When Edgemont Junior-Senior high schooler William Graif was 6 years old, he was beating his father blindfolded at chess.
Or pretty close.
Graif would turn away and call out his moves to his father, recalling the board’s coordinates from memory.
By 8, he’d been ranked the No. 1 chess player for his age in New York State and one of the top five 8-year-old players nationwide.
As a blooming middle schooler, he created Edgemont’s official chess club and began coaching students to compete in tournaments. Two years later, the team claimed first place in the ninth-grade section of the National Scholastic K to 12 Chess Championships.
The win was “very surprising,” Graif said, “for us and the whole chess community, because Dalton [High School] and Stuyvesant [High School] win in our grade every year, of course. I mean, they win in every grade every year.”
While Graif said the Edgemont team respects and admires those schools, he admitted he believes their streak is partly due to the outpouring of resources into their chess programs.
“It’s a required course in the core curriculum and they have grandmaster coaches,” Graif said. Meanwhile, prior to his freshman year, “we didn’t even have a club.”
Today, the Edgemont team still struggles to pay for its expenses, relying on PTSA grants, the student activities fund and bake sales and paying the rest out of pocket.
Seniors Graif, club treasurer Zachary James, 18, and Yura Lemin, 17, navigate a lot of red tape in order to get school funding, Graif said. “There have been so many budget drafts, meetings with the principal, meetings with the budget director, meetings with the assistant principal, who manages the student activities fund.”
Next month, Graif will petition the board of education for more money.
So, “there’s no reason why a random school like Edgemont that just never had any of that, not even a chess club, should compete with them at all,” Graif said.
Expect they did, and they won.
Now, Graif, a senior, has helped lead the team to its second straight victory in the New York State High School Chess Championships. Individually, Max Li placed third and Graif placed fifth in the championship section, Aaron Kuo placed sixth in the reserve section and Zachary Thayer won first among players rated under 1000.
In chess, ratings estimate players’ skill levels; unrated players are those that have not competed in an official, rated tournament.
Graif has achieved national master status with a United States Chess Federation rating of 2310, but has yet to taste the title of grandmaster.
A grandmaster is an international title awarded to players by The Fédération Internationale des Échecsa, most of whom have a rating of 2500 or more.
The reigning world champion, Magnus Carlsen, has a rating of 2843.
Thayer, a sophomore at Edgemont HS, has a rating of 1150.
“That was pretty fun … momentous, surprising,” he said of his win.
But Thayer is determined to keep his focus on enjoying the game.
“I’ve seen at these big tournaments kids coming out in tears upset. And it’s like, you’re going to this to have fun,” he said.
For Thayer, 15, that’s never hard.
“It’s almost like a video game. You’ve got your team. Each piece does its own special thing. You’ve got to take out the enemy team and figure out tactics … plan ahead. There’s just something about it that’s fun while intellectual,” he said.
Graif agreed there is so much to love about the game.
“There’s an aesthetic, artistic value in that it’s beautiful,” he said. “Some games are absolutely incredible.”
Plus, “there’s so much application beyond the edges of the board,” he said, “even just the principles of competition and sportsmanship. Like, you’ll never meet someone in the chess world who’s not a nice person. That just doesn’t happen, because there’s so much respect.”
Still, the atmosphere in a rated tournament is intense, Thayer said.
“Everything is completely quiet,” he said. “You can bring food in there and eat, but if you bring something really crinkly and loud, you’ll get glared at by everyone and shushed.”
Competitors are each given 90 minutes with a five-second delay in the winter national competitions, two hours each in the spring. Players are required to transcribe their moves after each play for accountability purposes, and the games are refereed by tournament directors who often monitor multiple games at once.
Edgemont Chess Club now has roughly two dozen members of varying skill levels — some who compete, some who play for fun, which is “a much better purpose,” Graif said. “National championships are, of course, great, but they only impact the three people on the winning team. It’s how much can we make an impact on us [as] people, if that’s what our call is? That’s what the club has done.”
Miriam Kim, a seventh-grader at Edgemont, said a little healthy competition is good.
Kim, 13, has been playing for about five years, and is the only girl on the Edgemont team.
“From the beginning, I liked it because … I really liked to win. I’m pretty competitive,” she said.
Kim was first introduced to the game at camp, and has since spent many an hour battling her father and sisters, ages 15 and 8.
“It’s not really a game you rely on luck for,” Kim said. “You go off your own skills … You could be playing someone way older than you or way younger, and it’s not affected by anything but the way you play.”
Kim said she thinks part of the reason more girls don’t dabble in chess is gender norms.
“Growing up, parents … raise you to take part in different interests depending on whether you’re a boy or a girl,” she said. “I don’t know if parents realize they do this or not, but I feel like boys get raised to become more competitive than girls, and chess is a game where competitiveness is very important.”
Lucky for Kim, she doesn’t struggle on that front.
Her current rating is 224, and she plans to continue competing in tournaments to earn a higher rating.
“I want to learn as much as I can as fast as I can,” she said.