ADVERTISEMENT

Teen who underwent major brain surgery now a chess master

March 26, 2022 GMT

GOLDEN, Colo. (AP) — Griffin McConnell hunches over the laptop in his bedroom, surrounded by posters and artifacts of a teen’s favored cultural distractions, and peers at his singular obsession. A chess board fills the touchscreen, along with a Zoom image of a young student on the other end of the internet connection, soaking in strategic lessons from his mentor.

“He plays the classical variation,” Griffin explains to the boy as, move-by-move, he replays an archived game on the screen. “But now there’s a couple ways to deal with this. We always talk about h5 as the most popular move. But what he played was knight h3, which is a very odd move.”

For a solid hour, Griffin fluently speaks the cryptic language of chess, with its cipher of letters and numbers describing the movement of pieces across the board. He has loved the game since he was 4, when his father first showed him how the various pieces move about the board. At 5, he won his first scholastic tournament.

ADVERTISEMENT

Now, at 17, he has advanced to national master — one of only three high schoolers in Colorado to achieve that status — and his progress has pointed him toward a potential career. But since the very start, he’s had to overcome debilitating epileptic seizures that, as a young child, led to surgery to disconnect the left side of his brain to keep them at bay.

For several years after the surgery, he lived without seizures and worked hard to rehabilitate his speech and some motor function on his right side — though he didn’t regain use of his right arm and hand. But with his mind free to absorb the strategic intricacies of chess, Griffin thrived.

For him, chess became the great equalizer, a competition devoid of physical constraints that played out in the quiet conditions where he functions best. But around his middle school years, he felt indications that something wasn’t right. Not the grand mal seizures of his youth, but more subtle hints sometimes called auras — sensations that can signal certain brain activity, including smaller seizures.

His world would shift to slow motion. He could hear his heartbeat accelerate. Unlike the intense seizures that gripped him as a child, the auras didn’t impede his speech, so he was able to communicate what he felt. When they passed, he’d often be left with chronic headaches and a pervasive grumpiness.

The impact on his ability to play chess became painfully clear.

In fact, Griffin could quantify it: By the time he was 16, he earned a rating — the universally recognized number that reflects a player’s standing based on results in competition — of a little over 2000, a statistical threshold that carries with it the title of “expert.” But then, with his concentration suffering from the auras and possibly from the medications prescribed to alleviate them, his game left him.

“I was right on kind of like my peak when that happened,” Griffin recalls. “And then I just tanked.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The path ahead loomed frightening and uncertain. It would eventually lead to the option of another major surgery to remove the remaining brain tissue on his left side, in the hope of eliminating the newly recurring seizures.

This time, it would be Griffin’s move.

“For this surgery I had the choice,” he says. “What was a little bit more scary is that it was really up to me to decide if I wanted to do it or not.”

— Surgery for seizures

In 2013, parents Kevin and Kori McConnell wrestled not only with the risk of mortality if they agreed to let Griffin undergo a hemispherectomy — which would effectively disconnect the left half of his brain — but also the impacts on the physical and cognitive abilities of an active child and a gifted student.

Some disability on his right side was a given, and the procedure could have put his language development at risk. Even the medical staff at Children’s Hospital Colorado, where Griffin has received treatment from the beginning, debated whether it made sense to move forward with the operation.

Amid the uncertainty, then 8-year-old Griffin nonetheless entered the state scholastic chess tournament. When a seizure gripped Griffin in his last match, Kevin retreated with his son to a couch and cradled him until it ran its course. Several minutes later, Griffin indicated he was ready to resume play.

Choosing his rook, he attempted to move the piece diagonally, like a bishop. After a second attempt in which he failed to make a legal move, his heartbroken father intervened and — to Griffin’s confusion — forfeited the game.

That experience further informed the parents’ decision to move ahead with the surgery, in which the neurosurgeon removed about a quarter of the cortex on the brain’s left side and disconnected the rest from the right half of the brain. The risky procedure worked, and the seizures disappeared.

It all came at a price for an athletic kid: He was left with permanent physical limitations on his right side and had to relearn to walk.

But about 10 days after the operation, still wearing a tube to drain fluid from his head, Griffin sat in bed and pointed — now with his newly dominant left hand — to a chess set his dad had brought to the hospital. He wanted to play.

“It was a big learning curve after the surgery,” Griffin says. “For a couple of years, it was more about improving my speech and my ability to walk again. I was fierce to try to walk again. But it was kind of a work in progress — always.”

Although neither of his parents are chess players of any great skill, over the years the McConnells increasingly became a chess family. Griffin’s younger brother, Sullivan, learned the game and progressed rapidly, challenging and surpassing Griffin and eventually becoming a five-time scholastic state champion. (Moira, the youngest of three siblings, showed no interest at all in chess and channeled her talents into the arts, echoing her parents’ backgrounds.)

