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When 17-year-old Griffin McConnell was named national chess champion in March, it was a huge achievement – especially as he had earned the prestigious title after undergoing his fourth brain surgery just a year earlier.
Griffin, a high school senior, learned to play chess at age 4. Around this time he developed epilepsy and had seizures.
He underwent three surgeries to control these seizures, including a third surgery to separate the left side of his brain.
“He had to learn to speak from scratch,” Griffin’s father, Kevin McConnell of Golden, Colorado, told Fox News Digital.
“It’s been a long, long recovery,” he added. “After we left the hospital, he spent another two years in a wheelchair and a lot of occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy.”
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Griffin McConnell’s latest surgery resulted in the teenager having to relearn almost everything, including how to play chess – something he was dying to achieve.
“I feel like chess was kind of a part of me,” he told Fox News Digital.
Health hurdles for Griffin
Kevin McConnell said that when he was 13, Griffin experienced episodes of hearing his own heart beating before he developed “a terrible headache.” The doctors then confirmed that the seizures had returned.
After trying several medications with no results, Griffin McConnell was left with only a hemispherotomy to remove part of his brain in hopes of controlling his epileptic seizures, according to the Stanford Children’s Health website.
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“We left that decision entirely up to Griffin because he was 16 at the time and he knew what it all meant after going through it seven or eight years ago,” said Kevin McConnell of him and his wife, Kori McConnell. “And he chose to continue with that.”
The love of a legendary game
Throughout his health journey, Griffin McConnell continued to play chess. Even after his surgery in 2013, which his father said made him a “completely different” person, Griffin’s love of the game didn’t change.
“He was paralyzed on his right side, but he could still move his left side,” explained Kevin McConnell. “We played chess for a week ten days after his brain surgery.”
By the time he was discharged from the hospital, Griffin McConnell was back in chess tournaments – enjoying the “unknown in every game”.
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“When I first learned chess, it was so fascinating because the game is so complicated,” he said. “Every train always has something different.”
“As you get deeper and deeper into the game, there are millions and millions of other things that people can do,” he added.
At age 13, Griffin McConnell became a Chess Expert—a title he earned with a US Chess Federation (USCF) rating of 2,000 or higher.
A chess player‘s rating and title are determined by his performance during USCF tournaments.
“Chess was kind of a part of me.”
After Griffin earned the title of Chess Expert, his performance seemed to stagnate.
“He was just stuck there,” said Kevin McConnell. “He would climb and descend and climb and descend.”
“Every other month we’re at an out-of-state tournament in a different state,” added Kevin. “And he just wasn’t, he wasn’t getting any better.”
Griffin McConnell believes the small seizures he had at age 13 were one reason he struggled to improve his chess rating.
“It’s hard to explain, but I think that’s the main reason why I think I wasn’t getting better,” he noted. “We just didn’t know that yet.”
A “lifetime dream” fulfilled
Griffin McConnell chose to undergo his fourth brain surgery in February 2021. After completing the engagement, his chess performance improved.
“I just kept getting better,” Griffin said. “I don’t know what happened… but something clicked.”
Kevin McConnell explained that the teenager started playing chess again after Griffin’s fourth brain surgery, although doctors told him it would take up to six months for Griffin to return to normal.
“Griffin started playing chess right away and he was still floating in that expert class,” said Kevin McConnell. “But since October of last year he’s been on this insane run there, where he’s been getting positive results in every tournament he’s been in.”
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In March of this year, Griffin McConnell received the title of National Champion, meaning he has a rating of 2,200 or higher.
“I want to see how far I can really go.”
“Griffin went from expert to national champion in about four and a half months,” said Kevin McConnell, pointing to the time between Griffin when he began moving up his rankings in October 2021 until he received the national champion title.
“For anyone to go from expert to master in four and a half months is unheard of,” added Kevin. “It’s certainly unheard of for someone with a massive brain injury and four brain surgeries.”
After Griffin finally earned the title, Kevin McConnell said it was a “huge relief.”
Griffin McConnell said it was “really tough” to have the same rating for five years.
“It’s hard because you see other people getting better, but you don’t get better at all,” Griffin said, adding that becoming a national champion is his “lifelong dream.”
“Going from expert to master in four and a half months is unheard of for anyone… It’s certainly unheard of for someone with a massive brain injury and four brain surgeries.”
Now that he has achieved his goal, Griffin McConnell is now aiming for higher titles.
The next step would be FIDE Master, which requires a minimum rating of 2,300 at the International Chess Federation – known as FIDE for its French acronym – followed by International Master and finally the highest title of Grandmaster.
“I want to see how far I can really go,” said Griffin McConnell.
However, he doesn’t want to put himself under too much pressure.
“If I do better and if I become FIDE Master or even International Master, great,” he added. “But if not, that’s still fine.”
“The Great Compensation”
Last year, Griffin McConnell and his father decided to start a non-profit organization to give people with disabilities – especially children – more opportunities to play chess.
ChessAbilities Inc. is hosting its first annual tournament in Denver June 21-26.
Kevin McConnell said that one of ChessAbilities’ main goals is to encourage children with disabilities to learn and love the game of chess.
“Griffin has categorically proven that no matter what type of disability you have, chess is the great balance for you and other kids who are neurotypical or physically typical,” he explained.
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Kevin McConnell said Griffin’s receipt of the national championship was a relief for the whole family — especially Griffin’s brother Sullivan, 15, who was named national champion in 2019.
“Sullivan is Griffin’s biggest fan,” Kevin said. “And he wanted to see him make him a national champion, honestly I think as much or more than I do or Griffin.”
Griffin McConnell has been completely seizure free since March 2021.