MU to F4

Mizzou’s chess team makes the right moves.

chess player sitting at chess board
Mizzou chess team captain Grigoriy Oparin is one of five Tigers with a Grandmaster rating. The team made this year’s President’s Cup, the Final Four of collegiate chess. Photo by Abbie Lankitus.

Published on Show Me Mizzou April 27, 2023
Story by Jack Wax, BS Ed ’73, HES ’76, MA ’87

In January, the Mizzou chess team checkmated their way to second place in a field of 80 teams at the 2023 Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship held in Seattle. “For the first time since the program began, we qualified for the Final Four, also known as the President’s Cup,” says Cristian Chirila, the team’s coach and general manager. 

In addition to building a nationwide reputation for its maneuvering in classical, over-the-board chess, the team has proven itself adroit in high-speed competition. Last year, it took home several individual and team awards in the U.S. Online Collegiate Rapid and Blitz Championships.

Born only four years ago in partnership with the renowned Saint Louis Chess Club, which, like the Mizzou squad, was founded through a generous gift from Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield, the Tiger chess team is a newcomer to collegiate competition. But its players are hardly rookies. Team captain Grigoriy Oparin and four other players hold Grandmaster ratings, as does Chirila. Of the millions of chess players throughout the world, only a handful — about 1,500 — have been awarded the Grandmaster title by the World Chess Federation.

It takes multiple skills to excel at collegiate-level chess. “Not everyone has the patience and inclination to sit in front of a chess board for five or six hours at a time,” Chirila says. “It comes down to a commitment to master the game and to keep improving.” 

As with other Mizzou competitive teams, regular and sometimes grueling practices are essential for building skills needed to win championships. The chess team holds two or three practices a week, each lasting about four hours. Players put in more hours in front of the board on their own, frequently playing against an “engine,” a computer program that uses artificial intelligence to plot each move.

The computing power, of course, can’t replace the human element that bonds the team. Oparin, an economics grad student, creditsa strong camaraderie among his teammates as an important factor in their success. “This is my fourth year on the team, and I’m enjoying every minute of it,” he says.

At the beginning of April, Mizzou took home fourth place at the President's Cup in St. Louis.

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