On Chess: Making (check)mates
At the University of Missouri, the words “Division 1” don’t only apply to intercollegiate athletic programs, such as football, basketball, soccer and softball — they also apply to the Mizzou Chess Team, which is quickly becoming one of the best collegiate chess programs in the United States.
In 2019, Cristian Chirila, a Romanian chess grandmaster, partnered with the St. Louis Chess Club and launched the Mizzou Chess Team. Though MU’s team has only been competing for a few years, Coach Chirila and his players have already earned an impressive list of accomplishments, not to mention compiled a star-studded team roster.
The team is made up largely of international students, who come from countries such as Slovakia, Russia and India.
Carrying on the family tradition
Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova, a junior at MU, is officially a U.S. Federation chess player but is proud to represent her home country of Uzbekistan on the Mizzou Chess Team.
Recently, Tokhirjonova placed second in the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship, her first U.S. national championship. She also placed ahead of four previous U.S. women national champions.
“I didn’t know what to expect since it was my first U.S. national championship, but winning gave me the confidence that I could do better in the future,” she said.
Tokhirjonova was 5 when she began playing chess and was competing professionally by 14. Since then, she has become a 10-time winner of Uzbekistan Juniors/Girls national championship. She became a grandmaster at 16 and was ranked among the top 30 female chess players in the world in 2019 — the same year she was recruited to the new Mizzou Chess Team.
Mastering the blitz
In September 2021, MU graduate student and Russian native Grigory Oparin won his first collegiate title by placing first in the U.S. Collegiate Blitz Championship. This faster-paced chess game limits the players' ability to calculate each possible move, and instead requires them to use their intuition.
In addition to blitz chess, Oparin, who is also the Mizzou team captain, competes in rapid and classical categories. Recently, Oparin traveled to the 2021 International Chess Federation Grand Swiss competition in Riga, Latvia. There, Oparin placed third, qualifying him for the 2022 FIDE Grand Prix competition held in Germany from February to March.
Oparin started playing chess at 4 when his father took him to a local chess club. By 7, he had won the Russian National Championship in the “under 8” category. By 16, Oparin earned the title of grandmaster. Today, he is ranked 55th in the world.
Grandmaster is the highest title awarded to a chess player by the FIDE, and there are four grandmasters on Mizzou’s chess team.
To learn more, please visit Show Me Mizzou.
Eric Stann is a research news strategist at the University of Missouri’s News Bureau.