Sunday, June 24, 2012

Collegiate chess checks into St. Louis universities

Collegiate chess checks into St. Louis universities
By Johnny Buse, special to the Beacon
6:41 am on Mon, 06.11.12

There are tried and true elements of sports stories: Trades and transfers, perennial champions and scrappy underdogs, seasoned coaches and prodigious talent, complete with battles across fields, courts and — for a few universities in St. Louis — chessboards.

Just three years ago, St. Louis had no nationally competitive collegiate chess team; and as recently as January, Washington University’s student run chess club was the lone team in the area. Now, Lindenwood University and Webster University are preparing to roll out elite chess teams for the 2012-13 academic year with high hopes of bringing home national titles to a city that has quickly become America’s chess capital.

“The team will have a multi-positive impact on our communities and stakeholders at Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri and nationally,” said Webster University Provost Julian Schuster.

Collegiate Chess: A short history

Collegiate chess has long been the smaller cousin of scholastic chess. A sport that is played recreationally across the world, over half of the United States Chess Federation’s (USCF) 80,000 competitive members are under the age of 18. Grandmaster-in-Residence at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis Ben Finegold said many competitive chess players leave the competitive arena during or after high school given the lack of a lucrative collegiate chess culture.

“The USCF has been discussing for years what to do with kids who are between 14 and 18, who, once they are in high school or finishing high school, just quit,” Finegold said.

The highest-caliber players often forgo college educations, focusing solely on chess. Finegold and Chess Club-based Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, who is currently ranked seventh in the world by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) and is fresh off the heels of a U.S. Championship win, both dropped out of college after one semester to focus on chess.

“LeBron James didn’t go to college,” Finegold said, referencing the NBA superstar who played his first professional game four months after graduating from high school.

It was not until the 1990s, when universities began to offer scholarships to elite chess players, that collegiate teams popped onto the radar of competitive chess circles. Scholarship money and institutional commitments to chess programs attracted high-level chess players, many of whom were international students, to a handful of universities.

These days, the students who make up the highest level teams typically rank as International Master (IM) or Grandmaster (GM), the titles being the second-highest and highest possible ranks bestowed by FIDE, respectively.

The University of Maryland-Baltimore County popularized the scholarship movement in 1995, and to this day boasts one of the top-level teams. Among the ranked schools was Texas Tech University, coached by GM Susan Polgar. This February, Polgar announced the entire team was transferring to Webster University as funding issues arose at Texas Tech.

Polgar’s announcement came a few weeks after the foundation of a scholarship backed program at Lindenwood University, coached by Finegold. And at Washington University, a small and student run, but formidable, club was hitting its stride after entering the Pan-American tournament with a top 10 ranking.

“St. Louis has already been the chess mecca for the past couple of years,” Polgar said. As of this September, it will be the collegiate chess mecca as well.

A tale of three teams

While St. Louis’ collegiate chess teams may compete in the same national tournaments, the teams’ short histories read as a guide to the permutations of collegiate chess teams.

Webster University’s team is not only the strongest team in St. Louis, but arguably in the nation. The team’s jump from Lubbock, Texas, to Webster Groves buzzed newsrooms from ESPN to the New York Times. It was a move unheard of in collegiate sports — a championship team and coach transferring schools. The USCF — which governs competitive chess in the U.S. — raised no objections.

“Bringing an international chess team, and an international grandmaster, who is also a woman who is quite accomplished, just makes perfect sense for Webster’s profile,” said Webster University President Elizabeth Stroebel. She emphasized publicity generated abroad by the Polgar’s arrival, as well as scholarly studies that show chess to be an educational tool, especially useful in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM subjects.

All of Polgar’s players are receiving full or partial scholarship money from Webster University, which Stroebel said were based on students’ “statuses as great students.”

Polgar’s team is the hands-on favorite to win the Pan-American championship and Final Four next year, boasting a strong roster that includes such returning players as GM Georg Meier, rated at 2671 by FIDE, as well as incoming freshmen Ray Robson and Wesley So, both among the world’s top 200 players who carry ratings of 2614 and 2653, respectively.

The team’s two squads have a chance to win the top two spots at the Pan-Americans.

“Their A and B teams are just going to be incredible,” Finegold said.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

9th Annual Susan Polgar Foundation Girl’s Invitational (FREE rooms and meals for official qualifiers)

Rules and Conditions for the 9th Annual Susan Polgar Foundation Girls' Invitational (SPGI)
July 22 – 27, 2012 at Webster University (St. Louis, Missouri)

Over $100,000 in chess scholarships, chess prizes, netbook computers, etc.

