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Colorado teen becomes national chess master despite enduring four brain surgeries


A 17 year-old boy has become a national chest master just a year after undergoing a fourth grueling brain surgery to treat his severe epilepsy. 

Griffin McConnell, 17, earned the coveted title in March this year, after scoring a rating of 2,200 or higher. 

He did so just a year after having part of his brain removed during a procedure in a bid to tame his epilepsy – despite the operation leaving him unable to walk, talk or use the entire left side of his body.   

Griffin, a 17-year-old high school senior from Golden Colorado, began playing the game when he was four – around the same time his epilepsy began to show.

‘When I first learned to play chess, it was so fascinating because of how complicated the game is,’ McConnell told Fox News Digital. ‘Every move always has something different.’

He added: ‘When you get deeper and deeper in the game, there’s millions and millions of other things that people can do.’         

He initially underwent three surgeries to help control the seizures. The third procedure, called a left functional hemispheretcomy. The surgery is rare that involves half of the brain either being removed or disconnected from the other half, according to the Cleveland Clinic’s website. 

The procedure is performed on children and adults who have seizures that don’t respond to medicine, the clinic said.

In March 2022, Griffin McConnell, 17, earned the title of national master, which means he has a rating of 2,200 or higher, a truly unbelievable accomplishment. Griffin’s proud dad said: ‘For him to go from expert to master in four and a half months is, for anybody, unheard of.’ He added: ‘It’s certainly unheard of for somebody with a massive brain injury and four brain surgeries’

In February 2021, Griffin underwent another hemispheretcomy, his fourth surgery. Griffin's dad said: '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,' referring to himself and his wife, Kori McConnell. He added: 'And he elected to move forward with it'

In February 2021, Griffin underwent another hemispheretcomy, his fourth surgery. Griffin’s dad said: ‘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,’ referring to himself and his wife, Kori McConnell. He added: ‘And he elected to move forward with it’

Kevin McConnell, Griffin’s dad told Fox News Digital that it was a ‘long, long recovery.’ ‘He had to learn how to talk from scratch, learn how to walk, how to write,’ McConnell said, who explained that his son also went from being a right-handed person to left-handed.

After the surgery, Griffin had to spend two years in a wheelchair which included daily occupational, physical and speech therapy.

 At age 13, his debilitating seizures returned. He had episodes where he could hear his own heart beating that followed ‘a horrible headaches,’ doctors had told him, his seizures had returned, Fox News Digital reported. 

The surgery, Griffin’s dad explain made his son ‘a totally different person.’

‘He was paralyzed on the right side, but he could still move his left side,’ McConnell said.

Despite the hurdles, he continued to play the game of Kings that dates back to the 1500s’ with origins rooted in North India and Asia.  

 ‘Chess was kind of a part of me,’ Griffin told Fox News Digital.

His dad added:  ‘We were playing games of chess a week, 10 days after his brain surgery.’

Griffin said that in no time, his son was entering chess tournaments and winning. At 13, he earned the title of chess expert by the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) for reaching a rating of 2,000 or higher.  

Griffin has been battling epileptic seizures since age 4. He is pictured here around 7 or 8 years old recovering from one of his surgeries. 'He had to learn how to talk from scratch, learn how to walk, how to write,' McConnell said, who explained that his son also went from being a right-handed person to left-handed

Griffin has been battling epileptic seizures since age 4. He is pictured here around 7 or 8 years old recovering from one of his surgeries. ‘He had to learn how to talk from scratch, learn how to walk, how to write,’ McConnell said, who explained that his son also went from being a right-handed person to left-handed

Griffin had a total of four surgeries. In this photo he is had recovering from one his procedures, called a left functional hemispheretcomy. The surgery is rare that involves half of the brain either being removed or disconnected from the other half, according to the Cleveland Clinic's website. The procedure is performed on children and adults who have seizures that don't respond to medicine, the clinic said

Griffin had a total of four surgeries. In this photo he is had recovering from one his procedures, called a left functional hemispheretcomy. The surgery is rare that involves half of the brain either being removed or disconnected from the other half, according to the Cleveland Clinic’s website. The procedure is performed on children and adults who have seizures that don’t respond to medicine, the clinic said

A chess rating is a number that reflects a player’s skill level. For school level players, the number may range from 101, for an absolute beginner.

Theoretically, the highest rating a player can achieve is 3,000, although the highest that has ever been attained was 2,812 by famed champ Gary Kasparov.  

Griffin’s score of 2,000 meant he was an ‘exceptional’ player. 

At the time, Griffin had been traveling, many times out-of-state to compete in different chess tournament, but his father said he would get ‘stuck,’ and ‘wasn’t getting any better.’ 

Griffin contributed his lack of advancement was from the small seizures he was still experiencing. He told Fox News Digital: ‘It’s kind of hard to explain, but I think the main reason why I think I was not getting better,’ he said, in part. 

Doctors soon learned his seizures had returned. They tried to control it with different medications but sadly it did not work and recommended another hemispheretcomy. 

It would be his fourth surgery. 

Griffin’s dad said: ‘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,’ referring to himself and his wife, Kori McConnell. 

He added: ‘And he elected to move forward with it.’

In February 2021, Griffin had the surgery. Doctors had told him that it would take about six months for him to get back to some normalcy; however, Griffin couldn’t be away from the game for that long. 

In 2021, Griffin and his dad started, ChessAbilities, a nonprofit to give people with disabilities, particularly children, more opportunities to play 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 said The organization will host its first annual tournament in Denver from June 21 through the 26th

In 2021, Griffin and his dad started, ChessAbilities, a nonprofit to give people with disabilities, particularly children, more opportunities to play 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 said The organization will host its first annual tournament in Denver from June 21 through the 26th

‘Griffin started playing chess right away, and he still hovered in that expert rating level,’ his dad said. 

Then, a miracle of sorts happened: his chess rating had improved.

His father said it started in October, about eight months after the surgery, when he went on what he described as an ‘this insane run where every tournament he went to, he had positive results.’

Stunned himself, Griffin said:  ‘I don’t know what happened… but something clicked,’ Griffin said, in part, Fox Digital News reported.

Griffin’s proud dad said:  ‘For him to go from expert to master in four and a half months is, for anybody, unheard of.’

He added: ‘It’s certainly unheard of for somebody with a massive brain injury and four brain surgeries.’

Griffin said that becoming a national master has become his ‘lifelong dream.’

And, now he wants to go 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 said, but added that if he doesn’t achieve all those levels, ‘that’s still fine.’ 

In 2021, Griffin and his dad started, ChessAbilities, a nonprofit to give people with disabilities, particularly children, more opportunities to play 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 said   

The organization will host its first annual tournament in Denver from June 21 through the 26th.



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