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Storytellers: The half-brained chess master

17-year-old Griffin McConnell had half of his brain removed after years of grand mal seizures.

GOLDEN, Colorado — Griffin and Sullivan McConnell have spent thousands of hours sitting across from each other staring at the pieces of their chess board. 

"I could play chess with Griffin before I could really talk with Griffin," Sullivan said.

The game is their language and their bond. Griffin is 17 and Sullivan is 15. To the McConnells, chess became a way to deal with a serious problem.

"I started to have seizures when I was four," Griffin said.

Griffin said things got so bad he was having tonic-clonic seizures, also called grand mal seizures up to five times a day.

"It really affects you just because your whole body is freaking out," Griffin said. "It's like everything is so out of control for a long period of time. It's not like very short like one minute. It can be 20-to-30 minutes."

The severe seizures impacted his relationship with a young Sullivan.

"I learned very quickly I didn't want to watch," Sullivan said. "Griffin would be totally fine, then he wouldn't be fine."

Griffin was eventually diagnosed with Cortical Dysplasia and Rasmussen's Syndrome. His situation was so dire that at 8 years old, Griffin said he would have died if not for a drastic brain surgery called a hemispherectomy where the left side of his brain was disconnected from the right side of his brain.

Credit: The McConnell Family

"When you have half of your brain disconnected, you have to relearn everything like Griffin did," Sullivan said.

Griffin had to relearn basic functions, but he could still do one thing.

"I wanted to do chess before I even talked or even walked," Griffin said. "I wanted to do chess maybe because it was kind of part of me."

Griffin believes chess helped him recover. 

"The thing that came back first was chess. So, me and Griffin could do that before we could do anything else," Sullivan said.

Using only the right side of his brain, Griffin suffered permanent impacts. He said his right arm and right leg are both weak.

"If I don't have my brace on, then my ankle is like floppy," Griffin said.

He is now blind in his right eye, as well. But, the surgery worked, at first. Griffin stopped having seizures for years. A little more than a year ago, the seizures started again.

"I was lot more worried this time, especially since it was a pandemic," Sullivan said.

Griffin said the latest seizures not only affected his brain, but it affected his mental health.

"At this point, I was getting depressed," Griffin said.

Credit: The McConnell Family

So, Griffin elected to have another drastic surgery that could have killed him called a hemispherotomy. Essentially, his entire left brain was physically removed.

"It's still amazing to me when I look at the scans," Griffin said. "The white part is all empty space."

Credit: The McConnell Family

The concept, Griffin said, is still unbelievable.

"Can you imagine that? Really? Half-a-brain, it's strange right?" Griffin said.

Yet, he and Sullivan have won so many tournaments and beaten so many players in chess that they are both officially rated as National Masters, which they say is rare for teenagers especially in Colorado.

"I don't know why my chess is getting better, like it should be getting worse," Griffin said.

Sullivan believes it's all because of the time spent together staring at the chess board between them.

"Now, it's two Masters working together and when you look at the all the people who got way better at chess, they have coaches and me and Griffin kind of coach each other," Sullivan said.

Jesse Cohen used to coach the McConnell brothers. He is also a National Master and said Griffin's skills on the chess board, especially after the surgeries are astounding.

"He's a tactical machine," Cohen said. "I have to slowly kinda constrict him like an anaconda because if I give him one open shot, he'll bite me like a shark."

Cohen said Griffin is inspirational.

"Everyone's got these excuses for why they don't accomplish things, but that never stops (Griffin)," Cohen said.

Credit: The McConnell Family

More than one year since Griffin's left brain was removed. He has grown strong enough that he's now teaching students at The Manning School in Golden. 

"I love helping kids. That's what I love to do," Griffin said.

He and his family have now started a nonprofit called ChessAbilities and they are launching the North American Chess Cup for Children with Disabilities which starts on June 21. 

"For other kids or adults with disabilities, I just want them to feel like they're like everyone else," Griffin said. "Chess is a mind sport, so anyone can literally play."

He also wants to travel the world playing chess.

"So far, I've been seizure-free and I think (the most recent surgery) was one of my best decisions even though it was kind of more scary than the last time," Griffin said.

Griffin may only have half his brain, but he has plans for a full life with his brother by his side.

"It's like finally over. Like, we can finally say, okay, the seizures are gone," Sullivan said.

The only thing left are two brothers bonded at the board.

"We are competitive, but when we are really, you know, deep in the relationship, it's more of just love," Griffin said.

Credit: The McConnell Family

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