Monday, April 08, 2013

Bringing National Championships to St. Louis

St. Louis quietly celebrates two national chess titles
April 09, 2013 12:05 am • By Jesse Bogan 
St. Louis Post Dispatch

WEBSTER GROVES • As thousands gathered Monday for the Cardinals home opener, two other local teams -- the Gorloks and Golden Griffins -- were already celebrating national championships, but in a much lesser followed event: chess.

Webster University won the Final Four of college chess in Rockville, Md., over the weekend, while St. John Vianney High School took top honors in its division in the U.S. Chess Federation's Supernationals V K-12 tournament in Nashville.

The wins are the latest nod to St. Louis, home of the World Chess Hall of Fame, as it tries to establish itself as the chess mecca. 

As quietly as the game is played, so are its championship celebrations quiet compared with mainstream collegiate football and basketball competitions. About 100 people gathered Monday in a Webster University cafeteria to welcome their winning team home.

Some hooted and hollered. Other students watched curiously from a distance as they ate lunch in silence.

Julian Schuster, provost at Webster and chess enthusiast, told the crowd that the win came from "hard work" and "vision."

"This a great day for all of us," he said.

Not only is it the school's first national chess championship, it's the first year it fielded a team, school officials said. 

Webster's bid to become a chess powerhouse happened just nine months after luring grandmaster and coach Susan Polgar away from Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Traditionally thought of as a man's game, Polgar has not only broken the mold, but dominated. Originally from Hungary, this is her third national collegiate chess championship in a row as head coach.

Two of the six players on Webster's winning team followed her from Lubbock. The four others recently came to Webster to play chess for Polgar and the Gorloks, named for the private school's mascot.

All six of the championship players -- including two alternates -- are grandmasters, or top players in chess.

"We hope its the first of many national titles," said Polgar, 44, who wore blue high heels, black slacks and coat with a white T-shirt -- "2013 National Champions."

The players come from all over the world. They are Georg "German Precision" Meier, Wesley "Asian Tiger" So, of the Philippines, Ray "Fearless Attacker" Robson, of Florida, Fidel "Casanova" Corrales Jimenez, of Cuba, Anatoly "Speedy Rocket" Bykhovsky, of Israel, and Manuel "Yucatan Conquistador" Leon Hoyos, of Mexico.

Bykhovsky, who followed Polgar from Texas Tech, won the last match of the tournament. The game lasted four hours. The junior is studying finance. He said he started playing chess young and became a grandmaster by 21.

"I am going to eat with my girlfriend, it's a nice day," he said of how he was going to celebrate.

Leon, 24, a freshman studying economics, won the U.S. Open and is a 4-time Mexican Open champion. He said that many things set his coach apart.

"I feel like I learn just speaking, knowing what her opinion is about many things," he said. 
But Leon couldn't visit long. He had an Italian exam to run to after the celebration in the cafeteria.

Meanwhile, Webster University won its tournament with 9.5 points, beating University of Texas-Dallas, which had 7 points, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 5, and the University of Illinois, 2.5.

Webster dethroned UMBC, the former powerhouse in Maryland. What's more, Alan Sherman, UMBC’s chess director, had predicted Webster would win.

“I think Webster just decided they wanted to win and if they invested more money, they could just outdo the others,” Sherman recently told the Washington Post. “They have the strongest team in the history of college chess. Unlike the UMBC model, where we ramped up over a period of five years, they bought their team in a year.”

Polgar left Texas Tech less than a year ago. Schuster, the Webster University provost, helped lure her here. Both he and school president Beth Stroble traveled to Maryland over the weekend to root for their team.

"Our goal is for these young people to be ambassadors of the university, which they are, and to graduate and go on to great lives," Stroble said in an interview.

A few minutes later, she told the celebratory crowd: "I am proud of an accomplishment that is as strategic and intellectual and academic as it is competitive in any other way."

As a player, Polgar said, she was the first woman to win the grandmaster title and the first woman to qualify for the men's world championship. Now, she said, she mainly just plays chess by computer.

As a coach, she said, she sets herself apart by training players not to attack early, but also by focusing on life away from the chess board. She said the team celebrates birthdays, plays soccer to try to have fun and be in a supportive environment.

"It's a combination of things," she said of her success in coaching. "High expectations. Working hard for it and focusing on team chemistry."

Physical fitness is part of it, too. It's not uncommon for a day's competition to last 10 hours.
"People usually don't realize how important endurance is in a chess competition," she said. "It's very grueling."

She said she left Texas Tech because of a lack of a budget that was promised. She said there was also a lack of understanding and respect for chess there. 

"You know how Texas is everything is about football, football, football, and then maybe some basketball and baseball, chess certainly is not on the list."

She said she liked the chess culture in St. Louis, which hosts the U.S. championship and other competitions.

"We are very comfortable with how chess is being respected as an activity, practically like football would be respected at Texas Tech," she said.

Regarding the small turnout compared with the Cardinals home opener, she said: "I understand it's not like baseball yet, but we are working on you guys."

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