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An Interview With Avi Kaplan, One of the Country's Best Chess Players

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Springboard loves featuring inspiring teens in the Chicagoland community. We had the honor of chatting with Avi Kaplan, a freshman at Lane Tech, and one of the best chess players in the country for his age group. Avi recently placed second at a national youth chess tournament and is closing in on a 2,200 master score. He is also a chess instructor who began tutoring younger kids when he was in 7th grade with a roster of 5 students. Avi is the highest US Chess Federation rated chess player in the Chicago Public School system. 

If you also play chess and are intersted in connecting with other Jewish chess players, email Springboard@juf.org. 

9th grade chess win

9th grade chess win

Springboard: How did you get started playing? Why were you interested in chess?

Avi: I started chess back in first grade as I attended a Chicago Public School, Decatur Classical, in West Ridge and joined the chess club. I started in one of the lower groups and the chess teacher would set up puzzles. When I solved one, that’s when chess first clicked. 

I didn’t really like games with luck too much. I kind of preferred games with more skill involved. And I thought chess was the perfect game as it’s just you, versus the opponent. The better player most of the time is going to win the game. 

So as I started advancing in the clubs, I wanted to keep on improving. Then I moved to tournament level and obviously I didn’t start by playing national tournaments. I started with some Chicago Public Schools tournaments at my grade level. And I started to win pretty much every time I played. So then I started going into the advanced sections and I didn’t win every time. Some of the people I played were better and had more experience. I reviewed the games by myself and started testing out my own strategies. Since I got more interested in chess, I wanted advice from people with more experience so I started attending some chess clubs around Chicago.

Doing chess clubs and camps  gave me the needed experience to push forward. Then I learned to play online chess to get even more experience and could practice chess in the leisure of my own house. This meant I had more practice than ever for the competition days and since I got so much practice in, I started playing kids twice my age and then adults.

I’ve won a lot of tournaments. One important thing is not to let the losses get to you. Even as a chess champion you’re not going to win all the games you played. What’s important is that you bounce back after a tough loss. 

Avi with trophies

Avi with trophies

Springboard: How has chess influenced other parts of your life?

Avi: My memory and creativity come into play at school. Memory is obviously important for learning geographical locations mathematical formulas, remembering specific facts. My creativity is important as it can help me approach problems differently than other people do.

Chess has influenced my memory and my overall creativity and also my determination. It’s also made me a more courageous individual. 

Springboard: Has chess impacted your Jewish journey in any way?

Avi: Yes, preparing for my bar mitzvah --since my memorization foundation was substantial – I had a really easy time remembering my Parsha as well as memorizing other prayers and my speech. So instead of worrying about that, I could enjoy the process of studying and learning. I did miss a lot of Hebrew school because of chess, but Rabbi Dovid Kotlarsky at Chabad Lakeview taught me one-on-one all summer before my bar mitzvah so it was really great.

Avi at K-8 Championships

2014 CPS K-8 Championship

Springboard: Which Jewish values influence how you think about chess?

Avi: In Judaism you have to have a positive attitude and Jewish people throughout history have overcome a lot. In my chess career, I’ve had some unfavorable moments, but my overall positive attitude derived from Judaism helps me stay strong.

Something that influences my approach to chess is treat others how you want to be treated when it comes to being a good sport. Win, lose or draw, you always have to be respectful toward your opponent.

Springboard: What is it like being in high school and being a top tier chess player?

Avi: Being in elementary school and playing chess was easy to get through because there wasn’t that much homework. High school is a more difficult to manage as I have several hours of homework daily along with doing a couple hours of chess each day. So I try to get as much homework done during schools as I can.

Avi with mayor

Avi with the Mayor

Springboard: Do you have any influential chess players that you look up to?

Avi: Some of the best chess players I enjoy watching are Magnus Carlsen. I love reviewing some of Anatoly Karpov’s past games because he had a perfectionist mindset and the way he played and outmaneuvered his opponents was astonishing.  I’ve also had to the opportunity to train under some famous Jewish chess grandmasters including World Chess Champion Grandmaster Maxim Dlugy who run a chess school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and I trained for two years during middle school with Soviet-born Boris Avrukh, an Israeli chess grandmaster and permanent member of the Israeli National Chess Team who lives and teaches in the Chicago area. 

Springboard: What is your favorite chess move and opening?

Avi: I enjoy playing tactical and aggressive positions because it fits my fighting spirit. I try to alter my openings to get into favorable positions. 

Springboard: Our work at Springboard is all about elevating teen voices. Is there a message you would like to share with other teens your age?

Avi: In chess and in other aspects of life, try not to let your losses define you. And when you’re winning, don’t get overconfident. Just keep having fun and the moments will come.

At the end of the day if you have a strong passion for something, opportunities will come. Your moment will come. 

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