Hinsdale Central chess coach helps break stereotypes

With 25 to 30 players, the Hinsdale Central High School chess team is large compared to many other high school teams.

“Most schools have 12 people tops,” said Aaron Leon, who was one of the captains of this year’s state qualifying team.

The number of students on the team reflects coach Dylan Canavan’s efforts to promote chess as a game for a wide range of students and not the intellectual elite.

Or, as Leon said, Canavan eliminates the stereotype of a chess student as a person who is “socially awkward.”

Consequently, the chess club attracts students who are active in sports, such as gymnastics, running and swimming.

“One year, the captain of the chess team was the homecoming king,” Canavan said. “I thought the world was going to spin apart.”

The size of the team does not mean the majority of players are benchwarmers.

Hinsdale Central often has three teams competing at different levels at a Saturday tournament.

“Everyone gets to play,” Canavan said. “They probably play in 15 different matches over the course of the year.”

People do not have to be brilliant to be good chess players.

“There’s a lot of pattern recognition and memorization,” that players develop during practice, said Canavan, who has coached the team for the past 10 years.

“If they work hard as freshmen, by the time they are juniors they might be starting at state.”

The club meets three days a week for two hours at a time, plus participates in Saturday matches from the start of the school year until the end of February.

“What we lack in raw talent, we make up for that with hard work,” Leon said.

Canavan, a science teacher, was named Chess Coach of the Year by the Illinois Chess Coaches Association, which makes the selection from candidates nominated by students, parents and other coaches.

“He has taught us not only chess lessons, but life lessons,” wrote the student who anonymously nominated Canavan. “Above all, he shows us how the skills you learn from chess — decision-making, patience — can be applied to our everyday lives.”

Canavan said what he likes most about chess is there is no luck.

“Whatever happens is a consequence of your actions,” he said.

In other games, a player may lose because the ball takes a funny bounce or a referee misses a call.

But in chess, “there’s never any confusion over who is responsible. Your moves are your moves,” Canavan said.

That is one of the challenges of coaching chess. During a competition, he is not allowed to talk to his players.

“If they lose a piece in chess, they have to clear that from their mind and get back to work,” Canavan said.

While it’s frustrating not to have that same option in a chess match, it also teaches the student, “one of the most important life skills,” Canavan said. “They alone are responsible for what happens to them.”

Derek Tu of Hinsdale, a co-captain who graduated last week, said he enjoys the “intense, intellectual battles,” and when he wins, he knows, “I did it. You own your success. And you own your failures, and as a result you grow tremendously.”

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