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When 17-year-old Griffin McConnell was named national chess master in March, it was a major achievement – especially since he earned the prestigious title after undergoing his fourth brain surgery just one year earlier.
Griffin, a high school senior, first learned to play chess when he was 4 years old. Around that time, he developed epilepsy and began having seizures.
He underwent three surgeries to help control those seizures, including a third procedure that disconnected the left side of his brain.
“He had to learn how to talk from scratch,” Griffin’s dad, Kevin McConnell of Golden, Colorado, told Fox News Digital.” He had to learn how to walk, how to write… He went from right-handed to left-handed.”
Griffin McConnell (left),17, became a national master in March, just one year after undergoing his fourth brain surgery. Griffin is pictured with Raphael Zimmer, of Germany, during a FIDE World Junior Chess Championship for the Disabled. Zimmer won the championship in 2017. (Kori McConnell)
“It was a long, long recovery,” he added. “After we got out of the hospital, it was another two years of him in a wheelchair and lots of occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy.”
Griffin McConnell’s final surgery caused the teen to have to re-learn nearly everything, including how to play chess – something he was adamant about accomplishing.
“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 Griffin was 13, he started experiencing episodes where he could hear his own heart beating before getting “a horrible headache.” Doctors then confirmed the seizures had returned.
When he was 7 and 8 years old, Griffin underwent three surgeries to help control the seizures, including a procedure – called a left functional hemispherectomy– that disconnected the left side of Griffin’s brain. Griffin is pictured in April 2012. (Kori McConnell)
After trying several medications with no results, the only option left for Griffin McConnell was a hemispherotomy to remove part of his brain in hopes to control his epileptic seizures, according to Stanford Children’s Health’s website.
“We let that decision be Griffin’s entirely because he was 16 at the time and knew what all this meant, having gone through it seven or eight years ago,” Kevin McConnell said of he and his wife, Kori McConnell. “And he elected to move forward with it.”
The love for a legendary game
Throughout his health journey, Griffin McConnell continued to play chess. Even after his procedure in 2013, which, according to his father, made him a “totally different” person, Griffin’s love for the game didn’t change.
“He was paralyzed on the right side, but he could still move his left side,” Kevin McConnell explained. “We were playing games of chess a week, 10 days after his brain surgery.”
Throughout his health journey, Griffin has continued to love chess. Even after his procedure in 2013, Griffin’s love for the game didn’t change. Griffin is pictured at a tournament in 2014. (Kori McConnell)
When he was released from the hospital, Griffin McConnell went back to entering chess tournaments – enjoying the “unknown in every game.”
“When I first learned to play chess, it was so fascinating because of how complicated the game is,” he said. “Every move always has something different.”
“When you get deeper and deeper in the game, there’s millions and millions of other things that people can do,” he added.
When he was 13, Griffin McConnell became a chess expert – a title he earned by reaching a rating of 2,000 or higher with the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF).
A chess player’s rating and title are determined by their performance during USCF tournaments.
“Chess was kind of a part of me.”
— Griffin McConnell
Once Griffin achieved the title of chess expert, his performance seemed to be plateauing.
“He just was stuck there,” Kevin McConnell said. “He would go up and go down and go up and go down.”
Griffin said that chess was one of the first things he wanted to relearn after the 2013 surgery because of how important it is for him. Griffin is pictured in 2013 after his left functional hemispherectomy. (Kori McConnell)
“Every other month we’re in a different state at an out-of-state tournament,” Kevin added. “And he just wasn’t he wasn’t getting any better.”
Griffin McConnell believes the small seizures he experienced at 13 were part of the reason he had trouble advancing his chess rating.
“It’s kind of hard to explain, but I think the main reason why I think I was not getting better,” he noted. “We just didn’t know that yet.”
A ‘lifelong dream’ achieved
Griffin McConnell chose to undergo his fourth brain surgery in February 2021. After the procedure was over, his chess rating improved.
“I got increasingly better,” Griffin said. “I don’t know what happened… but something clicked.”
Kevin McConnell explained that after Griffin’s fourth brain surgery, the teen began playing chess again, though doctors told him it would take up to six months for Griffin to get back to normalcy.
When he was 13, Griffin became a chess expert, a title he earned by reaching a rating of 2,000 or higher with the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF). Griffin is pictured playing chess in 2015. (Kori McConnell)
“Griffin started playing chess right away, and he still hovered in that expert rating level,” Kevin McConnell said. “But starting in October of last year, that’s where he went on this insane run where every tournament he went to, he had positive results.”
In March of this year, Griffin McConnell earned the title of national master, which means he has a rating of 2,200 or higher.
“I want to see how far I can really go.”
— Griffin McConnell
“Griffin went from expert to national master in like four and a half months,” Kevin McConnell said, pointing to the time between when Griffin started moving his ranking up in October 2021 to when he earned the national master title.
“For him to go from expert to master in four and a half months is, for anybody, unheard of,” Kevin added. “It’s certainly unheard of for somebody with a massive brain injury and four brain surgeries.”
Griffin chose to undergo his fourth brain surgery in February 2021. After the procedure was over, Griffin’s chess rating quickly improved. Griffin is pictured after the procedure in 2021. (Kori McConnell)
Once Griffin finally earned the title, Kevin McConnell said it was a “huge relief.”
Griffin McConnell said having been at the same rating for five years was “really tough.”
“It’s hard, because you watch other people getting better, but you’re not getting better at all,” Griffin said, adding that becoming a national master was his “lifelong dream.”
“To go from expert to master in four and a half months is, for anybody, unheard of… It’s certainly unheard of for somebody with a massive brain injury and four brain surgeries.”
— Kevin McConnell
Now that he’s achieved his goal, Griffin McConnell is now going after higher titles.
The next step would be for FIDE master, which requires a rating of at least 2,300 with 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,” Griffin McConnell said.
Griffin McConnell and his brother Sullivan, 15, in 2022. Sullivan is also a national master and earned the title when he was 12. (Kori McConnell)
However, he doesn’t plan on pressuring himself too much.
“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 equalizer’
Last year, Griffin McConnell and his dad decided to start a nonprofit to give people with disabilities – particularly children – more opportunities to play chess.
ChessAbilities Inc. will be hosting its first annual tournament in Denver from June 21 through the 26th.
Kevin McConnell said that one of the main goals of ChessAbilities is to encourage children with disabilities to learn and love the game of chess.
“Griffin has proven categorically that no matter what kind of disability you have, chess is the great equalizer for you and other kids that are neurotypical, or physically typical,” he explained.
“Sullivan is Griffin’s biggest fan,” Kevin said. “And he wanted to see him make national master, honestly, I think as much or more than I did or Griffin did.”
Griffin McConnell has been completely seizure free since March 2021.