The annual Susan Polgar Girl’s Invitational, the most prestigious all-girls event in the United States, will be held at Webster University (St. Louis, Missouri). The opening ceremony will be at 1:00 PM on July 22. The format this year is similar to 2011.

• There will be a two (2) day intense world class training sessions with Susan Polgar and her team, followed by a 6 round (g/90+30) championship tournament.
• The traditional Blitz, Puzzle Solving, Bughouse events will stay the same as in previous years.
• There will be many chess prizes awarded, including scholarship(s) to Webster University.

Each state is allowed one representative to be nominated by June 1, 2012. Official representative alternates may be substituted no later than June 15. (Susan Polgar and/or the Polgar Committee may allow the host state to enter an additional qualified player.) Susan Polgar and/or the Polgar Committee may allow exceptions to the June 1 entry/alternate deadline. Should the state affiliate fail to respond to the notice for this tournament, Susan Polgar and/or the Polgar Committee may determine the candidate from that state.

Players must have been enrolled in a school (up to 12th grade) located in the state they represent, also of the year in which the tournament is held. Home-schooled students who are under the age of 19 on July 27th of the year in which the event is held or students who have never attended college on a full time basis prior to June 1 of the year in which the tournament is held, are eligible to represent the state in which they reside.

Exception: If a player graduates from high school early and is already attending college, she may still represent her state if nominated. This is the decision of each state affiliate.

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: The participants of the Susan Polgar Girl’s Invitational DO NOT have to be high school students. Any qualifier under the age of 19 (by July 27th of the year in which the tournament is held) is eligible!

Special invitation for this year only: All past participants of the SPNI and SPGI (Susan Polgar National Invitational/Susan Polgar Foundation Girls’ Invitational 2004-2011) are invited to participate in the 2012 SPGI. The idea is to have the past participants learn my method of training so they can go back home and share their knowledge with the younger players. However, registration MUST be made ASAP since space is limited. There will be mutual training sessions for all, however separate section & prizes for alumni participants over the age of 19.

Players are required to furnish the organizer an emergency phone number and the e-mail address of a parent/guardian.

There is no entry fee to participate in the 2012 SPGI; however, players are responsible for their own travel. For all state representatives, and qualifiers from the SPNO or SPWO, Webster University will provide complimentary room and meal accommodation on campus.

For alumni participants, wild card/special invites, coaches, parents, or other family members, inexpensive accommodations are available for housing and dining on Webster’s campus. Please note that all reservations and registrations MUST be made (and accommodation expenses prepaid) no later than June 25, 2012.

Prizes: Trophies / plaques will be awarded to the winners of the Susan Polgar Foundation Girl’s Invitational Puzzle Solving, Blitz, and the SPGI Championship. Co-champions are recognized in the case of a tie, with each champion receiving a Champion’s Plaque or Trophy. The Champion (or Co-Champions) will automatically be invited to defend her/their title (must meet age requirement).

Champion: Webster University scholarship (approximately $13,000 per year x 4 years) + netbook computer + Champion's Plaque / Trophy
2nd place: Webster University scholarship (approximately $13,000 per year x 4 years)
Top under 13: netbook computer
Top under 10: netbook computer

The scholarship must be exercised no later than the Fall of 2015.

The New Polgar Committee’s goal is to have all 50 states (including two representatives for California, two for Texas, and two for Missouri) and the District of Columbia represented. We strongly encourage each state and the District of Columbia affiliate to hold a scholastic championship tournament to determine each state’s champion and representative. Failing this, rating criteria may be acceptable. A scholastic girls’ champion or the highest rated girls’ scholastic player in a state who has no state affiliate of the USCF should contact the Polgar Committee as soon as possible.

Susan Polgar and/or the Polgar Committee and its members may elect to award wild cards each year for the Susan Polgar Girl’s Invitational.

Special qualifying events: The Polgar Committee will award automatic qualifying spots to the reigning winners in each section of the annual
Susan Polgar Nationwide Open for Girls (New Orleans) and the Susan Polgar World Open for Girls (Chicago).

The new SPGI Chairperson is Martha Underwood (AZ).

