Chess champs take state
Big schools fall to Waupaca
Waupaca is the smallest school in Wisconsin history to win the Division 1 state chess championships.
On the weekend of March 19-20 at the Reeves Memorial Union at UW-Oshkosh, they beat out much larger schools from the Milwaukee and Madison areas to win the 2022 State Scholastic Championships.
Waupaca is also the northernmost school to take home the trophy. The southern area of the state – with bigger cities, schools and populations – have dominated the championship for years. On the trophy their names are engraved again and again. But not this year.
The southern dominance of the high school state chess championship has been disrupted and it may be upset again as this team has no seniors: only two junior and three freshmen. All of the state-champ players will be back to the board next year.
Their success is a year ahead of schedule. Coach Bryan Fay devised a five-year plan to transform the Comets into a state-level contender. They took the D-1 state championship in year four.
There were two moments where the championship hung in the balance. In the third round the Comets needed a win or a draw to advance. Miles Wenberg played for the draw.
“I was thinking through my moves. Making sure I didn’t miss anything and trying to lock it up and making sure he couldn’t do anything to win,” said Wenburg.
“He was in a tough position where a lot could have went wrong and he stayed cool and pulled out the draw and kept us going,” said Fay.
“Miles knew that. He was just trying to lock up the game so it’s impossible to break through and it’s a forced draw and that’s what he did and it was really impressive,” said teammate Logan Janssen.
“That’s one thing that sets us apart from some of the schools that we play, is that these guys know it’s a team. They don’t necessarily care about how they do because I’ve seen players from schools where they could have been in Miles’ position but maybe had a knight or something extra and thought, ‘Well, I’m going to win this game,’ and then they blunder and they lose and then the team loses everything. These guys know if the draw wins us the match, they will take the draw because they want the team to win,” said Fay.
In the fourth round, Logan Janssen was up against an 1800-rated player. High school-level chess uses a rating system, much like the global rankings of chess players. Strong high school players are in the 1800 to 2000 range.
By comparison, an elite grandmaster is in the 2500–2700 range whereas a novice is below 1200.
“I thought it was going to be a draw. It was a knight fork [a move attacking two pieces simultaneously]. I forked one of his pieces with his king. I took a free piece and it was easy from there. I had about 15 seconds left. It was a forced win. He couldn’t do anything to stop it,” said Janssen.
“He was down to his last little bit but he pulled it out and upset an 1800 [rated player],” said Fay.
Building a chess program
The Comets won the tournament 5-0 out of 20 other schools competing at the varsity level.
The chess team was started in 2000 and Fay was once like the students he now coaches. His is a 2008 Waupaca graduate and played for four years on the varsity team.
“When I started doing this four years ago, we had nine kids in the whole program and now we are over 60. We had 25 high schoolers playing this year and we have another 40 at the middle school. That’s our middle school coach, Mrs. Jungers – she’s just done fantastic recruiting these kids and getting them coming up through the system,” said Fay.
“The community is fantastic for this, too. They run a program at the Rec [center] for first through fourth graders and summer school does second through eighth graders. There are some really dedicated people around here and that is what has led to this,” he said.
Fay pointed to the trophy: “This was our goal for next year and we got it a year early.”
The Waupaca chess team has won four Division 3 state titles in school history but the Division 1 title puts the school on the state map.
“We’re only getting stronger from here,” said teammate Ross Hanson.
This week 17 Waupaca students will be competing in the three-day National High School Chess Championship in Memphis, Tenn.