LINCOLN PARK — In some ways, Avi Kaplan isn’t much different from most 15-year-olds. A freshman at Lane Tech College Prep, he enjoys playing basketball, baseball, and cooking.
Most of Kaplan’s free time, however, is spent playing chess. Playing for hours every week for the past nine years, Kaplan has become one of the top youth chess players in the United States.
In December, Kaplan took second nationally to ninth graders in the 2021 US Chess Federation’s K-12 Grade National Championships in Orlando, Florida. Another win in Las Vegas brought his personal highest score ever to 2,147 – and that was much closer to his goal of a 2,200 master score.
Kaplan, of Lincoln Park, said the wins motivate him to continue to hone his strategy and knowledge of the game.
“I know a lot of kids take breaks, sometimes years, without playing chess,” Kaplan said. “But I feel like chess has become such a big part of my identity for me. And as I keep winning a lot of these tournaments, I feel like I don’t want to stop, I want to keep going. Even if there is a moment is that I’m starting to lose, I wouldn’t want to stop. I’d like to improve to turn it around.”
Although Kaplan’s parents didn’t play chess much, he was drawn to the game as a first-grader. He quickly moved beyond learning notation and how the pieces move to studying strategy, solving chess puzzles and playing beginner tournaments.
“I went to Decatur [Classical School] and they had a few different clubs there,” said Kaplan. “And among the few clubs, I noticed that chess was one of the clubs and I thought it would be very interesting to try out a strategic game.”
Since then, Kaplan has amassed a slew of chess-related awards. In addition to being the US Chess Federation’s highest-rated chess player at Chicago Public Schools, Kaplan also holds the group’s expert title and the International Chess Federation’s Master’s Candidate title. He is a national top 50 rated blitz chess player in the under-16 group, in addition to several other awards and accolades he has won over the years.
Kaplan said that chess helped him develop several useful skills such as creativity, determination and memorization.
“In chess, you have to have a really good memory, whether it’s analyzing very long chess openings or remembering all the different patterns and tactics,” Kaplan said. “I use my good memory in other aspects of my life, such as analyzing baseball and basketball stats, memorizing math formulas, and memorizing geographic locations.”
Kaplan spends 20-30 hours a week playing chess to prepare for tournaments. He said he is studying past matches to see what he could have done better or what helped him win. He also spends time in his school’s chess club, practicing opening moves.
That doesn’t always leave a lot of time for homework, especially if you’re traveling to tournaments. But Kaplan manages to get it all done by doing homework while he’s at school.
Kaplan came in second of 1,235 young players who entered the recent Florida tournament. But even with so many wins to his name, he doesn’t try to expect wins every time he competes, he said. For him, every game is its own challenge.
“It feels great to win a lot,” said Kaplan. “And even though I have a lot of trophies, that doesn’t mean that chess is any easier. I still have to focus on every match. It’s great, but I still can’t be overconfident. I have to take every competitive game I play seriously.”
One of Kaplan’s coaches, Shiva Maharaj, believes the 15-year-old has what it takes to become an accomplished chess master.
Maharaj, a professional chess coach, met Kaplan about seven years ago, and the two later got back together at a Chicago Public Schools tournament.
“Avi just didn’t just have talent, but he had that special, unique quality … in sports called killer instinct … some people just have that extra special something,” Maharaj said. “From the first time I met him, I realized he was what people call ‘gifted’. He put in the work and the time and he kept the passion.”
Maharaj said that successful chess players must be disciplined, be able to make critical decisions and have a strong belief in their abilities. Kaplan said he has tried to pass those skills on when mentoring younger players.
“I knew Avi was talented, but he was also able to motivate many children and peers around him and always had a good mood about him,” Maharaj said. “He was never selfish. In my opinion – not really bragging. So he had a spirit of talent, genius, and he carried a spirit of humility. He enjoyed working with people.”
With great success behind him, Kaplan said he hopes to reach the rank of grandmaster. For now, though, he said he’s trying not to get too involved in wins and just enjoy the game.
“Sometimes not every tournament will go your way,” he said. “Sometimes [your score] will go down a bit, but in the end the most important thing is to keep playing and have fun and do your best.”
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