THE QUEEN’S NEW GAMBIT
02.12.13 : 6:30 AM.
Julian Schuster first heard the rumor a year and a half ago. Susan Polgar, the legendary grand master known to journalists as “the Queen,” was unhappy in her current position as Texas Tech’s chess coach. She was feeling unappreciated. She had made this known to certain people in the tight-knit world of chess, and the news had traveled from one of these confidants, a foreign grand master living in Texas, to the ears of Schuster, a passionate fan of the game, in St. Louis.
He knew her story, of course; it had achieved the status of legend. Her father raised her and her two sisters to be chess prodigies. In the 1980s, the three Polgar sisters began showing up at tournaments and crushing all comers, men and women alike. At age 21, Susan, the eldest of the three, became the first woman to earn the title of grand master in the way men always had, by proving she could hold her own in competition against other grand masters. Once, over the course of 16 hours and 30 minutes, she played 326 chess games simultaneously, winning 309 of them—a world record at the time. She blazed a trail for women in the game.
Beyond her career at the board, Polgar had made a name for herself as a dominant coach—arguably the dominant coach—in the thriving if mostly invisible world of American collegiate chess. In 2007, at the age of 38, she took her first coaching job, at Texas Tech, whose team was then unranked. By 2010 she had led the Knight Raiders’ all-male squad to the President’s Cup, known as “the Final Four of college chess”; the following two years the Raiders won it all, topping not just Yale and Princeton but the two traditional chess powerhouses, the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
But the conflicts between Polgar and Texas Tech over the kind of issues usually associated with big-time football programs—scholarships, resources, the future of the team—were real, as Schuster, provost of Missouri’s Webster University, would soon learn. A small private school with an unusually dense network of international campuses, Webster lacked a chess team, despite the fact that its main campus was located just outside the city limits of America’s new chess capital.
In the summer of 2011, Schuster, a native of the former Yugoslavia who grew up hearing tales of the Polgar sisters’ heroics, invited Susan to St. Louis. He gave her a tour of the Webster campus and, later, talked to her about the resources the school could provide if she decided to coach there. Polgar liked what she heard. In February 2012, she announced that she would be transferring to Webster as its new chess coach. But not only that; eight of her players would be transferring too. Webster would be picking up their scholarships. It was unprecedented: A college chess coach was shifting allegiance from one university to another and bringing a significant chunk of her team with her. No volleyball coach, no tennis or baseball coach, had ever done anything close. News of the deal made The New York Times, USA Today, National Public Radio, and even that custodian of the sporting zeitgeist, ESPN.com.
Polgar’s sudden departure from Texas Tech surprised her fellow collegiate chess coaches, but they couldn’t deny that the move made sense for Webster; they knew how useful chess could be for a school looking to boost its intellectual reputation. Today’s collegiate game is dominated by a slate of elite squads at schools most people have never heard of. Places like UT Dallas, which has no football stadium but does have a Chess Plaza where graduating players get their pictures taken next to enormous chess pieces, and UMBC, which uses money from the school’s beverage contract with Pepsi-Cola to offer hefty Pepsi-Cola Chess Fellow scholarships to students with extraordinarily high chess ratings. The coaches for these and other top-ranked teams regularly travel abroad to recruit talented young players from Eastern Europe; they identify high schools in the US and elsewhere that can serve as feeder programs; they take calls from hedge funds wanting to offer jobs to their best players.
But among the top coaches in collegiate chess, Polgar has established herself in just five years as the most aggressive: a flamboyant personality, a fierce competitor, and a dogged recruiter. All told, her team at Webster now includes eight grand masters, who hail from the US, Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, Germany, Hungary, Israel, and the Philippines. This is an unheard-of concentration of talent for a single team. The next strongest squad, at UT Dallas, has only four grand masters. (To put that in context, there are nine grand masters in the entire country of Canada.) As soon as Polgar’s new team began competing, it was ranked number one in the country; no wonder that in the national championships of collegiate chess, which will be decided next month, Webster goes in as the top seed. But Polgar has set her sights beyond dominance of the collegiate game.
It’s been a long time since Americans really cared about chess. The last big spike of interest came in 1972, when one of our own, Bobby Fischer, faced down the Soviets’ top gun over a board in Iceland. Inspired by Fischer’s victory, a generation of smart, shy kids hurried out to buy chess manuals. Then Fischer went nuts. The Cold War ended. Chess was still, fundamentally, a game where two people sat at a table and thought a lot, and America was still a culture without a deep legacy of chess appreciation. Polgar wants to change that. She wants to win the hearts of soccer-addled adolescents and cable TV executives; she wants Americans to think of chess as a sport every bit as legitimate as golf or poker. All chess needs to break through, she believes, are some compelling public faces—and her all-star team of collegians might fit the bill. Engineered from childhood to be a grand master, Susan Polgar is trying to engineer an unlikely chess resurgence in the US.