Like families that embrace competitive youth sports, the McConnells poured time and money into their boys’ chess development. Kevin, who recently launched his own business as a hearing instrument specialist, estimates they’ve spent $2,000-$2,500 a month on travel and tournaments. And that’s with cutting corners, like hauling a microwave with them so they can eat on a budget in economy accommodations. Both boys teach private lessons to help with expenses.

Juggling the family dynamics can be challenging, Kori admits.

“With the boys, it is hard to maintain supporting them on their own trajectory without taking away from (Moira),” she says. “It can feel consuming to balance it out. But to be great you do have to invest.”

Smitten by the game and tirelessly devoted to improving, both brothers saw their ratings continually rise. Sullivan, 15, eventually overtook his older brother and after earning a 2200 rating became a national master. Griffin — through all his medical issues — has remained in dogged pursuit.

But the onset of the auras seemed to stall his improvement.

“For the last year that we did competitive play, Griffin was making these weird, couldn’t-close-the-deal kind of games, and it was really frustrating,” Kevin recalls. “And none of us knew that it was because he was actually having seizures during the game.”

It took time to confirm that suspicion. Griffin underwent repeated testing in which, while hooked up to monitors, he would press a button whenever he felt an aura coming on and doctors could then check his brain activity.

“We were really desperate to find answers,” Griffin says. “ And then on one of the hospital stays they found just a little part of seizure activity. And that’s why I was so lucky that we caught one, because if we didn’t catch one, they wouldn’t do the surgery.”

The auras that started appearing when Griffin was in middle school were actually small, partial seizures, as opposed to larger ones that might affect motor function or trigger shaking, explains Dr. Susan Koh, Griffin’s neurologist at Children’s. “But they became bigger in 2019 as they spread to his remaining brain tissue, resulting in garbled speech and confusion.”

Koh started him on multiple medications, but none worked. That’s when surgery filtered into the conversation.

The original surgery back in 2013 to disconnect the left side of the brain had come with several concerns, including creating neurologic deficits that could have far-reaching impacts on Griffin, especially on his speech. But the bet paid off, thanks in large part to his perseverance and therapy that restored lost function.

Dr. Brent O’Neill, the pediatric neurosurgeon who has performed both of Griffin’s major operations — he has undergone four total — notes that the surgical option presented last year carried a narrower set of risks. Certainly there were the usual concerns surrounding major surgery, such as bleeding, recovery and infection, but the procedure wasn’t expected to cause further loss of function. The discussion among the medical staff revolved primarily around whether the procedure would prove helpful.

“It was really just kind of reopening the old incision, going back into that left side of the brain and checking that everything was disconnected, and then just removing all the leftover tissue,” O’Neill explains.

Griffin felt confidence in both of his doctors. With the decision in his hands, he approached it methodically, listing pros and cons of moving ahead with the operation. His biggest concern was avoiding the cognitive decline that had shown up in further testing.

“The main factor for deciding to do it was because of the thinking,” he says, explaining why he chose to undergo the operation. “I don’t want to stop playing chess — chess is part of my life.”

O’Neill continues to be amazed by how Griffin has approached not only the recurring seizures, but also the major surgeries — “and having half the brain removed” — while still achieving all that he has in the game of chess.

“He’s just an amazing kid, and they’re an amazing family,” he says. “I remember as we were debating about trying to do the first hemispherectomy, talking about all the things he’d lose, including function of his right side. At one point, he took a pen in his left hand, and started writing his name. He was like, ‘All right. I can figure that out. I can make this work.’

“He’s been such a determined guy.”

— A second major surgery – and recovery

After the February 2021 surgery, Griffin battled through a difficult 15-day hospital stay in which recovery taxed him physically. He lost 10 pounds.

But within a week or two of returning home, it became obvious that he was thinking and — just as key in Griffin’s mind — speaking more clearly.

“Right about a few days after I got home I was like, ‘I can do it. I can still do it,’” he says. “I was talking like I normally do to my family and was just so happy I made this decision. I hope — and this is always something to kind of pray for — that I don’t have seizures again.”

There are no more surgical options if the seizures return, O’Neill notes, though there are newer but largely untested technologies available.

Less than two weeks after returning home, Griffin played a little online chess to prepare and then entered the 2021 state scholastic tournament. He admits the very idea of playing competitive chess so soon after his surgery was “insane.”

In a later round, he found himself across the board from his younger brother. He and Sullivan are close but competitive, quick with a jab when the opportunity arises. Griffin has gained more attention through media interviews and, shortly before his latest surgery, a mini-documentary called “Griffin’s Gambit.” But Sullivan’s pride in his older brother’s accomplishments shines through.

