LINCOLN PARK — In some ways, Avi Kaplan isn’t too different from most 15-year-olds. A freshman at Lane Tech College Prep, he likes playing basketball and baseball, and he loves to cook.
However, most of Kaplan’s free time is spent playing chess. By playing hours each week for the past nine years, Kaplan has become one of the best youth chess players in the United States.
In December, Kaplan won second place nationally for 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 all-time high score to 2,147 — and that much closer to his goal of a 2,200 master score.
Kaplan, of Lincoln Park, said the wins motivate him to keep sharpening his strategy and knowledge of the game.
“I know a lot of kids take breaks, sometimes years, off of chess,” Kaplan said. “But I feel like, for me, chess has become such a big part of my identity. And since I keep winning a lot of these tournaments feel like I don’t want to stop, I want to keep going. Even if there is a point when I start losing, I wouldn’t want to quit. I’d want to improve to turn it around.”
Though Kaplan’s parents don’t play much chess, he gravitated to the game as a first grader. He quickly advanced past learning notation and how the pieces move to studying strategy, solving chess puzzles and playing beginner tournaments.
“I was going to Decatur [Classical School] and they had a few different clubs there,” Kaplan said. “And out of the few clubs, I noticed chess was one of the clubs and I thought it would be really interesting to try out a strategic game.”
Since then, Kaplan has racked up a slew of chess-related accolades. In addition to being the U.S. Chess Federation’s highest-rated chess player in Chicago Public Schools, Kaplan holds the group’s title of expert and the International Chess Federation’s title of candidate master. He’s a national top 50 rated blitz chess player in the under 16 group, in addition to several other awards and honors he’s secured over the years.
Kaplan said playing chess has helped him develop several useful skills, like creativity, determination and memorization.
“In chess, you have to have a very good memory, whether it’s analyzing very long chess openings or memorizing all the different patterns and tactics,” Kaplan said. “I use my good memory in other aspects of my life, like analyzing baseball and basketball statistics, memorizing math formulas and remembering geographic locations.”
Kaplan spends 20-30 hours per week playing chess to prepare for tournaments. He said he studies past games to see what he could have done better or what helped him win. He also spends time at his school’s chess club and practices opening moves.
That doesn’t always leave a lot of time for homework, especially when traveling to tournaments. But Kaplan manages to get it all done by doing homework when he’s at school.
Kaplan was second out of 1,235 young players competing in the recent Florida tournament. But even with so many wins under his belt, he is trying to not expect victories every time he competes, he said. To him, each game is its own challenge.
“It feels great to win a lot,” Kaplan said. “And even though I have a lot of trophies, it doesn’t mean that chess is any easier. I still have to focus on every game. 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 trainer, met Kaplan about seven years ago, and the two later reconnected at a Chicago Public Schools tournament.
“Avi just had not only talent, but he had that special, unique kind of 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 time and he maintained the passion.”
Maharaj said successful chess players must be disciplined, able to make critical decisions and have strong belief in their abilities. Kaplan said he’s tried to pass along those skills when mentoring younger players.
“I knew Avi was talented, but he was also able to motivate a lot of the kids and peers around him and always had a good spirit about him,” Maharaj said. “He was never egotistical. In my opinion — didn’t really brag. So he had a spirit of talent, genius, and he carried a spirit of humility. He worked nice with people.”
With major success behind him, Kaplan said he hopes to reach the grandmaster rank. For now, though, he said he’s trying to not get too wrapped up in wins and simply enjoy the game.
“Sometimes, not every tournament will go your way,” he said. “Sometimes [your score] will go down a bit, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is to keep playing and keep having fun and trying to do your best.”
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