Professional sports, for many, means high adrenaline, loud stadiums, screaming fans and million-dollar franchises. Robert Hungaski’s professional sports career, however, has been a little different. The CLAS senior plays for the New England Nor’Easters, one of the 16 teams in the United States Chess League.
“It’s kind of like the NFL of chess, minus the padding, popularity and big paychecks,” jokes Hungaski.
“Hungaski is one of the top chess players in America,” says philosophy professor Samuel Wheeler, who was shocked to learn that the young man in his class was the chess star he had been reading about.
“He recently got his second [Grand Master] norm, which makes him far and away the best chess player UConn has ever had.”
Based in Somerville, Mass., the Nor’Easters have enjoyed tremendous success, in large part thanks to Hungaski’s skills, which have earned him the title of International Master, the second most prestigious chess title in the world. In 2010, the Nor’easters won their league championship and Hungaski was named Rookie of the Year. He was also named the Board Two All-Star for his exceptional post-season performance, winning critical games during the quarter and semi-finals that helped the team advance.
Hungaski, a double major in philosophy and political science, got his start in chess while growing up in Buenos Aries, Argentina, where he lived for 20 years before coming to UConn.
“I went to an after-school program when I was six, but I wasn’t into it at all,” says Hungaski. “I thought it was ‘lame’ and I gave it up – mostly because I didn’t like losing.”
Luckily however, his teachers saw Hungaski’s gift for the game and began sending notes home to his mother explaining his unusual talent and imploring him to continue. Their hunches were quickly proved correct; Hungaski earned his first international chess win at the age of 12 in a tournament open to South American countries.
Balancing many hours of chess training and schoolwork did not always come easily to Hungaski. After struggling to maintain his grades in high school, he questioned the purpose of continuing his education in a university setting, thinking he could not both play competitive chess and be a successful student.
Though he was concerned, Hungaski found that coming to UConn and taking classes in philosophy actually enhanced his chess play.
“Other interests really complement chess,” says Hungaski. “They all fall under the umbrella of intellectual endeavors – they all help each other.”
While at UConn, Hungaski has achieved incredible success playing for the University’s chess team. In February 2011, he led the team to a first-place win in the college division of the World Amateur Team Championship, the largest team competition in the world. In an interview with The Daily Campus Hungaski said that, to his knowledge, UConn had never attained this title before.
“He’s been one of the hottest players in the last two years,” said Tom Hartmayer, a UConn alum and one of the University’s chess team facilitators.
Hungaski also volunteers in after-school programs in Mansfield, teaching children the art of the game, much like how his own chess education started.
After graduation, Hungaski hopes to win a two-year chess fellowship that will allow him to continue his training and competition.
But even after all his international success, Hungaski still fondly remembers his first major title: sharing first place in a South American tournament when he was 12.
“It was a huge trophy,” Hungaski remembers, smiling. “It felt great.”