The first thing to understand about Polgar is that she’s a savvy self-promoter and entrepreneur. She has a brand, and in chess circles it’s everywhere. Her elaborate personal website links to an album of more than a hundred public- domain competition photos and glamour shots: Polgar posing with an oversize knight piece. Polgar in an elegant black dress and high heels. Polgar shaking hands across the board with Garry Kasparov. She writes books—Chess Tactics for Champions and Breaking Through: How the Polgar Sisters Changed the Game of Chess, both co-authored with her husband, Paul Truong, a former chess prodigy from Vietnam. She has hosted her own 10-volume DVD set, Winning Chess the Easy Way With Susan Polgar. She runs a popular chess blog, Chess Daily News, and tweets prolifically, reporting on top-level chess matches with a Madden-esque enthusiasm and flair for suspense.
And even her critics admit that, by leaving Texas Tech and establishing a program at Webster, she has added to the number of strong chess schools. Texas Tech hardly closed down its program when she left; instead, it hired a new director, Al Lawrence, the former executive director of the US Chess Federation, and a new coach, a grand master named Alexander Onischuk, who happens to be the fourth-ranked chess player in the country. (Lawrence didn’t return a phone call.) And just last fall, another St. Louis-area university, Lindenwood, launched a chess program of its own, hiring a Syrian-born grand master as its coach and immediately bringing in a young Indian chess star to lead its team. Far from diminishing the world of college chess, Polgar looks to have launched a sort of arms race.
Top coaches like Polgar don’t exactly teach their players chess strategy; the players already know what they’re doing. But a coach can help around the margins. Several hours a week, Polgar studies the chess equivalent of game film. Chess players tend to hone their skills on the Internet now, as poker players do; because chess websites record and save those games, it’s easy to analyze the styles of top players, probing their openings and endgames, searching for weaknesses. Polgar looks for patterns in the play of kids from opposing schools and passes along what she learns to her team. Mostly, though, she tries to encourage the students to do their own analysis. “Obviously they are very sharp already and very knowledgeable themselves,” she says. “I think I can help them more in guiding them in the psychological aspect of the game, or what may be unpleasant for a certain opponent.” Asked for an example of psychological advice, Polgar laughs. “That, I think, is a professional secret.”
Where she really shines is in recruiting, a chess coach’s number one job. Polgar’s talent for attracting top players owes a great deal to her name and reputation but also to her polyglot charm—she speaks five languages fluently, plus some Hebrew and Esperanto—which helps her attract young players who are already ascendant overseas. Polgar and her husband, Truong, are magnets for ringers. “I think they have a wonderful skill to connect with the players and to connect between the players,” explains Israel’s Vitaly Neimer, an international master (one cut below grand master) who played for Polgar at Texas Tech and transferred to Webster as a sophomore. Collegiate chess is an appealing path for talented young players because it lets them develop their game while maintaining some semblance of a normal life: classes, roommates, frisbee in the quad. As soon as Polgar announced she was moving to Webster, she and Truong started getting emails from players around the world. “They contact us,” Truong says, “because they understand.” One recruiting coup led to another. After Polgar snagged a shy, dark-haired 24-year-old named Manuel Leon Hoyos, who just happens to be the top chess player in all of Mexico, Hoyos reached out to his friend Fidel Corrales Jimenez, ranked third in Cuba and 174th in the world—”another rock star,” Truong says—and just like that, Webster gained another young grand master.
One evening in May, about 100 people gather at a building on Webster’s campus for what amounts to a chess pep rally. Inside, men and women pick at desserts with icing shaped like chess pieces. The president and provost of the university sit on a makeshift stage along with the star of the show, Polgar, looking elegant in a sequined dress, blue blazer, and black high heels.
Onstage is Schuster, a wiry man with a thin mustache. He introduces Polgar as “arguably one of the strongest players in the history of chess.” She thanks him and points to her players in the crowd, asking them to stand: Georg Meier, a grand master from Germany; Neimer; and Ray Robson, a lanky, freckled 18-year-old often considered to be America’s next great chess hope. (When Polgar first met Robson in 2009, at a tournament she organized in Texas, she was so impressed with his play that she declared him “the next Bobby Fischer.”) A university employee presents the players with black Puma jackets embroidered with a newly designed logo for the chess team. Everyone claps and whoops.
Eventually the college president takes the stage and asks the crowd for two volunteers: one to take on Robson in an exhibition game and one to play Polgar herself. Two men raise their hands. The audience applauds their bravery, and soon 30 or 40 people gather around a chessboard at the back of the room.
