UChicago Chess Club eyes a promising competitive season

After a year defined by Zoom breakout rooms, a virtual simulcast with a five-time U.S. champion and a seemingly endless supply of Diamond Chess.com accounts, Chess Club President Praveen Balakrishnan has tempered his expectations for the first RSO in person. meeting since March 2020. Having joined the club himself during the pandemic, Balakrishnan thought he knew the weekly routine well: the same time, the same Zoom link, and the same ten students (over a good week).

In fact, more than 40 students gathered at the Reynolds Club to participate, and the first meeting of the year marked an unexpected milestone: the club ran out of guidance.

“The turnout was extraordinary,” Balakrishnan said. “We had to get more equipment – we hadn’t seen this kind of turnout even before the pandemic.”

Although the newfound enthusiasm from his peers was a pleasant surprise, Balakrishnan is no stranger to the rush and camaraderie inherent in chess. After being gifted a set of chess by moving neighbors and taught to play the game by his parents, five-year-old Balakrishnan quickly became interested in winning victories not just over his family members, but also on other players. Today, the sophomore is one of two Grandmasters at the University of Chicago – the most attending the College at any given time – and one of approximately 1,700 Grandmasters worldwide.

“I played [chess] for over 14 years now,” Balakrishnan said. “And I ended up getting the [Grandmaster] title this summer; I went to Italy, played a few tournaments there and was able to get my final standard. This is definitely my finest achievement to date.

With one eye on the future and direction of the club in the new academic year, Balakrishnan hopes the game’s growing popularity will inspire players of all skill levels and backgrounds to grab a board and take their first steps.

“It seems like a lot of people took up chess as a hobby during the pandemic, and more people were interested in joining the club because of that,” Balakrishnan said. “From beginners to grandmasters, we pride ourselves on having a very laid back and friendly atmosphere. Everyone is welcome.”

From around the world in Hungary, Balakrishnan’s predecessor William Graif echoed his sentiments regarding the club’s potential expansion, while sporting a “UChicago Chess” letterman jacket, a remnant of the successful fundraising efforts that characterized his year of leadership. Graif also led the club through various volunteer initiatives teaching chess to Chicago-area students.

“I always imagined I would lead the club, but it wasn’t something I imagined I would do during the pandemic,” Graif said. “I will say ironically that I think [the pandemic] was actually very good for the popularity of chess. Tournaments were canceled, you know, but that only affected people like me. But there’s just been an explosion of interest from people watching online chess streamers and playing online, which is, like, super accessible to do. It also coincided with The Queen’s Bet, which brought chess further into the mainstream. I think it was definitely a quarantine hobby that a lot of people picked up, loved, and continued.

Graif, a double major in public policy and data science with only an extra quarter of coursework required to graduate, has opted to leave Hyde Park for the duration of the fall term in pursuit of greener pastures or rather to tiles, as he participates in chess tournaments in Rome, Armenia and Budapest.

“That way I have three more months where people don’t ask me what I do after college,” Graif joked behind his webcam.

Like Balakrishnan – whom he incidentally played in tournaments against during their respective high school chess careers – Graif was serious about chess all his life, learning the rules from his parents at just three years old before develop an insatiable appetite for increasingly difficult games. strategy games.

“My older sister was still in kindergarten, and with my dad at work, I always wanted to play Connect Four with my mom,” Graif said. “Except it wasn’t just that I loved Connect Four – I wanted to play it 12 hours a day. And when my mom wasn’t playing with me, I was playing against myself. And we only had three puzzles literals so I was taking them apart and putting them back together faster. So maybe I was inadvertently trained in pattern recognition [of chess].”

Graif then began coaching chess professionally at the age of fifteen at Hunter College Elementary School in Manhattan. The opportunity to pass on his love and lessons learned from chess to his students is what he considers the role’s greatest reward.

“Comforting children after losses is actually something that is close to my heart,” Graif said. “You don’t necessarily play the game for the shiny piece of plastic or the trophies or anything. The goal of what I do is not to train the next national champion. It is to improve the lives of children through play.”

Both Balakrishnan and Graif expressed excitement for the competitive season of the year, with two grandmasters including Awonder Liang of the Class of 2025 heralding likely success for the chess club.

“Each year we send teams to the Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championships, where we compete against several other schools and try to place [against] a lot of schools that are also known for their academic talents, but also several schools that are known specifically for recruiting chess players,” Balakrishnan said. “This year our team is stronger than ever, so I would say we have a good shot.”

As someone who has played both the roles of coach and competitor, as well as his experiences at tournaments such as the Canadian Junior Championships, Graif underscored how the game of strategy requires not only immense mental stamina , but also physical, with the one-hour meetings of the RSO which pale. comparison with the durations of the most intense matches.

“It depends on the tournament and what’s at stake – some matches can last five or six hours,” Graif said. “Basically, you want to prepare for the game, you want to research your opponent and you want to come to the game well rested. You want to try not to focus on anything other than “doing”. »

When asked what he hopes others will take away from his journey and his story, Graif took the opportunity to reflect on how much his perspective on his own performance and talent has changed in just a few short years.

“A few years ago I would have said, ‘work hard, and you’ll achieve your dreams of being a national champion’ or whatever, right?” says Graif. “Now it seems cheap, but if you don’t enjoy the process of what you’re doing, you’re going to fear the outcome a lot. And you’re probably not there for the right reasons.

As for Balakrishnan, the answer came immediately.

“I imagine [chess] will be a part of my life for many years to come. Balakrishnan said. “One of my favorite tournaments I’ve been to was the World Youth Tournament, where the United States would send a team to a different country to play against players of a similar age group from other countries. And you constantly met people from other countries, who speak different languages [than you] and have different interests [than you], but you share one thing in common. And that’s chess.

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