Check mates

East chess team captains reflect on victory as seniors

Special to The Sun
Cherry Hill East’s varsity chess team finished with a season record of 9-0, with 43 wins and two losses in individual games.

For the first time in four years, Cherry Hill East’s varsity chess team recently brought home trophies for winning the South Jersey Chess League Championship and taking first place in the league for this season.

The team is led by senior co-captains Eitan Koppelman and Jake Unterlack, coaching players Braden Lipman, Darsh Parmar and Soryu Vetrini. The junior varsity team includes Daridh Mao, Seth Bernstein, Jacob Yehuda, Liam Shilliday and Matthew Horowitz.

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“(Chess) is a game, sometimes (considered) a sport, in which you have two players who are trying to checkmate the king,” Unterlack explained, “which is just making sure the king has no legal moves left and is in check. (That) means that one of your pieces is threatening to capture the king.”

When Koppelman and Unterlack started playing chess during COVID, they were admittedly “not good,” with an Elo (chess rating) score of around 600, estimated at around the 40th percentile, according to Unterlack. Today, they play within the top 1 percentile and their team saw victory in both the league championship and the year-end South Jersey Tournament Championship.

All told, the team finished 9-0 during their season, with 43 wins and two losses in individual games.

“These two captains have been pretty special this year,” said Greg Rouen, the team’s coach. “They work really hard. Not only do they just help the other members, but they monitor other team members’ games and they analyze their games and they talk about their games after the matches, so they can prepare better for the next ones.”

Upon becoming co-captains in their junior year, Koppelman and Unterlack knew they had the opportunity to make a difference, and decided to challenge the team by requiring them to notate their games. That means recording every move they and their opponents make, and the co-captains then run the sheets through a computer that recreates the game.

“We can see where our mistakes went wrong, who played well, who didn’t play well and the next time we have a meeting as a team, we put the games on a smart board and we showcase everyone’s games so we can all learn from each other … and laugh sometimes when anyone makes a bad move,” Koppelman noted.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he added, “because it’s almost like you’re reliving the game that you played, and it’s fun because not only do we learn as a group, but we can also learn from the engine. So it’s something that I’m very happy that Cherry Hill East does, because no other schools do that.”

As the season drew to a close, Koppelman and Unterlack made another decision that impacted the team: They decided to make up a game against Moorestown.

Due to snow days and game cancellations, it had been unclear who would get first place for the season, and the winner was going to be decided at the year-end tournament, similar to the playoffs in football.

It was a risky decision, because as their club advisor Rouen explained, in order to get undisputed first place, the team not only had to beat Moorestown, but they needed a perfect 5-0.

“There didn’t seem to be that much to gain, but they did it anyway,” Rouen stated. “They won 5-0; all the games were dramatic. The games were quite exciting, and it was the end of that day, before the tournament had started, that they knew they had secured first place for the season.”

Special to The Sun
Chess team co-captains Jake Unterlack (left) and Eitan Koppelman at the South Jersey Chess League Championship in February. Their team also took first place in the league this year.

In the past four years, Unterlack and Koppelman have grown their skills as both chess players and leaders. Koppelman said the game has taught him patience and self-accountability. Unterlack acknowledged it has taught him to think with a plan.

“Chess is a way of thinking,” he observed. “It’s a way of responding to people’s moves. It’s also a way (to) deal with pressure, especially under time. You don’t want to let your team down, and there’s a lot riding on it, but you know that you can make the right move, so it’s a lot of thinking and a lot of mental capacity.

“But I think it’s really taught me how to push myself mentally to keep going.”

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