One of the best young chess players in the country is a 14-year-old Lane tech freshman

LINCOLN PARK – In some ways Avi Kaplan isn’t much different from most 14-year-olds. A freshman at Lane Tech College Prep, he enjoys playing basketball and baseball, and he loves to cook.

However, most of Kaplan’s spare time is spent playing chess. Playing for hours every week for the past nine years, Kaplan has grown into one of the top young chess players in the United States.

In December, Kaplan won the national runner-up for ninth graders at the 2021 American Chess Federation National Class K-12 Championships in Orlando, Florida. Another victory in Las Vegas took his personal best of all time to 2,147 – and much closer to his goal of a master score of 2,200.

Kaplan, of Lincoln Park, said the wins motivated him to continue refining his strategy and knowledge of the game.

“I know a lot of kids take breaks, sometimes years, off from chess,” Kaplan said. “But I feel like, for me, chess has become such a big part of my identity. And as I keep winning a lot of these tournaments, I feel like I don’t want to stop, I want to continue. Even if there comes a point where I start to lose, I wouldn’t want to stop. I would like to improve myself to turn the tide.

Although Kaplan’s parents didn’t play chess much, he turned to the game as a freshman. He quickly moved beyond learning scoring and the way the pieces move to study strategy, solve chess puzzles, and play beginner tournaments.

“I was going to Decatur [Classical School] and they had a few different clubs there, ”Kaplan said. “And of the few clubs I noticed chess was one of the clubs and I thought it would be really interesting to try a strategic game.”

Since then, Kaplan has accumulated numerous chess-related accolades. In addition to being the American Chess Federation’s top rated Chicago Public School Chess player, Kaplan holds the Group Expert Title and the International Chess Federation Master Candidate title. He is one of the top 50 domestic blitz chess players in the Under-16 group, in addition to several other accolades and honors he has won over the years.

Credit: Provided
Avi Kaplan (second from left) at the 2014 CPS K-8 Chess Championship.

Kaplan said playing chess has helped him develop several useful skills, such as creativity, determination and memorization.

“In chess you need to have a really good memory, whether it’s analyzing really long chess openings or memorizing all the different patterns and tactics,” Kaplan said. “I use my good memory in other areas of my life, such as analyzing baseball and basketball statistics, memorizing mathematical formulas, and memorizing geographic locations.”

Kaplan spends 20 to 30 hours a week playing chess to prepare for tournaments. He said he was studying past games to see what he could have done better or what helped him win. He also spends time at his school’s chess club and practices the opening moves.

It doesn’t always leave a lot of time for homework, especially when going to tournaments. But Kaplan manages to do it all by doing his homework when he’s at school.

Kaplan finished second out of 1,235 young players competing in the recent Florida tournament. But even with so many wins under his belt, he tries not to expect wins every time he participates, he said. For him, each match is its own challenge.

“It’s great to win a lot,” Kaplan said. “And even though I have a lot of trophies, that doesn’t mean chess is easier. I still have to focus on every game. It’s great, but I still can’t be too confident. I have to take every competitive game I play seriously.

One of Kaplan’s trainers, Shiva Maharaj, believes the 14-year-old has what it takes to become an accomplished chess master.

Maharaj, a professional chess trainer, met Kaplan about seven years ago, and the two then reconnected at a Chicago public school tournament.

“Avi was not only talented, but he had that kind of special, unique quality… in sports called killer instinct… some people just have that special something,” Maharaj said. “From the first time I met him, I realized he was what people call ‘gifted.’ He put in work and time and he kept the passion alive.

Maharaj said successful chess players must be disciplined, able to make critical decisions, and have a strong belief in their abilities. Kaplan said he tried to impart these skills when coaching young players.

“I knew Avi was talented, but he was also able to motivate a lot of kids and peers around him and always had a good mind about him,” Maharaj said. “He was never selfish. In my opinion, I didn’t really brag. He therefore had a spirit of talent, of genius, and he carried a spirit of humility. He worked well with people.

With great success behind him, Kaplan said he hopes to achieve the rank of Grandmaster. For now, however, he has said he’s trying not to get too carried away with the wins and just enjoy the game.

“Sometimes not all tournaments are going your way,” he said. “Occasionally [your score] will go down a bit, but at the end of the day the most important thing is to keep playing and keep having fun and trying to do your best.

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