At a Whitney Young Magnet High School pep rally today, the school band, cheerleaders and dance team pumped up the crowd, and the young men being honored raised their arms to gesture for more noise.
It was not your usual chess team event.
But after the Whitney Young team won the Illinois High School Association state championship this past weekend in Peoria, the academic powerhouse was ready to celebrate.
The Chicago school beat Stevenson, New Trier and Hinsdale Central High Schools, which took 2nd, 3rd and 4th place, respectively.
At the pep rally, Whitney Young’s chess team — 14 young men, ranging from a freshman to seniors — wore the school’s bright orange and stood proud and confident in front of their peers, receiving praise from their coaches and school administrators.
Junior Sam Schmakel, a four-time national champion and highest-rated player in the state of Illinois, is Whitney Young’s star player and sat at table 1 in the tournament — the most competitive position.
Schmakel, who has been dubbed a “chess prodigy” by chess blogs, gave a humble wave to the crowd as his name was called. He and junior teammate Phuc Hoang presented the first-place trophy to Whitney Young’s principal Joyce Kenner, and were followed by cheers and applause from classmates.
Schmakel, who will lead the team in April as they head to the national tournament in Nashville, said his love of the game developed before he attended 1st grade. He won his first national title in 2nd grade, he said.
“As a kid, I liked that I could beat adults at chess,” he said.
Chess team head coach Paul Kash said Whitney Young came into the tournament as the favorites after winning the state championship in 2011 and coming in 2nd place in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Kash said his coaching skills might be looser than others — he doesn’t spend too much time on strategy.
“We play almost every day of the year — and have fun,” Kash said. “It’s my belief that the more they play each other, the better they’ll get.”
Eight members of the chess team competed for the state title, including Schmakel, Charles Swan, Jimi Akintonde, Mark Waechter, Phillip Parker-Turner, Oliver Natarajan, Adrian Mui and Ga Luang Liu.
Teammates Hoang, Steven Horvath, Caelan Burke Kaiser, Christopher Rupprecht, Bob Tichy and Jinghui Xiong served as alternates.
Parker-Turner, who was the only freshman to compete on the state championship team, said he essentially chose to attend Whitney Young, a selective enrollment school, for its chess program.
“I’ve been playing chess since I was 5 years old and coming to (Whitney Young) for tournaments and helping with chess camp since I was in 4th grade,” Parker-Turner said.
After the assembly, the team laughed as a group when asked how often they play chess. It was unanimous: every day.
But the teammates, most of whom are close friends, enjoy other activities together, Schmakel said. They sometimes grab food after school or just hang out, he said.
“We always go over to Mark’s house,” Schmakel said.Copyright © 2015, RedEye