Not all competitions take place on the field with things such as footballs, bright lights and tackles. On the chessboard, two opponents battle it out with kings, queens, knights and pawns.
This fall, five University of Missouri students were selected for Mizzou’s first chess team. They train and compete under the direction of Cristian Chirila, a Romanian grandmaster. Grandmaster is the highest level a player can achieve in competitive chess.
“Chess is different from other sport competitions because it doesn’t involve physical features,” said Ciprian Comsa, a sophomore pre-engineering major and chess team member. “It’s just your brain. You have to use most of your brain to think about positions and to play accordingly.”
Comsa, originally from Romania, was involved with the MU Chess Club last spring. He joins three freshman and one graduate student who specifically came to Mizzou to be members of the chess team. The rest of the roster includes:
- Dmitry Gordievsky, a freshman pre-engineering major from Russia, who was the No. 29 ranked Russian player as of February 2018.
- Grigoriy Oparin, a graduate student from Russia, who is a top 100 competitive chess player in the world.
- Christopher Repka, a freshman from Slovakia, who is the No. 2 ranked Slovak player.
- Gulrukhbegim “Begim” Tokhirjonova, a freshman from Uzbekistan, who is ranked in the top 50 among active female players in the world.
Gordievsky, Oparin, Repka and Tokhirjonova are also grandmasters.
Oparin, like some of his teammates, started playing chess when he was a young child.
“From when I was 5 years old, I just started spending four or five hours every day playing chess, solving some puzzles and playing a lot of games,” Oparin said.
Despite being from different home countries, the team is bonding. They said it helps that they are all around the same age, unlike many competitive chess teams in their home countries.
“Let’s say I go to Slovakia and play for a team,” Repka said. “I’m a student and I team up with a guy who is 40-years-old and working. You don’t feel like you’re on the same wavelengths.”
At Mizzou, the team members said they can relate to each other.
“Here at Mizzou, we are all around the same age, so the atmosphere is much better,” Repka said. “We’re all studying and we’re all interested in the same things.”
The team said that chess has helped them with their academic studies, too.
“In chess you have to calculate a lot of lines very fast, and in math you also have to be able to understand and solve the question very quickly,” Gurdiveskiy said. “You have to find the best way to solve the equation. It is now intuitive to me.”
The team faced off in October against players from Saint Louis University and Washington University at the inaugural Midwest Collegiate Chess and Blitz Championship. Tokhirjonova was declared the Midwest Female Collegiate Champion, Comsa earned the title of Midwest Amateur (u-2000) Collegiate Chess Champion and Oparin won third place in the individual category.
Chirila worked with a grant of nearly $800,000 in scholarships from the Saint Louis Chess Club to recruit his team to Mizzou.
The team is getting comfortable in Missouri, too.
“Originally, I am from Moscow and it is a very big city, but personally I prefer small cities,” Gordievsky said. “I find them much more comfortable and friendly. I like the people here.”
Chirila is confident about his team’s success in future competitions.
“I think we are going to be competitive beginning in our first year,” Chirila said. “I believe we have a very strong team.”
Patricia Okker, dean of the College of Arts and Science, is excited to watch the team grow and compete.
“I look forward to a national championship,” she said. “I also very much look forward to watching these students develop as students and as team members.”
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