Chess team savors last year with four senior players as state championship nears


Brinda Ambal

Focusing in on a new strategy to beat future opponents in an upcoming tournament, chess team captain and senior Matt Boyd draws on his self-made improvements to strategically think through his moves. Earlier in his career, Boyd made moves quicker than he does now; however, he has improved as a player and realized the importance of working through the scenarios. “We have had multiple matches where I spent all of my two hours, and I’m the last one there,” Boyd said. “I’m just so involved [in the game]. I don’t think there’s any one thing that makes me concentrate more than other people, but I guess it’s just that I’m so invested in it.”

Surrounded by silence, five chess players duke it out against their rival, Ladue High School, in an intense battle on the boards. Four of the five players are seniors Matt Boyd, Jason Wan, Paul Gipkhin and Neil Tomala.

Tomala feels optimistic about earning a high placement at the Missouri State Championship Tournament, which will be held Saturday, March 28.

“I’m hoping we can win at state big time. I know we have a really strong squad this year, and we’re very balanced. We don’t have to rely too heavily on any one person to carry on the team because everybody is at a pretty strong skill level,” Tomala said. “You wait until the opponent makes a small slip up, and then it’s all a matter of how well you can capitalize on that.”

For most of the seniors on the current team, the tournament will mark the end of their chess career, and they are looking forward to ending the season with a big pin.

“I feel like there was a point in the season where they were in cruise control,” sponsor Brian Welch said. “But that game against Ladue woke up that competitive spirit. I feel like now they’re going for, ‘I put all this time in it in my entire life, so why not finish it off and go all the way?’”

Welch strives to foster the passion and competitiveness of the chess team while ensuring they remain humble about their skills.

“They get really amped up to play against teams that they know are going to be competitive with them, but, to me, that’s inherent,” Welch said. “They want to go against the best, and the main thing I try to do is make sure that they don’t go into any competition overlooking an opponent because in chess you can make mistakes just like in math you can make mistakes. You can be really good but make a minor error, and the problem is wrong. The same way with chess, a minor error in the game can cost you the game.”

You wait until the opponent makes a small slip up, and then it’s all a matter of how well you can capitalize on that.”

— Neil Tomala

Practice helps the team perfect openings and plan strategies, so they can place highly in competitions and finish their careers off strong.

“[We prepare by] practicing once or twice a day. Just like every other sport or skill, you have to practice,” Gipkhin said. “I placed highly last year, so I feel like I have to place highly again this year, or else it’ll look like I’ve hit a senior slump.”

Practice however, does not have to be serious. When playing chess, Wan enjoys it in the moment.

“Preparing with the team is the part I have the most fun with,” Wan said. “The people who we compete against [in league], we play against in weekend tournaments as well, so they’re people that we know. If our teammates have played against them before, then they can tell us information about them, and we can plan accordingly.”

Tomala uses every opportunity he gets in competition as a learning opportunity.

“I play [chess] for the competition. Playing against better people still helps you learn a lot about the game to see what sort of strategies they’re playing and how they’re able to find moves really quickly, so they can spend more time thinking on the more difficult moves,” Tomala said.

As the seniors prepare to graduate, Gipkhin finds the skills he has learned over the course of his chess career useful in taking the next steps of his life.

“Chess in general is a game of calculating and strategy. It’s made me a more decisive decision maker in being able to think ahead,” Gipkhin said. “With every college [I applied to], I’d think ‘what college will get me to where I want to be?’ My goal is to be in New York City, so when I was going through colleges, I was thinking about the end goal, and ‘what happens if I make this move now?’ or ‘where will I be later in life or a couple moves down?”