CHICAGO — This weekend saw Sam Schmakel's last chess series as a high school student, but leading Whitney Young High School to a first place win at Saturday's state tournament isn't a bad way to go out.
Hours after arriving home from last weekend's contest, the 17-year-old described the team's win as "one last hurrah" before he goes on to college later this year. Schmakel, a Senior Master, will enter college as Illinois's top-ranked high school chess player and a five-time national champion.
His final match sealed the deal, he said, eventually leading the Young chess team to first place out of 138 schools participating in the Illinois High School Association state chess championship.
"It was intense at the end, for sure. In the last round it got down to me and one other match — we only had seconds left on the clock," he said. "We were all just really happy. We work so hard every year and state is the one we really want to win. It was great to win and win for the team."
Eileen Schmakel, Sam's mother, said her son arrived home Sunday after four days of competition at the Peoria Civic Center — glowing with pride as a member of a state championship team but also in need of a shower.
Eileen Schmaker said she's seen the positive effects of chess on students: she started a school chess team when her son was in grade school at Decatur Classical in Rogers Park. Sam has been playing chess since kindergarten.
According to Whitney Young chess coach Paul Kash, the team's win is due to that sort of dedication.
"I don’t do anything all that complicated though. The kids come in every day we play lots of games," he said. "That’s the great thing about Sam. As great a player as he is he could easily not care about this stuff, but he goes to every tournament. As the younger students progress they’ll say, 'I played that guy when I was in high school.'"
Though Kash said the team's second consecutive state championship will continue to boost Whitney Young's status as a destination for young chess players, he doesn't expect it to change matters beyond the school walls.
A proposal to create and fully fund a citywide chess program, supported by the Illinois Chess Association and advanced by four Chicago-area Grandmasters, has languished with the Mayor's Office and Chicago Public Schools.
Meanwhile, Schmakel has applied to engineering programs at Princeton, Stanford, Yale and the University of Illinois and expects to hear back from them next month. From there, he said, he'd eventually like to become a Grandmaster, the highest title a chess player can receive, of which there are currently 78.
Kash said it's well within his reach.