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Illini in Final Four ... of Chess, Thanks to Whitney Young Grad

CHICAGO — While a good portion of the country was watching Sunday's Michigan-Florida Elite Eight NCAA basketball matchup, Michael Auger was viewing the World Chess Championship on his computer.

"What can I say? I'm hooked on the sport," Auger said.

The former Jefferson Park resident and Whitney Young Magnet High School graduate is living a Cinderella story of sorts as a member of the University of Illinois Chess Club Team, which will play in the Final Four of collegiate chess on Saturday and Sunday in Rockville, Md.

Auger and the Illini were a No. 14 seed, but they tied for first at the Pan-American Intercollegiate Championship in late December. The victory advanced Illinois to this week's championship, where they will face the University of Texas-Dallas, Webster University in St. Louis and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

"We are a huge underdog," Auger, 19, said of his team, which, unlike the competition, does not have a coach or scholarship players. "I'm sure no one else is even considering us."

It's not that Auger and his teammates are slouches.

Auger, a sophomore and the No. 2 player on the squad, has been playing since he was 4, when he saw a chess board sitting in his parents' closet.

He's been dedicated to the sport since. After classes at Farnsworth Elementary School, Auger said he would come home and play chess for four to five hours a day. By age 10, Auger was defeating his father, Kevin, a former Olympic swimmer for Canada and a novice chess player, every time.

"He has the same discipline that any athlete applies to athletics," said Kevin Auger, the longtime swim coach at Evanston Twp. High School. "As they say, you have to put in 10,000 hours to be good in anything. He's probably put in triple than that."

Auger's high school coach, Paul Kash, said in four years of squaring off, he beat Auger "once or twice." Kash said Auger has been successful because he can walk up to a board and immediately recognize the proper moves.

Kash said Auger was Whitney Young's best player but also clearly the team's leader. Auger said during breaks in class, he would walk the halls to ensure teammates would show up to practice.

"If I had a team, I would always choose him first because of the kind of person and player he was," said Kash, a St. Ignatius College Prep and U of I graduate who lives in Archer Heights.

Auger's leadership has continued in Champaign-Urbana, where he is considering majoring in math and computer science.

Illinois' top player, freshman Eric Rosen, said the club likely wouldn't have even participated in the Pan-American tournament if not for Auger. Rosen, who also is Auger's roommate and a friend since they met as children at a chess tournament at the Latin School of Chicago, said he has boosted the club's numbers tenfold.

"He's done a lot of great things in terms of bringing a lot of great chess players into our club," said Rosen, a Niles North graduate, who joins freshman Aakaash Meduri and sophomore Xin (Leo) Luo on the Final Four team.

Auger said despite the Illini's underdog status this week, they're playing to win.

Illinois topped Princeton and Cornell at the Pan-Ams, and Auger is not ruling out more upsets.

"I'm hoping we're going to do something great," he said.

Update: Illinois finished fourth at the round-robin tournament with 2.5 points. Webster won the national championship with 9.5 points, UT-Dallas had 7, while UMBC had 5.