For most schoolboy chess players, approaching a chess board with Jonathan Kogen in the other chair is like a rookie NBA player confronting Michael Jordan in his prime, crouched and ready.
Kogen, a 17-year-old junior at Deerfield High School, is a National Master, a ranking by the U.S. Chess Federation for players with ratings of 2,200.
Kogen recently swept the Illinois Denker Qualifier tournament field 5-0, and in July he will represent Illinois in the National Denker Tournament in Madison, Wis.
His success should come as little surprise. Taught chess when he was 4 by his mother, emergency room doctor Bonnie Salomon, and later Glenview coach and mentor Tamara Golovey, Kogen has been nurtured in a North Shore hotbed of chess talent, the Highland Park-Deerfield school and club systems.
Kogen's peers include Highland Park's Eric Rosen, U.S. prep national champion and now a team captain at the University of Illinois; soon-to-become National Master Adarsh Jayakumar, a graduate of Lake Forest Academy; National Master Gopal Menon, a rising star at Northeastern University; and International Master Florin Felecan, another local prodigy. Adult teachers include Phillip Yontez, a former college and international competitor, and Oleg Trifonov, a Highland Park real estate agent whose USCF rating has eclipsed 2,000.
At 5 feet 9 and 160 pounds, Kogen has an athlete's build — he played basketball as a freshman at Deerfield High School — and a chess master's unwavering focus on a mental workout that requires raw physical stamina for matches lasting as long as six hours.
"I didn't have as much coaching as some players, so I'm somewhat self-taught," he said.
Jerry Neugarten, an organizer of Hpchess.org, a loose federation of area student and adult chess coaches, said: "To be a National Master as a high school student is just extraordinary. What's unusual about Jonathan is that you would never know it by talking to him. He's just such a modest kid."
Preparing for a tournament, Kogen said, "I go over my openings, because once you have seen games of a specific player, you can figure out the general pattern of how they play the game."
"There's lots of memorization and study involved in preparing, because you have to research how top players have played a particular position," Kogen said. "My goal is how to play a first phase of the game without spending too much time. I used to lose games because I would spend too much time in the early parts of the game and then be pressed for time later, when the game gets more complicated. I've improved to where it's given me more time to think, and that's allowed me to become a master."
Said Neugarten: "To reach Jonathan's level, you have to be very strong at all phases of the game. He's a remarkably patient young man who's capable of phenomenal concentration. You can't be that good unless you can sit there and spin out dozens and dozens of possible plays on every move. And he has that."
Common to most area chess talent is the willingness to give back, to coach younger players. As a member of Hpchess.org, where older players nurture area talent at the beginner, intermediate and advanced levels and beyond, Kogen has for two years coached area kids at Indian Trails School in Highland Park.