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Four kings of Illini Chess Club make move on elite stage

Robert Butler, left, and Min Yin in their concrete canoe on Homer Lake.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Chess Club members Bo Schmidt, right, a senior in physics, plays against Benson Wang, a freshman in electrical and computer engineering, in the food court of the Illini Union.

Last spring, a Cinderella team from the U. of I. clinched a berth in the Final Four of a major college tournament. But this unheralded group of undergraduates used pawns, bishops and queens – not basketballs – to work their tournament magic.

After tying for first place in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Championship last winter, the Illini Chess Club rode that winning streak to the President’s Cup, often referred to as the “Final Four” of collegiate chess, in April

additional photo
Chess club members, clockwise from top left, junior Akshay Indusekar, sophomore Aakaash Meduri, sophomore Eric Rosen, who is the club's vice president, and junior Michael Auger, who is the club's president. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

No longer wearing Cinderella’s glass slipper, the team is now looking to build on its success.

“People definitely know us now, but that doesn’t mean we’re still not underdogs,” said Michael Auger, a junior from Chicago majoring in communication who is the club’s president.

Thanks to their recent string of top finishes, the team has become a known quantity among collegiate chess teams, which isn’t bad, considering that a few years ago, the club had disbanded on the Urbana campus.

“We revived it because we all still wanted to play, and didn’t want to just give up the game simply because the U. of I. didn’t have a team anymore,” said Akshay Indusekar, a junior from Naperville, Ill., studying economics.

“We all play chess as a leisure activity because we enjoy it,” said Eric Rosen, a sophomore from Skokie, Ill., majoring in mathematics and computer science who is the club’s vice president. “So even though it’s a great hobby, it’s also a competitive activity that we all enjoy, and take very seriously.”

The club typically meets on Sunday evenings during the school year in the basement of the Illini Union. Anyone can join the club, but the team that represents the Urbana campus in tournaments comprises the best club members.

“We divide it into two parts – there’s the club and there’s the team that travels to tournaments,” Rosen said. “All of the stronger players from the club compete in the tournaments.”

But Auger and Rosen are quick to note that club members can make the jump to the competitive team.

“That’s what we hope for,” Auger said. “In the club, you get the chance to play against some really tough opponents. We also try to help people out as much as we can. That means if you’re willing to work for it, you’ll certainly have a chance to work your way up to the tournament team.”

“We get a huge variety of people coming to the club – from people who have played chess before to people who haven’t played at all,” Rosen said. “It’s a great way to bring a lot of people together to do something that we all love.”

At last spring’s collegiate championship, the U. of I. traveling team was the only team without a coach. The players also double as the team’s administrators.

“The players on the other teams are not just the best in the country, they’re the best in the world – not just for their age, just the world’s best, period,” Auger said. “And they’ve got some of the world’s most famous coaches, some of whom are grandmasters.

“We go there and it’s just us.”

“Both the club and the traveling team are completely student-run,” Rosen said. “As our president, Michael does a great job of bringing people into the club, but he also organizes all of the logistics of the team, including travel and expenses. It’s a lot to keep track of but we all work together and do our parts.”

Although it’s easy for the major sports to get attention on campus, for the chess team, it’s more of a challenge.
“We sometimes lack the resources to get better,” said Indusekar, who is the team’s treasurer. “We can usually only get half of what we need to travel to tournaments.”

The team was fortunate enough to receive a $1,700 donation from the U.S. Chess Trust to sponsor their travel to President’s Cup, Rosen said.

“Ideally, we would like a little bit more funding to achieve some of the other goals we have,” Indusekar said. “If we had more funding, we could travel to more tournaments around the country and make our name known as a major college chess program.”

“We’re still the underdogs because the top chess schools actively recruit not just from the U.S., but from all over the world,” Auger said. “The top team right now has two of the top 50 players in the world – not just for the college ranks, but overall. Other programs offer scholarships; we don’t. Since it’s completely student-run here, we also don’t actively recruit. But we like a challenge, which is why we keep coming back.”

Being the feisty underdog also has its advantages. Although they were competing against teams that each had at least two grandmasters on their squads, the team’s attitude was that they had nothing to lose.

“There was no pressure,” Rosen said. “It’s a great opportunity going into an event knowing that you’re probably expected to lose, so you can just play freely, because there is a ton of pressure on your opponent and the other team to do well.”

Playing in those types of high-level tournaments also is the best kind of free advertising for the team.

“The way we performed in the Pan Am tournament last year is likely to generate interest for anyone thinking of coming to U. of I.,” Rosen said.

Aakaash Meduri, a sophomore from Westmont, Ill., majoring in molecular and cellular biology, was a member of the Final Four team. He said playing chess has been a good way to meet people.

“I think it’s a great way to take a break from course work,” he said. “We’re all friends here and we enjoy hanging out with each other. We meet a lot of different people from other universities, too. It’s a good way to meet people with similar interests.”

“My friends on the chess team are probably my closest friends in college,” Auger said. “It’s hard to believe that a game where people are forced to play against each other for seven hours and not say a word could be considered social. But there’s a very social atmosphere to the club.”