Robson is up first. He sits across from one of the volunteers, Masoud Assali, a public-safety officer at Webster. To level the playing field somewhat, Robson removes his glasses so a cream-colored blindfold can be tied over his eyes. He’ll have to remember the position of all the pieces as the game progresses.
“c5,” Robson says.
He is playing black. Truong picks up a black pawn and moves it two spaces forward.
Assali thinks for a few seconds. Then he reaches out and moves a white knight. Truong calls out a letter and a number that tells Robson how his opponent moved—universal chess notation. Robson doesn’t hesitate. “d6,” he says. Truong advances another black pawn.
It goes on like this for several minutes: Assali taking his time, Robson calling out moves almost immediately. White pawns are captured; black advances. Robson soon encircles his opponent’s king. Assali nods with a gracious smile: checkmate.
“Beautiful,” Schuster says, glass of red wine in hand, shaking his head. “Robson could have taken a rook, but instead he played it in the most elegant way possible.” Schuster winks: “He is the One.”
Polgar’s exhibition is next. For a handicap she’ll play not with a blindfold but with a time restriction: She’ll have only two minutes total to make all of her moves, while her opponent, a chess coach at a local prep school, will have five minutes.
She moves a pawn and presses the button on her timer. Click.
Polgar’s opponent frowns. He presses his fist into his chin. Finally, he moves. His hand touches the timer—click —
Click. Polgar has already responded. Sixty moves and six minutes in, her opponent topples his king, admitting defeat.
Mike Wilmering, the center’s communications director, says the feed is ESPN-ready. “They show poker,” he says. “They show the spelling bee.” Polgar chooses an even more established TV staple as a comparison. “I have all the respect in the world for golf and golf players,” she says. “I think watching golf is not the most exciting thing, but look at all of the resources it gets.” (ESPN, for now, is noncommittal: “If there’s an audience for chess and covering an event makes business sense, we would entertain it,” the network told Wired.) This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. “Chess really used to have that geeky, nerdy image,” Polgar says. “All guys with huge beards, smoking pipes and cigarettes. I mean, when I was a little girl, that was the image of the world champions. Today they’re intelligent, good-looking young men.” The top-ranked player in the world is a boyish, polite, apparently well-adjusted Norwegian, Magnus Carlsen, who looks like he could have been cast in one of the Twilight movies. And many of Polgar’s own players are notably telegenic. Neimer, for example, is lean and confident, with a high-wattage smile; Cuba’s Corrales Jimenez has dark curly hair and chiseled looks.
“I mean, soccer has 200 international federations within FIFA,” Truong says. “The World Chess Federation has 170, which is the second most in the world. Yet we don’t have a marketing brand. In America everything’s about marketing and promotion.” Major sports leagues build brands around their stars. Doing that for young chess stars might be an inherently impossible task. Or maybe it hasn’t been done because—until now—no one’s been bold enough to try.
We are beginning our 6th season at Webster University. This team has maintained the #1 ranking for over 350 consecutive weeks, as well as winning 5 PanAm and 5 Final Four Championships in a row. The SPICE team also won 2 Final Four Championships with TTU, which makes it 7 straight titles.
Titles won by Webster University – SPICE since August 2012 (2 World Championships, Olympiad Gold, 4 World Open Championships & 47 National Titles)
Chess Olympiad Gold
2 members of Webster University – SPICE program, GMs Ray Robson (current student) and Wesley So (former student), were part of the historic US team which captured Olympiad Gold for the first time (with full competition in a non-boycotted year) since 1937!
