is the first thing; study the masters' games; and play as much as possible."
McCandlis also prepares for each tournament by following a set routine.
"I don't eat; pray before every game and try to throw up before the tournament starts," he said. "There's too much nervous tension before a game. I just have to throw up, and if I eat that'll just be more."
It's lonely being chess champ.
"(My family's) all gotten scared now," McCandlis said. "They used to play against me. My dad still plays with me some."
McCandlis, who graduated May 9, plans to go to the University of Central Arkansas, become a math teacher and teach chess to students.
"I'm going to play the rest of my life," he said. "I love it."