For about the past year and a half, they’ve agreed to what’s known as a “grandmaster draw” — an accommodation often seen among professional players — when they’ve faced each other in tournament play.

And so Sullivan sacrificed a chance at yet another state title when he agreed to a draw and finished third, with Griffin fourth. Understanding that his brother hadn’t returned to top form so soon after his surgery, Sullivan knew any victory would feel hollow.

“If I had just decided to beat my half-brain, very tired, depressed brother then I would have won state again,” he says, shifting to battle mode, while Griffin nods and laughs. But then Sullivan turns serious. “Based on his mindset going in, I remember him telling me, ‘I just want to win a game. I just want to know that I can still play chess again.’ And seeing him even at his lowest being able to do that was good to see.”

“I was proud of myself for trying,” Griffin says, “but after that tournament, then it was recovery time. It was more about resting and getting better.”

Griffin ventured back out to more tournaments last June, playing in one every month or two, and held his own, maintaining a point rating of around 2000. But he still wasn’t near the top of his game. Since December, though, his rating has spiked almost 200 points — a rise his father describes as almost unheard of in such a short span.

“What happens sometimes in chess is that everyone hits a plateau — and that’s in any sport,” Griffin says. “But then there’s one thing where you just — it clicks. I studied, and that helped. But it was more that I was actually doing it. I was actually winning these positions and not messing up at the end.”

It didn’t hurt that he put in the work to get there. He generally spends four hours a day studying to improve his game. Somewhere along that timeline — and he’s not sure precisely where — things started to fall into place.

A little more than a year after his disappointing return to play at the state scholastic tournament, Griffin once again wound up sitting across from Sullivan in the final game of the 2022 event a few weeks ago — with the championship on the line. Griffin had five wins to his credit and could win the tournament with either a win or a draw. Sullivan, who already had played one earlier game to a draw, needed a win to capture a sixth title.

This time, he decided to go for it.

“So part of me is thinking, ‘You know what, I should just beat him,’” Sullivan says. “So I decided to play something offbeat that he didn’t know. And then we got to this endgame. Griffin’s pretty good at endgames.”

Closing out his opponent had been Griffin’s hallmark when he wasn’t battling seizures, and this time he was on his game. Sullivan suddenly realized he had blundered. Outflanked by his brother, he offered a draw. Griffin accepted and became the 2022 state scholastic champion in his final year of eligibility.

“It felt pretty amazing,” Griffin says. “I had really no expectations whatsoever, so when I won, I didn’t believe it.”

Despite failing to win a title for the first time in seven years of statewide tournaments, Sullivan was proud of his brother. “I felt like, ’Great news, he’s gone next year,” he jokes. “That’s the funny answer. But I was just happy that he got a first.”

Three tournaments after the state scholastic competition, Griffin improved his rating to 2204 — pushing past his frustrating plateau and earning national master status. He’s now just 40 points behind Sullivan.

Scheduled to graduate high school this spring, Griffin hasn’t decided whether to attend college or pursue a chess career. But the higher his rating, the better positioned he’ll be to find a potential job niche within the game.

“Griffin is going to make his living through chess,” figures Kevin, “and that’s such a blessing.”

Although virtually all of Griffin’s chess experience has been in open competition, he understands that he’s in a position, as a result of his challenges with epileptic seizures, to help grow the game among people with disabilities. It’s a passion he shares with his dad, and together they formed the nonprofit ChessAbilities Inc. with the goal of raising money and awareness of chess opportunities — and then creating more opportunities through tournaments geared toward children with disabilities.

ChessAbilities will host its first tournament for players under 20 with disabilities from the U.S., Canada and Mexico June 21-26 at a hotel in the Denver Tech Center. The event, in partnership with Chess.com and ChessKid.com, rewards winners of the older age divisions with college scholarships, but also offers free workshops by two grandmasters.

“I want to make a difference in the chess community,” Griffin says. “And because of my disability, I can maybe be an inspiration, to show that any kind of disability, no matter what, you can play chess and you can do it well.”

Griffin and Sullivan also have converted a portion of their basement to a makeshift studio, where they plan to create chess content to stream on the Twitch video streaming platform. But rather than simply talk strategy, they hope to appeal to a broader audience by adding some creative flair, like introducing fictional characters and storylines.

Meanwhile, Griffin McConnell’s reality show plays on, with the uncertainty of his last major surgery behind him and a hope-filled future ahead.

“I feel grateful,” Griffin says. “I made that choice because I want to have the fullest life, to be happy in life. Sometimes I don’t know how I’m so lucky.”