NOTICE TO ALL STATE OFFICIALS: Please send the nomination from your state to the Polgar Committee (

For information and rates to stay and/or dine and other logistics on Webster’s campus, please send an email to

Contact info: Polgar Committee (

Michelle at Webster University 314-968-7468

The Susan Polgar Foundation can be contacted at 806-281-7424 or through

Webster University is located at 470 E. Lockwood Avenue Webster Groves, MO 63119

BIG THANKS to President Dr. Beth Stroble and Webster University for hosting and sponsoring this very prestigious event for girls!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The right move

Knight Raiders lose chess coach, entire team of grandmaster competitors
By John Walters Monday, June 4, 2012

Legendary chess players are defined by the brilliance of their moves.

Susan Polgar, a grandmaster who also happened to be the chess coach at Texas Tech, found herself in a budget stalemate last winter with the school’s administration. Polgar’s Knight Raiders would soon win their second consecutive national championship, but the team’s funding was about to take a severe cut.

Polgar did not despair. A Hungarian native who at the age of 15 had become the top-ranked female player in the world, Polgar won in two easy moves: She took a job at Webster University in St. Louis, and her entire team transferred there to be with her.

“We really loved Texas Tech and we wanted to stay,” said Polgar, who launched the Texas Tech program in 2007, “but we had an anonymous donor and the funding was running out. It was a very unfortunate situation.”

Webster, a Division III school, has never won a national championship in any sport. In fact, the Gorlocks have never had a chess team. Now, thanks to a provost, Julian Schuster, who like Polgar hails from Europe and is ardent about chess, Webster is home to the prohibitive favorites to win next spring’s President’s Cup, the de facto collegiate chess national championship.

“We have been known as a school with very smart but not very successful athletes,” said Schuster, who was born and raised in the former Yugoslavia. “Now we will be the top chess team in the U.S.A.”

Chess is not an NCAA sport. If it were, Polgar would be allowed to change jobs but none of her “athletes” would be able to follow her without sitting out at least one year. Her top player, Georg Meier of Germany, would be ineligible because he has already played chess professionally as a member of Baden-Baden — “the New York Yankees of chess,” according to Polgar’s husband, Paul Truong, who doubles as the team’s manager.

“We have eight grandmasters on our roster,” said Truong. “No other school has ever had more than four. It’s an All-Star cast, like having Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant on the same team.”

Although chess is not an NCAA sport, sometimes it feels like one. Incoming freshman Ray Robson, the lone American on the roster, was reportedly offered a full scholarship to another chess powerhouse, the University of Texas-Dallas, when he was 12. Robson, from Florida, later became the youngest American grandmaster in history at age 14. When Polgar was introduced at a press conference last week, Robson played an opponent blindfolded.

Polgar, arguably the greatest female player of the past-quarter century, likes to put her players in end-game situations. Last summer she encountered one of her own.

An anonymous donor had helped launch the Texas Tech program with a five-year, $320,000 grant. That funding, which helped finance scholarships for a roster that includes players from Azerbaijan, Iran and Israel, was ending. Tech was dragging its feet re-enlisting that benefactor, or finding a new one.

“Part of the problem is that in Texas nothing is more important than football,” said Truong.

A mutual friend, a grandmaster by the name of Babakuli Annakov who lives in Dallas, put Polgar in touch with Schuster. The queen of college chess insisted on a long-term contract and a budget that would guarantee her players either full merit-based scholarships or close to it. Schuster happily assented. Polgar and Truong bristle at the idea of their prodigies being pawns in the process.

“The reason we left Texas Tech,” said Truong, who described his wife’s salary increase as moderate, “was to guarantee that our players would be able to graduate."

“Without the scholarship I would not be able to afford school in the United States,” said Anatoly Bykhovsky, a junior from Israel who is a grandmaster.

For what it’s worth, while Texas Tech may be years away from returning to prominence in chess, the school still boasts national champions in moot court and, no kidding, meat judging.

St. Louis, meanwhile, has become the gateway to American chess in the past half decade. Thanks in no small measure to a local philanthropist named Rex Sinquefield, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, a 6,000-square foot shrine to the game, was founded in 2007. Three years later, Hikaru Nakamura, the top-ranked American player, moved to town. Last September, the World Chess Hall of Fame relocated there.

And now Susan Polgar and college chess’ answer to the Dream Team have arrived.

“In chess you only make two types of moves,” said Schuster, the Webster provost. “The right move and the wrong move. We made the right move.”