Making (check)mates

Since 2019, the MU Chess Team has made an impact in the world of collegiate chess, due in large part to the efforts of two of the team’s founding members.

picture of chess pieces on a chess board source shutterstock

Though chess is played one on one, each member benefits from the feedback and support of the rest of the team.

Jan. 4, 2022
Contact: Eric Stann, 573-882-3346, StannE@missouri.edu

At the University of Missouri, the words “Division 1” don’t only apply to intercollegiate athletic programs, such as football, basketball, soccer and softball — they also apply to the Mizzou Chess Team, which is quickly becoming one of the best collegiate chess programs in the United States.

In 2019, Cristian Chirila, a Romanian chess grandmaster, partnered with the Saint Louis Chess Club and launched the Mizzou Chess Team. Though MU’s team has only been competing for a few years, Coach Chirila and his players have already earned an impressive list of accomplishments, not to mention compiled a star-studded team roster.

The team is made up largely of international students, who come from countries such as Slovakia, Russia and India.

Carrying on the family tradition

Though Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova, a junior at MU, is officially a U.S. Federation chess player, she is still proud to represent her home country Uzbekistan on the Mizzou Chess Team.

Recently, Tokhirjonova placed second in the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship, her first U.S. national championship. Not only did she take home silver, she also placed ahead of four previous U.S. women national champions.

“Placing second was amazing,” Tokhirjonova said. “I didn’t know what to expect since it was my first U.S. national championship but winning gave me the confidence that I could do better in the future.”

Playing chess is a big tradition in the Tokhirjonova family, so it was no surprise that she began playing at age 5. By 8, she was passionate about the game, and by 14, Tokhirjonova was playing chess professionally.

Since then, Tokhirjonova has become a 10-time winner of Uzbekistan Juniors/Girls national championship. She became a woman grandmaster at age 16 and ranked one of the top 30 female chess players in the world in 2019 — the same year she was recruited to be one of the first members of the new Mizzou Chess Team.

A member of Mizzou Chess playing chess on a computer.

Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova competes during the virtual 2020 U.S. Online Collegiate Rapid and Blitz Championship, an in-person tournament that was postponed and moved completely online because of the pandemic.

Having the opportunity to play at the collegiate level and become a founding member of the Mizzou Chess Team, as well as experience the university campus and academic programs, made the choice of coming to MU an easy one for Tokhirjonova.

“I liked that I could be both a student and a player at Mizzou,” she said. “Being one of the founding members is also great, because you get to grow the culture of the team.”

Tokhirjonova’s chess career has not only been motivated by the chance to win awards and titles, but also by the opportunity to be a role model for young girls in her home country.

“There are a lot of talented young girls around the world who want to achieve their dreams but don’t think it’s possible,” she said. “I can help young girls in Uzbekistan who have dreams about playing chess, coming to the U.S. or anything else by being an example of dreams coming true.”

And Tokhirjonova wasn’t the only member of the Mizzou Chess Team to bring home a win in fall 2021.

Mastering the blitz

In September 2021, MU graduate student and Russian native Grigory Oparin won his first collegiate title by placing first in the U.S. Collegiate Blitz Championship.

Blitz chess games are three to five minutes per game, compared to classical games which are 90 minutes and rapid games which are 15 minutes. This faster pace limits the players ability to calculate each possible move, and instead requires them to use their intuition.

“I must have a pretty good intuition,” said Oparin, who is also the team captain.

In addition to blitz chess, Oparin also competes in rapid and classical categories. Recently, Oparin traveled to the 2021 International Chess Federation (FIDE) Grand Swiss competition in Riga, Latvia. Here, Oparin placed third qualifying him for the 2022 FIDE Grand Prix competition held in Germany from February to March of the coming year.

“I think this competition was my biggest success in my career,” he said.

Two members of Mizzou Chess playing chess online.

Grigory Oparin, right, competes during the virtual 2020 U.S. Online Collegiate Rapid and Blitz Championship, an in-person tournament that was postponed and moved completely online because of the pandemic.

These wins are some of the many successes that mark Oparin’s chess career.

Oparin started playing chess at just 4 when his father took him to a local chess club. Not long after, Oparin was going every day, and by 7 he won the Russian National Championship in the “under 8” category.

By 16, Oparin was given the prestigious title of grandmaster. Today, he is ranked 55th out of all chess players in the world.

Grandmaster is the highest title awarded to a chess player by the FIDE. Grandmasters are required to, at some point in their career, have a relative skill level, or Elo rating, of 2,500 points.

According to IChess.net, there are only 1,500 grandmasters in the world, or approximately 0.3% of all registered FIDE players. On Mizzou’s chess team there are four grandmasters, and the team boasts an average Elo rating of 2,421. Oparin’s rating is 2,681, and Tokhirjonova’s rating is 2,335.

A team sport

Though chess is played one on one, each member benefits from the feedback and support of the rest of the team. That includes the stars of the team.

“They are my teammates and my friends,” Tokhirjonova said. “They cheer for me during a tournament, help me improve my game and work on my mistakes. They always have my back.”

Having a supportive team is one of Oparin’s favorite parts about competing for Mizzou.

“It’s a very enjoyable experience,” Oparin said. “Everyone is happy to see each other and there is a readiness to help at any moment.”

In spring of 2021, the chess team secured a major victory by placing first in the International Chess Federation’s World University Blitz Cup. This event was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the team overcame digital obstacles and managed to secure a win.

“Despite ongoing challenges due to the pandemic, all of our players have been relentlessly pursuing the goals we set at the beginning of the year,” Chirila said. “Our team started the spring semester with an important victory, and the players continued to build on that momentum throughout the year. I couldn’t be prouder of their continued dedication over the chess board, as well as in the classroom.”

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