MU Chess Team builds on success, prepares for President's Cup

Julia Williams and Gabriela Aros, photo by Molly Miller
MU Chess team photo

When Christian Chirila was just 5 years old and living in Romania, he was asked by his family to choose between kindergarten and chess.

He had no way of knowing that his choice at such a young age would eventually lead to him founding a nationally-ranked collegiate chess team in the United States decades later.

Chirila is now coach of the MU Chess Team, which was formed only three years ago in a partnership with St. Louis Chess Club. The team has quickly become known for its globally-ranked players and is preparing to compete with four other top colleges in the prestigious President’s Cup.

Chirila, whose father was a chess coach — which helped him achieve a grandmaster title at age 18 — came to the United States in 2010 and graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2014. He said starting a chess program in the U.S. was always in the back of his mind.

Chirila, like many wanting to pursue a chess career, was drawn to St. Louis, home of St. Louis Chess Club. St. Louis is widely considered a chess capital in the U.S. and arguably the world, Chirila said.

“When I came up, I pitched the idea of potentially starting a chess program at Mizzou, and they liked it,” Chirila said. “So that’s how it came to be.”

In February 2019, Chirila received the green light to start recruitment at MU,, with the difficult task of persuading esteemed chess players from across the globe to take a chance on the new program.

MU’s proximity to St. Louis

It was St. Louis’ reputation and a Facebook message that brought the first four players to the team in August 2019.

Team captain Grigory Oparin was born in Germany but in 2019 moved to the U.S. from Moscow, where he had completed his undergraduate degree at Russian State University for the Humanities.

While he grappled with choosing from among several Division 1 college offers, MU won him over with its distinguished academia and its proximity to St. Louis, he said. MU is about 120 miles west of St. Louis.

Oparin is in graduate school, set to complete his second master’s degree in 2024. Oparin is ranked 11th in the country by the International Chess Federation and 72nd in the world.

Coaches, teammates connect

MU senior Christopher Repka was recruited in a similar fashion, quickly finding a community to grow his skill and build strong connections with others.

“We’re probably closer than other teams,” Repka said. “When I was really sick during the tournament, (Chirila) brought me breakfast, and that meant a lot to me … I tried to play well.”

Repka grew up in Slovakia and, like Chirila, had a strong parental chess influence. He said he’s played as long as he can remember, but it wasn’t always his passion.

After losing a few matches early on in his career, Repka found himself disheartened, quitting the game for a period of time. Placing third in his first championship under 10 gave him his boost back into the chess world, with the appetite to return next time as a champion.

“Chris is a very important player for our team,” Chirila said. “He actually was the MVP during our last Pan Ams.”

Both Repka and Oparin are vital members of the team, each holding grandmaster titles. To become a grandmaster, a player must first have a high world ranking earned by winning matches against other players. From there, the player must complete three norms, each norm being an exceptional performance at an international tournament.

Once a grandmaster title is earned, it is held for life.

“Basically it is like achieving a black belt; nobody takes it away from you,” Chirila said. “... Even if you are 90 years old and you cannot move anymore.”

MU’s chess team consists of 10 members, four of which helped build the team from the ground up.

“They understood that they have a trailblazing role to play for this program,” Chirila said. “Knowing that they are here and they come with certain values and represent the school and its values to competition is extremely, extremely important for us.”

Having four original members has created a culture of camaradarie both in and outside of the practice room.

“We play sports together, we occasionally go have a dinner together, we see each other all the time,” Repka said. The team will often hang out in Respect Hall where they practice or do homework.

“The chairs are nice,” Repka said.

Chess practice, superstitions

Practice, however, is the main event bringing them together. The team meets twice a week to solve problems, play different positions, do research and hone their overall skills for competition.

They also play matches against each other. Team members are matched up loosely based on their ratings and competition results, similar to how competitions are held.
The team competes in both individual and team events, upholding certain rituals for every competition.

While Repka always uses the same restroom on tournament days, Oparin takes a different approach.

“If everything goes my way, I might wear the same shirt,” Oparin said. “I try to follow the same routine. If I lose the first day, I try to change things up.”

President’s Cup

This spring, MU has qualified for the President’s Cup, an annual championship battle of the top four teams in collegiate chess.

“It’s the first big team success. It’s huge,” Oparin said. “It’s something special.”

With multiple team members graduating in the near future, it is also the last time they will all play as a team, Repka said.

“As we start the recruitment process for the next few years to refill the roster of players, we need to attract more and more talent to Mizzou, and of course winning the President’s Cup will mean a lot,” Chirila said. “For me, and I’m sure for a lot of players on the team, it’s a personal ambition.”

This is the first time the team has qualified for the President’s Cup, and it is preparing for it twice a week.

After having to compete online when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the team had difficulty adapting to an in-person playing style.

Neither Repka, nor Oparin were fans of playing online, however, it did spark their motivation in ways they hadn’t experienced before.

“There’s always people watching online with Twitch streaming,” Repka said. “I try harder when there’s people watching.”

The President’s Cup is not the only competition MU is training for. The Collegiate Chess League , an online competition, is the biggest of its kind in collegiate chess and holds matches every Saturday until one team is crowned. This is the last week of the regular season before playoffs, and this year MU is defending its title, Chirila said.

Despite their overwhelming success, the players remain academically-driven — each adjusting to balance school and chess.

Chess and academics

Dorsa Derakhshani transferred to MU from St. Louis University and is in her first year of medical school. Similar to her teammates, Derakhshani learned chess at a young age from her mom in her home country of Iran. She has stuck with it throughout her academic career.

At SLU, she was the first and only girl her first two years on the team.

“It feels nice. I don’t have to build anything from (scratch),” Derakhshani said. “It was a lot of work. I’d prefer not to be the only girl.”

This is Derakhshani’s second time on a team that qualified for the President’s Cup.

“I think we have a good shot at winning it,” Derakhshani said.

While SLU won the President’s Cup last year, Derakhshani said she feels more comfortable at MU and prefers its chess team because of how tight-knit the members are.

In addition to having a strong connection with each other, the team also has relations with St. Louis Chess Club — an organization focused on recruiting more girls to join the chess world.

Four women are on the team of 10 this season, including Derakhshani and MU senior Nadiia Salakh.

Salakh is fairly new to the MU chess coterie, joining in 2021 after transferring from Texas Tech, where she also competed.

She began playing at 4 and got her start in a government-sponsored chess club — the only club that would take her at a young age. Salakh originally came to the U.S. from Ukraine on the promise of a strong education and the opportunity to compete in chess at the college level.

While most of the team trains outside of practice more than once a week, Salakh prioritizes her academic studies over her chess career. She hopes to become a data scientist after graduating with a degree in math and statistics in May.

For the players, chess and school connect in different ways.

“(Chess) changes the way you think critically,” Derakhshani said. “It’s not just a game; it’s a way of thinking.”

As for the future of the team, Chirila plans to focus his energy on bringing MU to the next level.

Chirila still competes in matches occasionally, and while he misses his days as a full-time player, he believes it improves his coaching expertise, which is now his overarching focus.

He hopes to establish the team as one of the best in the nation in both open competition and the women’s section.