After a year defined by Zoom breakout rooms, a virtually-held simultaneous exhibition with a five-time U.S. Champion, and a seemingly endless supply of Diamond Chess.com accounts, Chess Club president Praveen Balakrishnan tempered his expectations for the RSO’s first in-person meeting since March 2020. Having joined the club during the pandemic himself, Balakrishnan thought he knew the weekly routine well: the same time, the same Zoom link, and the same 10 or so students (on a good week).
In reality, upwards of 40 students packed into the Reynolds Club to participate, and the first meeting of the year brought an unexpected milestone—the club ran out of boards.
“The turnout was extraordinary,” Balakrishnan said. “We had to get more equipment—we hadn’t seen this kind of turnout even before the pandemic.”
Though the newfound enthusiasm from his peers was a pleasant surprise, Balakrishnan is no stranger to both the rush and camaraderie inherent to chess. After he was gifted a chess set by moving neighbors and taught how to play the game by his parents, five-year-old Balakrishnan quickly became interested in winning victories over not just his family members, but other players. Today, the second-year is one of two Grandmasters at the University of Chicago—the most ever attending the College at one time—and just one of approximately 1,700 Grandmasters worldwide.
“I’ve been playing [chess] for over 14 years now,” Balakrishnan said. “And I actually ended up getting the [Grandmaster] title this summer; I went to Italy, played some tournaments there, and was able to get my final norm. It’s definitely my best accomplishment to date.”
With an eye to the future and the club’s direction over the course of the new academic year, Balakrishnan is hopeful that the game’s surge in popularity will incite players of all skill levels and backgrounds to grab a board and make their first moves.
“It seems like a lot of people picked 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 casual, friendly atmosphere. Everyone is welcome.”
From across the globe in Hungary, Balakrishnan’s predecessor William Graif echoed his sentiments regarding the potential expansion of the club—all 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 volunteering initiatives to teach chess to Chicago-area students.
“I always imagined I would be leading the club, but it was not something I imagined I would be doing through 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 was just an explosion of interest in people watching online chess streamers and playing online, which is, like, super accessible to do. That also coincided with The Queen’s Gambit, which brought chess more into the mainstream. I think it was certainly a quarantine hobby that a lot of people picked up, liked, and continued.”
Graif, a public policy and data science double major with just one more quarter of coursework required in order to graduate, has opted to leave Hyde Park for the duration of autumn quarter in the pursuit of greener—or rather, checkered—pastures, as he competes at chess tournaments in Rome, Armenia, and Budapest.
“This way, I have three more months of people not asking me what I’m doing after college,” Graif joked from behind his webcam
Like Balakrishnan—who he, incidentally, played against in tournaments during their respective high school chess careers—Graif has been serious about chess for his entire life, learning the rules from his parents at just three years old before developing an insatiable appetite for increasingly difficult games of strategy.
“My older sister was always at kindergarten, and with my dad off at work, I always just wanted to play Connect Four with my mother,” Graif said. “Except it wasn’t just that I liked Connect Four—I wanted to play it 12 hours a day. And when my mother wouldn’t play with me, I would play against myself. And we only had three literal puzzles, so I would just disassemble them and reassemble them faster. So maybe I was inadvertently trained for the pattern recognition [of chess].”
Graif went on to begin coaching chess professionally at fifteen-years-old at Hunter College Elementary School in Manhattan. The opportunity to pass down both his love for and the lessons learned from chess to his students is what he points to as the role’s greatest reward.
“Consoling kids after losses is actually something that sticks with me,” Graif said. “You don’t necessarily play the game for the shiny piece of plastic, the trophies, or whatever. The point of what I do isn’t to train the next national champion. It’s to improve the kids’ lives via the game.”
Both Balakrishnan and Graif expressed excitement for the year’s competition season, with two Grandmasters—including the Class of 2025’s Awonder Liang—spelling likely success for the chess club.
“Every year, we send teams to the Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championships, where we compete with multiple other schools and try to place [against] a lot of schools that are also known for their academic talents, but also multiple schools that are known specifically for recruiting chess players,” Balakrishnan said. “This year, our team is stronger than ever, so I’d say we have a good shot.”
As someone who has played both roles of coach and competitor, coupled with his experiences at tournaments such as the Canadian Junior Championships, Graif emphasized how the strategy game demands not just immense mental, but physical stamina, with the RSO’s hour-long meetings paling in comparison to the lengths of the most intense matches.
“It depends on the tournament and what’s on the line—some games can be five, 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 be focused on anything other than ‘doing.’”
When asked what he hopes others will take away from his journey and story, Graif seized on the opportunity to reflect upon how much his perspective on his own performance and talent has changed in just a few years.
“A handful of years ago, I would have said, ‘work hard, and you’ll achieve your dreams of being a national champion’ or whatever, right?” Graif said. “Now, it sounds 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 in it 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 that I’ve played was the World Youth tournament, where the United States would send a team to a different country to compete with players of a similar age group from other countries. And you were constantly meeting people from other countries, who speak different languages [than you] and have different interests [than you], but you share one common thing. And that’s chess.”