Chess plans strategic moves for upcoming season


Wait, what? A Sports article about….chess?

Well, the International Olympic Committee has recognized chess as a sport since 1999, and because equitable coverage is one of the goals of Sports this year, we at the Evanstonian believe that the chess team, one of most accomplished teams in the school, deserves to be written about under Sports.

“Physical fitness is important [in chess], and the people who have a physical training program as well as mental, I think, have more longevity in chess. So, the mental part is, of course, huge in training—a huge part—but I think the people who are physically fit will be more successful in the long run,” opines ETHS Head Chess Coach Keith Holzmueller. “[In the State Championship], when you’re playing a lot of hours over two days—which is how it works, up to seven games—if you’re physically fit, you’re going to get less tired.”

So while being fit physically isn’t usually considered a necessity for a chess player, because physical fitness improves mental sharpness, it may just be that athleticism is the secret to ETHS Chess’ success, of which their accolades are numerous.

At the 2020 IHSA State Chess Championship, which was held in-person pre-pandemic, the Wildkits finished fourth overall. In 2021, that same tournament was held online, and the team edged its way to a 12th place finish. The fact that Evanston was able to place higher when matches were in-person foresees a return to even greater dominance this year, with in-person tournaments having already been scheduled.

“For me, during that season last year, it was honestly really rough, because when you are playing someone online…it’s just not the same,” says junior chess player Isabela Maiewski. “The adrenaline wasn’t there.”

Although online matches led chess to face an entirely different set of challenges last year, the team was still able to take first place in the under-18 division at the virtual U.S. Junior Chess Congress. This year, the team is looking to return to attending a national tournament in-person.

“In non-pandemic years, we would often follow up [the State Championship] in the spring and go to a national tournament. The U.S. Chess Federation has a national high school tournament we’ve gone to, so if conditions allow in terms of COVID, we will likely do that as well,” says Holzmueller.

But even being as skillful a program as ETHS Chess is, the team prides itself on its accessibility. 

“We’re both a club and a team,” explains Holzmueller. “Whatever level someone’s at, there’s going to be other people in the club at that level, so that they can play someone where it’s a good game for both sides.”

However, there’s one group in particular that chess seems to have a particularly difficult time reaching out to: girls.

“From a girl’s point of view … there’s a ratio of, like, two girls to 30 guys [for most teams],” says Maiewski. “I’ve gone through seasons of chess where I’ve never played a girl a single time during a tournament,”

Maiewski doesn’t let this count deter her though.

“Personally, I think I could beat most of the guys on the team.”

With the release of the Netflix period drama The Queen’s Gambit sparking a renewed interest in chess almost exactly a year ago (sales of chess sets from a given game company increased by 1000 percent in the month after the shows release, according to NPR), it’s possible that Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as orphaned chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon may inspire many girls to join the Evanston team this year. So far, Holzmueller has not seen any such participation increase yet, but wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being the case in the future.

“It’s hard to say, because the pandemic just threw things so out of whack. I know I’ve heard that that’s the case broadly, but it’s too early for me to say if that’s going to play out into more [girls] playing in club this year; I’m not sure.”

Maiweski sees the show as inciting increased interest from peers about her identity as a chess player.

“I feel like chess is really fun just to bring up in a conversation, because, even if you really don’t know about chess, you’ve heard something about it. Like, for example, recently, whenever I go places and I tell people that I play chess, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I watched The Queen’s Gambit!” And that’s just like another conversation starter.”

Since the IHSA officially classifies chess as an activity rather than a sport, its season doesn’t fall in one of the traditional fall, winter or spring classifications. Rather, it spans from roughly October-February before, at least for Evanston, being bookended by a national tournament in April. In terms of official dates, fans can look forward to the sectional tournament on Jan. 29 and State two weeks later on Feb. 11-12. Come State, the team will look to further cement their reputation as one of the best chess teams, or possibly even, the best chess team, in all of Illinois.