Grandmaster leading the way for Mizzou’s new chess team has immediate lofty ambitions

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- When Barry Odom takes to the field, or Cuonzo Martin takes to the court at the University of Missouri, they take over teams that have been around since the late 1800s and early 1900s. This year, Mizzou will finally field a team in a sport that's been around for many centuries before

"There is this resurgence and also they see these extremely young talented players.... being able to make a career out of playing chess," Cristian Chirila said.

Chirila is a grandmaster who's taking over as head coach of the competitive chess team at Mizzou.

"Initially because I was living in California .. I thought about Stanford, but I pitched the idea to some friends and they mentioned why not Mizzou?" Chirila said.

The Tigers are one of six teams nationwide to offer scholarships for a competitive chess program, and he's near fertile recruiting ground as chess has seen a renaissance in the state of Missouri.

For Chirila, chess ran in the family. He started at 5-and-half years old. He rose quickly to grandmaster, and explained the title: "It's like a black belt in karate."

And it's determined by multiple factors: quality of opponent, win percentage, you know, like getting in the College Football Playoff or NCAA Tournament.

But this dream of coaching started when Chirila moved to Missouri about a decade ago. The 28-year-old was determined to start a program, he got his wish, but now, the real coaching challenge begins. Just like Odom, he has to recruit hard, but without the in-person visits.

"There's a very small pond of grandmasters, international masters, players of the caliber that I'm looking at... in the world," he explained.

There isn't a season, but there's a lot of practice.

"Doing puzzles, training your tactical ability and playing training games."

All of it leads up to the final tournament, and just like Martin strives to do with the Tigers on the court, the end goal is to reach the Final Four Tournament. You may think that Mizzou might take its lumps, but Coach Chirila's expectations are high.

"I'm definitely looking to win some championships, maybe from year one. We're trying to be as competitive as possible. I think in five years you'll be able to call Mizzou one of the powerhouses in chess," he said.

Confidence like that may be enough to reserve a spot for a national championship banner.

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