The Julia R. Masterman School chess team found themselves in a familiar situation in Atlanta, Ga. over the weekend. The team, composed of students, Angel Hernandez-Camen, Srisa Changolkar, Shira Moolten, Torin Kuehnle and Nalin Khanna were competing in their second National Junior High chess championship in a row.
Yet while the team had won the K-8 national title last year, the pressure and the stakes were as high as ever during the competition this year, which was composed of over 1300 players from 38 states.
“This year was much harder,” said the team’s coach and former Masterman player, 35-year-old Greg Shahade. “We had two less players although all of our returning players were much better than they were last year. It came down to the wire.”
While chess has long been viewed as an individual game, winning the national championship requires a team effort.
“You play seven games in the tournament,” Shahade said. “The top four scores for your team are added up and that’s what your score is. Going to bed the night before the final rounds, we were not in the lead and it looked like there was a good chance we wouldn’t win.”
With the victory not guaranteed and facing opponents ranked higher than him, 13-year-old Srisa Changolkar came through in the clutch.
“He tied the number one ranked player in the tournament and he beat someone higher ranked than him,” Shahade said. “Once he won that game, we were pretty much guaranteed the title.”
Srisa and his teammate, Angel Hernandez-Camen, both earned scores of 5 ½ points, enough to give Masterman a narrow victory, and their second straight national championship.
“I was really happy,” Srisa said. “I mean, two years in a row!”
Srisa and Angel also ranked sixth and seventh in the individual competition. Shahade says the team’s success is a testament to their hard work.
“These kids work on chess year-round,” Shahade said. “We’ve been working every week throughout the entire year to get better at chess. It’s year-round practice and constant improvement.”
Along with his team’s hard work, Shahade also credits the efforts of Stephen Shutt, who not only helps coach the current team but also coached Shahade when he was a student and chess player at Masterman.
“Stephen Shutt has been part of the program at Masterman for decades,” Shahade said. “I won a national championship under him when I went to school there. He’s the main reason why Masterman has succeeded for so many years.”
Just like his coaches, Srisa has a tremendous passion for the game, which he says began five years ago when he started to watch his family play.
“My sister and dad were playing quite often,” he said. “I liked to watch them and my interest in the game came from there. I love the fact that it’s not one-sided, whatever happens. There’s some characteristic of luck but there’s also a lot of skill involved.”
Despite his tremendous success and expert rating, Srisa believes there are still many aspects in his game that he needs to improve.
“I plan to get better and I will try to compete for first place,” Srisa said.
It’s this drive and determination in all of his players that makes Shahade confident his team will win the national title again next year, completing the three-peat.
“We are losing one player, Shira, she’s a 9th grader,” Shahade said. “But we have everyone else coming back. We’ll have a new player and they’ll be a year stronger. Our kids work hard. I expect next year we will win.”