Making Their Best Move
A team of LAS students is beating expectations in chess—again.
If you can’t resist an underdog story, look no further than the Illinois Chess Club. With no coaches, scholarships, or grand masters—trademarks of today’s powerhouse university chess teams—the club sent a team to the national “Final Four” tournament for the second year in a row.
The team of four LAS students played in the President’s Cup in Manhattan in April, after they placed third at the Pan American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship in December. They did so by upsetting teams from Texas Tech, Columbia University, and Lindenwood University, all with ratings of 200 or more points higher than the Illini.
They placed fourth at this year’s Final Four. Prior to 2013, Illinois hadn’t sent a team to the Final Four since 1991.
“It’s the team chemistry that we have,” says Michael Auger, junior in communication and team president, in explaining the victories that have intrigued the chess world (the moves of one team member, Eric Rosen, at the Pan American tournament were published in the New York Times). “We’re very much playing as a team. And I think we all care a lot, and I think that’s really big for us.”
Two of the team members, Auger and Rosen, a sophomore in mathematics and computer science, have known each other since they grew up near Chicago. They shared the same chess coach and went to the same chess tournaments, and both were considered to be among the country’s top youth players. Likewise, both turned down chess scholarships at other schools to attend the University of Illinois (which offers no chess scholarships).
The team’s fortunes received a serendipitous boost in early fall 2013, during a Quad Day promotion to attract new players to the club. They offered $5 to anyone who could beat them, and one of the passersby who took up the challenge was Xin Luo, now a junior in mathematics and economics. Luo, a native of China, was one of the country’s top youth players, being National Rapid Chess Champion in China at age 10, before his studies took him away from the game. He figured he was about to make an easy $5—but Auger beat him.
“Being mad for that, I decided to go to chess club and try to find out all the good players in the club,” Luo recalls. He’s been playing with them ever since.
Contrary to the others, Akshay Indusekar, a junior in economics from Naperville, Ill., was no child champion—he didn’t even play chess competitively until he was a sophomore in high school, when he tried out for his high school’s chess club out of curiosity. He made the eight-person team, but he was the weakest member.
“I could not stand being the worst player on the team and that inspired me to work hard and become a better player,” Indusekar recalls. “Eventually I became the best player on my high school team.”
When he arrived at Illinois, he joined the chess club again, only to find himself on the “B” team when the “A” team went to the President’s Cup in 2013. Dismayed at missing the cut, but motivated, he worked harder on his game, improved, and in 2013 he made the club’s “A” team, and he traveled to Manhattan in April.
The team was unable to pull any upsets in the President’s Cup. Their second qualification in two years received plenty of good publicity, however, with donors enabling them to raise the $9,500 they needed to make the journey east.
With all the players returning to campus in the fall, you can bet that the team will make another move for the Final Four next year. Formally, the club meets twice a week during the school year, with practices scheduled to last two to three hours. Of course, they end up playing a lot longer than what’s expected.
By Dave Evensen