Sunday, July 01, 2012

A Game-Changing Move

A Game-Changing Move
June 29, 2012

One of the best chess players in the world -- male or female -- has landed at Webster University. And she's bringing plenty of backup.

Grandmaster Susan Polgar, who has done for chess what Billie Jean King has done for tennis, is transferring the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) from Texas Tech University to Webster.

Additionally, all members of the Polgar-coached Texas Tech "A" team, which won the Division I college chess national championship each of the past two years, will transfer to Webster and be enrolled at the school for the 2012-2013 academic year.

Polgar officially joined Webster on June 1, while most members of her team will arrive in August. Polgar signed the contract to come to Webster in early January when it became clear Texas Tech couldn't fund her rapidly-growing program.

"We were hoping Texas Tech would be able to grow with the sudden success of the program, but unfortunately it didn't seem to be the case that they were able to commit to the resources we needed, especially scholarships," Polgar said. "After we won our first national title last year, we were hoping that would bring the breakthrough and the support we were looking for. Unfortunately, it didn't."

Polgar began looking for alternatives last summer. She said she met with about six universities during the summer, and Webster emerged as the clear-cut choice. Polgar said the university "committed a good number of scholarships to make sure our students can graduate. They have an all-around package that's attractive and allows the program to grow."

"When we met with Webster Provost Julian Schuster and President Elizabeth Stroble, we were just blown away by their vision, enthusiasm and support to bring the SPICE program to Webster," Polgar said. "We were sold after we met with them."

Schuster, who has played chess his whole life, said he learned of Polgar's interest in changing universities from a mutual friend. Schuster and Stroble felt adding a chess program that includes players from Germany, Brazil, Israel and the Philippines perfectly fit Webster's global philosophy.

"It's a part of the Webster mission to prepare students for individual excellence and the global citizenship. This initiative perfectly fits in accomplishing both," Schuster said. "Global citizenship because by bringing such a diverse group of individuals, we do underscore our commitment to the global citizenship.

"Individual excellence because chess is a game of space and time, but there is a component in which you need to think fast, be logical and strategic. All of those are necessary ingredients for achieving individual excellence. So, we are just reinforcing what we have committed to do by using chess as a game, a sport and a tool to bring people together."

Stroble said Webster's addition of Polgar and her chess squad has attracted a massive amount of attention from both the media and the St. Louis community.

"There's huge interest in 'Wow, I want to meet Susan Polgar. I want to watch those players play. I want to play one of those players. I want to brush up my game myself,'" Stroble said. "There's an impact on young students in public/private schools in St. Louis, saying, 'Could your chess team help our chess club or chess team?'"

With the addition of Polgar and her elite squad, St. Louis has solidified itself as one of the top chess cities in the U.S. St. Louis is home to the World Chess Hall of Fame and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, a 6,000-square-foot chess education facility in the Central West End.

Polgar, 43, was born in Hungary and brings a wealth of chess knowledge and experience to both Webster and the St. Louis community. She was the world's top female player by the time she turned 15 and broke the gender barrier when she qualified for the "Men's" World Championship in 1986. In 1991, Polgar became the first woman to earn the title of chess grandmaster.

Polgar started SPICE from scratch at Texas Tech five years ago and quickly built the program into a national powerhouse. She hopes to continue the program's success at Webster and would like nothing more than to capture a third straight national championship.

"We expect to be the No. 1-ranked team in the country when the students arrive in August," Polgar said. "...We hope to do many important national and international events that will put Webster on the map in the entire chess community around the world, which is about a billion people."

Schuster said Webster's new chess team will have an impact on more than just the university and the St. Louis area.

"This is not St. Louis Chess Club -- it is more than that. It is the endeavor. It is a process in which we sincerely hope to touch lives and businesses of as many people as we can," Schuster said. "We are going to be purposeful and intentional to use the talents of Susan, her colleagues and team members to reach out to those communities and to open doors to those kids which were not opened before."


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