16-year-old student earns rare national master chess title

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CHICAGO -- On a typical day after school, 16-year-old Avi Kaplan can often be found sitting around a table with friends in the throes of a game at his school’s chess club, where he might be sharing a winning opening he played during a recent tournament.

On other days, Avi might be found playing a game on Chess.com, something he’s done over 15,000 times before. Or he could be picking up a new skill from one of his go-to books, “1001 Deadly Checkmates.”

It’s not a common pastime for a teenager, but it’s one that has brought Avi national recognition. During the 30th annual Midwest Class Championships this October, the Lane Tech College Prep student and longtime chess player earned the rare title of national master from the U.S. Chess Federation, an accomplishment reached by less than 1% of rated chess players. Even fewer adolescents receive the lifelong title — Avi is the only “master” player in the city of Chicago under 18.

The national master title comes in his 10th year of playing chess. He started playing the game in first grade and has worked to master it ever since.

“It was really exciting to see that I achieved the goal because once you hit it, you can’t lose the title,” Avi said. “Once I locked that in, I definitely still took a couple days to process a little bit, but once it became official, I was very excited about it. A little relief.”

A chess rating, which ranges from 100 to nearly 3,000, is an estimate of one’s playing strength based on previous results. To reach “master” level, a player must reach a rating of 2,200. Before completing 26 games, the rating is provisional and can change drastically after winning or losing. Later, ratings change incrementally based on the result and the ratings of the opponents. USCF assigns ratings to those who play in official tournaments.

“My family was a bit surprised because, obviously, when I started out in first grade, they didn’t expect me to go to the top, so they were very proud of me,” Avi said.

So what does it take to achieve a national master ranking at age 16? According to Avi, it’s practice and more practice. He estimates he spends about three to four hours a day Monday through Friday playing chess. Leading up to tournaments, the teen said he can spend upward of 20 hours a week preparing.

He started winning money at professional chess tournaments at age 7 and has won thousands across many tournaments, according to his parents. He has played 229 USCF-rated tournaments over the last 10 years and more than 100 Chicago Public Schools and scholastic tournaments.

Each month, USCF publishes a Top 100 list of chess players in the U.S., including youth and adult players. Avi first made the list at age 8 in August 2015. He has since made the Top 100 lists 50 times in total.

Reaching master level in the Chicago area makes the achievement especially meaningful, as Avi has deep roots in the city as the fourth generation in his family born in Chicago.

His sister, Tova Kaplan, a freshman at Harvard University, said it’s not just “natural brilliance” that’s brought him success in the game, but an unceasing motivation to improve. She said he finds chess wherever he goes, even picking up games for hours on Harvard’s campus when she moved in to start her first semester.

“He just has such a passion and a curiosity for the game that really radiates,” Tova Kaplan said. “And it’s not just out of a competitive spirit, but also out of a genuine love for the game and a joy in solving these puzzles. He’s been able to develop a really brilliant and methodical way of thinking about the world. Not everyone has that.”

Avi’s abiding love of chess is something that has also stood out to his coach, Ukrainian grandmaster Yaroslav Zherebukh, or “Yaro.” Zherebukh, who lives in Chicago, is one of the world’s top chess players and 16th in the U.S. for chess with a 2,695 rating.

He has coached Avi for about a year and a half, and he’s the only student Zherebukh teaches in person. The pair meet several hours each week, first focusing on structuring his strategy, especially in the beginning stages of the game, called the openings. It takes intense memorization skills and the ability to calculate different variations as one moves throughout the game. Seeing Avi’s progress over time, Zherebukh is proud to see him reach one of his longtime goals.

“Even if you spend an enormous amount of time, it still takes decade to reach such titles, so it’s really great that he’s able to reach it this young,” Zherebukh said. “I can’t overstate how major it is. It’s just an amazing accomplishment, basically better than almost everybody in the country.”

Only 730 USCF-rated players in the U.S. are masters, and just 155 players reach that level under 18. Zherebukh said that while he has worked with many talented players, not all show the same drive and optimism Avi Kaplan has.

“You can only make progress if you love the game, and he really loves the game,” Zherebukh said. “That stood out from the jump, and this is something you need to make progress in the game. Overall, he’s an optimistic, enthusiastic kid, so I noticed that from the start.”

While Avi’s dedication to improving his game has helped him reach the national master level, it’s not all about ratings and titles. What he loves about chess is there’s always something new to learn, no matter what level a player is at. He said he approaches each game individually, not letting past wins or losses define him.

“A lot of times chess will get stressful, maybe you’ll lose a big game, sometimes it won’t go your way,” he said. “Sometimes that could get in your head, but you just have to kind of focus on the task. At the end of the day, it’s just important to have fun and make sure you enjoy the game and also make friends along the way.”

Despite misconceptions that chess can be a solitary game, he said he has met most of his friends through chess, traveling for tournaments. He’s found several through the Lane Tech Chess Team, where he serves as one of the co-captains. In a school of over 4,000 students, Avi said chess has remained a major part of his identity, saying people know him as “the chess kid.”

One of his classmates and friends, 15-year-old Whitman Kosak, a 10th grader at Lane Tech, said he was “ecstatic” to hear about Avi’s national master achievement, but he wasn’t too surprised. He said he jokingly told Avi, “Took you long enough!” when he heard the news.

Playing alongside Avi through their chess club meetings each week, Whitman said he sometimes thinks, “What would Avi do?” during tournaments when he’s stuck.

During a recent club meeting, Avi was recounting moves he made during a game he won against a grandmaster. Avi said he likes to share tips that his friends can use in their own games.

“Sometimes I’ll show them a couple of openings, especially for tournaments,” Avi said. “We’re trying to find out openings that would fit their style, how they play. It’s always a learning opportunity.”

But Avi emphasized that they all learn from one another by simply playing the game they love, helping each other improve along the way. He was proud to share that Whitman had doubled his rating in a year, and another friend, 14-year-old Dario Pjevic, had gone up over 100 points in the past few months.

“Chess is a great way to just bond with people,” Dario said. “People have a lot of different opinions, different ideas, but everyone can play chess.”

Thinking about the future, Avi hopes to take his passion for teaching to help kids learn chess. He’s also considering a career path in computer science and programming.

As for his coach, Zherebukh, he’s already thinking about the next levels Avi can reach in chess, including international master. No matter where chess takes him, Avi hopes to inspire people of any age, background and skill level to pick up the game too.

“With very few resources, anyone curious about chess can dive in,” Avi said. “You could be just new to the game. You could not even know how to move the pieces, but if you enjoy the game, then you can always progress. Just stick with it, trust your gut, go with your intuition. That can be used in chess and other aspects in life.”