Champaign high schools chess teams using CUSF grant to expand reach

By Chicago 6 Min Read

CHAMPAIGN — When Beren Ozer moved to the United States with his family from his hometown of Sivas, Turkey, two years ago as an eighth-grader, he struggled to communicate. While he learned English in class growing up, he couldn’t speak it fluently, and studying for his classes took double the time it normally would.

“I had to study twice,” he said. “In English, then in Turkish.”

Ozer was still working on the language when he moved to Champaign last year after a year in West Lafayette, Ind. But a few times a week after school, upstairs in the library, he was able to communicate in a way in which he was fully fluent.

Ozer learned chess from his father as a child, and he refined his game during school, when he had a class dedicated to it starting in the third grade. His teacher, he said, took notice, and in the next few years, he was competing in the Turkish national championships for his age group.

After his family moved to Champaign last year, where his dad is a postdoctoral research associate in material science and engineering at the University of Illinois, Ozer found Champaign Central’s chess team at freshman orientation, where coaches Aaron Hong and Seth Chiles had set up a table. The team played competitively for the first time last year at the IHSA state meet.

“He came by and played us, and he destroyed us,” Hong said. “Throughout the course of the game, you could tell (how good he was), once your moves stopped working.”

That Ozer could become an elite player so quickly as a child is no surprise.

Hong and his Centennial counterpart, Alex Slifer, whose team will play competitively for the first time this year, both picked up the game as adults. As coaches, both have seen how quickly young minds can learn the game.

“Some of my kids have come in not even really knowing the rules of the game, and within a school year, they’re beating me,” Slifer said. “Because they can internalize these patterns so much faster than an adult learner can, so my potential is just lower than theirs. It just is.

“The way that they can pick these things up is incredible,” he added. “They see things that I’m never going to be able to see. It’s a language. There’s a point (as an adult) where you can maybe learn it and speak it, but (it’s much harder) to sound like a native speaker.”

Hong began playing four years ago, when he was a new chemistry teacher at Champaign Central and was invited to play by another teacher. He quickly became engrossed in the game, and now, he plays competitively. He created the club during the 2019-20 school year along with Chiles, who works as a special-education aide at Central.

Slifer created Centennial’s club two years ago after taking an interest in the game while watching the show “The Queen’s Gambit.”

“I just wanted to play chess, and I wanted more people to play chess with,” Slifer said with a laugh. “The first year it was just me and a student, and we would meet every Wednesday and play. It kind of started to grow from there.”

Both teams have grown, with as many as 20 students coming to meetings, where they play against each other and teach each other about different openers. Centennial’s team has grown so quickly that Slifer said several students have to wait for a board to open up to play.

They hope to solve that issue and also expand their reach after receiving a $2,000 grant from the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation, one of 130 projects to receive a grant from a pool of more than $92,000.

The teams’ players and coaches have multiple goals. Competitively, Central hopes to improve on its 71st-place finish at last year’s state meet after bringing back its entire team. That spot would have been significantly higher but for an error by Ozer, who mistakenly put his queen in the wrong spot in his second game. What would have been a guaranteed win or draw turned into the only loss of his freshman year.

Ozer’s Elo rating of around 2200 after more than 30,000 games puts him near the level of a national master, a title he hopes to achieve by the end of high school. The title is a few steps short of the highest rating of international grandmaster.

Players, though, don’t have to achieve elite levels like Ozer and the schools’ other top players to reap the long-term benefits.

“I’ve read about studies where it increases reading comprehension, it increases creativity,” Chiles said. “Chess is an amazing thing for kids to get involved with.

“If they dig in now, that’s crazy and amazing and awesome. But if they get older and it sparks again and they say, ‘I used to play in high school with this dork coach that I had,’ if all they have is that spark in the future, that’s a success.”

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