When Brian Wolfson and Connor Dong started learning chess in kindergarten, they had no idea it would become such an integral part of their lives. The boys were fortunate enough to find themselves in a chess class taught by Sunil Weeramantry, the NSCF’s Executive Director, and the driving force behind the chess curriculum at the Hunter College Campus Schools for more than 40 years. Even at Hunter, chess has had its ups and downs over the years. But in that “class of 2023,” Sunil made chess come alive, and he kicked off a revival in the chess program that has followed these kids from kindergarten to current day, when they are all finishing up 11th grade.
Brian and Connor are part of a group of 5 boys who attended every Nationals together (pandemic notwithstanding), twice a year, since 1st grade, when they won the K-1 National Championship. Along with Marcus Mellody, Bradley Rodriguez, and Dylan Slowik, over the years, the team has had four 1st place finishes, and an additional seven top three finishes. The boys have always done well as a team and have had individual successes as well. In 2013, as a third grader, Connor was co-champion (3rd on tie-breaks) at grade Nationals with the team coming in 1st place. At the last grade Nationals before the pandemic, in December 2019, Brian had a personal best when he tied for 10th place individually and led the team to a 1st place National championship finish.
Storms prevented 3 of the players (Marcus, Bradley, and Dylan) from making it to Memphis for 2022 High School Nationals, but they were cheering from afar. Brian and Connor did make it and spoke about some of the lessons they’ve learned from chess that are beyond the 64 squares on the board.
In addition to his chess aptitude, Connor is a talented baseball player. He commented that, as a pitcher, having a strategy against a batter can often simulate a chess match. “Chess has enabled me to gameplan and think ahead while throwing to each hitter I face as a pitcher,” he said. “For example, I’ve learned how to plan out and utilize my 5 pitches to keep the batters off-balance and guessing, which allows me to out match them more often.”
Connor says one of the strategic benefits of the game is being able to see the big picture, be it while playing chess or in life generally. “One important lesson I’ve learned in chess that will always stay with me is that you should never be afraid to fail. I think learning to lose and learning from mistakes is what makes you a better player, and that can 100% translate to our everyday lives. Learning and moving on from failure is what propels us and allows us to be the best versions of ourselves.”
Brian continued the theme that chess teaches resilience and noted that being able to come back from a blunder, even at a National tournament, is critical to success. “When there are seven matches over the course of a weekend and you maybe only have 45 minutes to get over a loss, eat something and get your head in the game for the next match, that’s a skill. You have to put any mistakes behind you; you can’t let one bad game derail you for the entire weekend.”
Both boys expressed the many other benefits they’ve gotten from studying and competing, such as learning to adapt, forward thinking, the idea that actions have consequences, sportsmanship, and so much more. Both Brian and Connor said they were grateful to have the opportunity to begin grasping these concepts so early in life. They also mentioned the friendships developed within the team, and even with players across the board.
Of course, the chess and life lessons will continue for all 5 players. In the Fall, with Sunil’s supervision, Brian and Dylan will be volunteering with a NSCF program at Avenues for Justice, an organization that works with the courts to help teens stay out of prison through counselling, academic support, mentoring, and introducing positive role models. The boys will be teaching chess at the Harlem-based program. And storm or no storm, the entire team is looking forward to competing at the Grade Nationals in December and their final Springs Nationals as a group, hopefully adding another title or two.
Update: The boys did indeed come together for one final tournament in their senior year. US Chess had a nice section in their closing article about the 2023 championships: Sunil’s Prodigal Seniors of Hunter College Campus….(just scroll down past the game recaps).