Chess team members with their award from Evanston Team Tournament.

Elijah Platnick began playing chess in second grade, and, “ever since then,” Platnick says, “I’ve been playing pretty consistently.”

Now a senior at Evanston Township High School, Platnick is the “#1 board,” the top player on the ETHS chess team, which just won the South Division of the North Suburban Chess league tournament. This Saturday is the next step to state, the conference tourney.

The state championship event is Feb. 10-11.

As for “state,” Platnick and his teammates took third place last year. Now, they’re hoping to come home from Peoria (yes, chess “plays in Peoria,” where the championships are held) as the best high school chess team in Illinois.

“State is a massive tournament,” says Luca Zerega, another ETHS chess team member and fellow senior.

“128 teams, seven rounds.”

And, he notes, “one winner.”

Keith Holzmueller is the team’s coach.

Holzmueller says that, like Elijah and Luca, most team members have been playing chess since they were little kids.

“There’s real team spirit and friendship,” the coach observers about his squad.

Chess, he says, is both “competition and thinking” at the same time.

The tournament scoring system is complex,to the point that Holzmueller says “somebody with math background must have made it up.”

But the short version is that one team’s #1 board plays, the other team’s #1; #2 plays #2, and down to #8 vs #8, with points added up to determine the winners.

Each single game can take about two hours, and with the event stretching over two days, Luca says “it’s pretty tiring.”

“Individual games are intense,” Luca adds.

“We want to be as good as we can be to give ourselves a chance of winning state.”

While chess requires intense concentration, #1 board Elijah Platnick says it’s also “very calming,” because long chess games are basically silent.

“Playing chess makes me a more focused person,” he says.

Elijah started playing chess while living in France. His mom, a professor, was on sabbatical.

“I didn’t speak any French,” Elijah explains. But he went to a park that had a lot of chess boards set up.

He was a natural, and was recommended to join a chess club.

“It was a good way to make friends, learn chess,” and, yes, also “learn French.”

Last year, Elijah even beat a grandmaster in a match. Grandmaster is the highest ranking a chess player can earn, with a numerical rating of 2,500.

Elijah is at 2,100.

So, does he want to keep playing and become a grandmaster himself?

“It’s a long-term possibility,” he says. “In 10 years, possibly”

But right now, bringing home the state championship trophy to ETHS is a higher priority.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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