The games can last as long as four hours, and over three days come one after another, a grueling test of endurance that star player Albert Hatton — a 16-year-old sophomore at Abington Senior High School — acknowledges can be "kind of exhausting.”
But this exertion was 100 percent mental, and it was worth every minute when the Abington students returned from Illinois this week with the first-place trophy in their division at the U.S. Chess Federation’s High School Nationals — the third time the Montgomery County school has won that top honor in the last eight years.
“The SAT is nothing for these guys,” said Shawn Simmons, the Abington English teacher who coaches the team, describing the mental gyrations as the teens think many moves ahead. “They are in deep thought for extended periods of time.”
The effort at the tournament in Schaumburg was led by Yonatan Wiese-Namir, an 18-year-old senior who won seven matches during the weekend and claimed the top individual honor. The Abington teens competed in the Under 1,200 division against 392 kids from about 70 similar-size schools from across the United States. Of Abington’s 21 team members, 12 competed at nationals.
The victories continued a tradition of excellence that includes a fourth-place team finish at last year’s tournament and a second-place effort the year before that. In an era when the Friday night lights of the football field hog a lot of the glitter of high school competition, these kids win on their big stage with a unique combination of natural intelligence, keen psychological insights, and hours upon hours of practice.
“One of the things we do is actually study, like for a test,” said Brecon Hession, an 18-year-old senior and team captain, who was national individual champ in 2018.
Team members frequently practice their chess moves during lunch and sometimes during class; watch instructional videos to boost their strategic skills; and before big tournaments work with a private coach, 2008 Abington graduate Steve McLaughlin, a top player. “He could be a professional,” said Simmons.
In addition to Wiese-Namir (son of Frank Wiese, an editor at The Inquirer) and Hatton, the winning unit included sophomore Nathaniel O, 15, and sophomore Ethan Weilheimer, 16 (son of Larry Weilheimer, vice president and general counsel of Philadelphia Media Network, parent company of The Inquirer). Their combined score of 21.5 easily bested the second-place finisher, St. John Vianney High School in St. Louis.
O’s showing was especially remarkable since he was a self-described “novice” who joined the team this year. He said he “only knew how the pieces moved” before he started absorbing more complicated game strategy from his experienced teammates and Simmons, a Northeast Philadelphia native who played at his alma mater, Lincoln High School, before going to Abington to teach.
In addition to smarts, good chess players have to be able to outwit their opponents.
“They talk about the psychology of it, sitting across from someone and reading the psychology of your opponent,” Simmons said of his players.
While some top-ranked players begin playing in kindergarten, Abington has built its national dynasty with students who mostly developed their skill as high schoolers. Wiese-Namir started out “impulsive,” according to Simmons, but now can recognize patterns and can replay his 18-move winning game from memory.
Wiese-Namir said that when he was a sophomore, Simmons was his imposing English teacher who “scared me into going” to his first meeting of the chess team. “But in the end, I tried out,” he said, “and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
“It’s stressful at times,” acknowledged Hession — to which Hatton injected, “Very stressful,” although he quickly added that “it’s a ton of fun and rewarding.”
Weilheimer agreed, although for him the best part is hanging around with the team before each match.