World Championships (2)
– 2013 World Blitz Championship: 1st place (GM Le Quang Liem)
– 2013 World University Championship: 1st place (GM Wesley So)
World Open Championship (4)
– 2014 World Open Championship: 1st place tie (GM Illia Nyzhnyk)
– 2015 World Open Championship: 1st place tie (GM Illia Nyzhnyk)
– 2016 World Open Championship: 1st place tie (GMs Illia Nyzhnyk, Alex Shimanov, Vasif Durarbayli)
– 2016 World Open Blitz Championship: 1st place tie (GM Illia Nyzhnyk)
National Championships / Individual and Team titles (47)
– 2012 U.S. Open Championship: 1st place (GM Manuel Leon Hoyos)
– 2012 U.S. Open Rapid (g/15) Championship: 1st place (GM Andre Diamant and IM Vitaly Neimer)
– 2012 U.S. Open Blitz Championship: 1st place (GM Andre Diamant), 2nd place (GM Anatoly Bykhovsky)
– 2012 PanAm Intercollegiate Championship: Both A and B team tied for 1st place
– 2012 PanAm Intercollegiate Championship: Top reserve player (GM Manuel Leon Hoyos)
– 2013 College Chess Final Four: 1st place (GMs Georg Meier, Wesley So, Ray Robson, Fidel Corrales Jimenez, Manuel Leon Hoyos, and Anatoly Bykhovsky)
– 2013 National Open: 1st place (GMs Wesley So and Manuel Leon Hoyos)
– 2013 National Open Blitz Championship: 1st place (GM Wesley So)
– 2013 National G/10 Championship at National Open: 1st place (GM Wesley So)
– 2013 US Open G/15 Championship: 1st place (GM Manuel Leon Hoyos)
– 2013 US Open Blitz Championship: 1st place (GM Manuel Leon Hoyos)
– 2013 US National G/30 Championship: 1st place (GM Georg Meier)
– 2013 US National G/60 Championship: 1st place (GM Georg Meier)
– 2013 PanAm Intercollegiate Championship: 1st place (A team won with a perfect 6-0 score)
– 2013 PanAm Intercollegiate Championship: Top board 1 (GMs Le Quang Liem, Fidel Corrales Jimenez)
– 2013 PanAm Intercollegiate Championship: Top board 2 (GM Anatoly Bykhovsky)
– 2013 PanAm Intercollegiate Championship: Top board 3 (GM Wesley So)
– 2013 PanAm Intercollegiate Championship: Top board 4 (GM Ray Robson)
– 2013 PanAm Intercollegiate Championship: Top overall performance (GM Wesley So)
– 2014 College Chess Final Four: 1st place (GMs Le Quang Liem, Wesley So, Georg Meier, Ray Robson, Fidel Corrales Jimenez, and Anatoly Bykhovsky)
– 2014 National Open Blitz Championship: 1st place (GM Wesley So)
– 2014 US Open: 1st place tie (GM Illia Nyzhnyk)
– 2014 PanAm InterCollegiate Championship: 1st place (A team scored 5.5–0.5)
– 2014 PanAm InterCollegiate Championship: Top board 1 (IM Ashwin Jayaram)
– 2014 PanAm InterCollegiate Championship: Top board 2 (GM Illia Nyzhnyk)
– 2014 PanAm InterCollegiate Championship: Top board 3 (GM Ray Robson)
– 2014 PanAm InterCollegiate Championship: Top board 4 (GM Andre Diamant)
– 2015 USATN: Top College Team (WGMs Anna Sharevich, Katerina Nemcova, WFM Luisa Mercado, Mara Kamphorst)
– 2015 College Chess Final Four: 1st place (GMs Le Quang Liem, Ray Robson, Illia Nyzhnyk, Vasif Durarbayli, Fidel Corrales, Andre Diamant)
– 2015 National Open: 1st place tie (GM Illia Nyzhnyk)
– 2015 National g10 Open: 1st place (GM Illia Nyzhnyk)
– 2015 PanAm InterCollegiate Championship: 1st place tie (B team scored 5–1)
– 2015 PanAm InterCollegiate Women’s Championship: 1st place (SPICE girls scored 4–2)
– 2015 PanAm InterCollegiate Championship: Top board 1 (GM Manuel Leon Hoyos)
– 2015 PanAm InterCollegiate Championship: Top board 4 (GM Ray Robson)
– 2016 College Chess Final Four: 1st place (GMs Le Quang Liem, Illia Nyzhnyk, Aleksandr Shimanov, Ray Robson, Vasif Durarbayli, Fidel Corrales)
– 2016 U.S. Open Rapid (g/15) Championship: 1st place (GM Fidel Corrales Jimenez)
– 2016 U.S. Open Blitz Championship: 1st place (GM Illia Nyzhnyk), 2nd place (GM Vasif Durarbayli)
– 2016 Chess Olympiad: Team USA got Gold for the first time (1937 in a full Olympiad or 1976 in boycotted Olympiad) in 79 years (GMs Ray Robson [current student] and Wesley So [past student])
– 2016 US National g/30 Championship: 1st place tie (GM Illia Nyzhnyk)
– 2016 US National g/60 Championship: 1st place (GM Illia Nyzhnyk)
– 2016 PanAm InterCollegiate Championship: Both A and B team tied for 1st place
– 2016 PanAm InterCollegiate Championship: Top board 4 (GM Manuel Leon Hoyos)
– 2017 College Chess Final Four: 1st place (GMs Le Quang Liem, Illia Nyzhnyk, Ray Robson, Aleksandr Shimanov, Vasif Durarbayli, Priyadharshan Kannappan)
– 2017 National Open Blitz Championship: 1st place tie (GMs Illia Nyzhnyk, Fidel Corrales Jimenez)
– 2017 US g/30 Championship: 1st place (GM Ray Robson)
– 2017 US g/60 Championship: 1st place tie (GMs Ray Robson, Alex Shimanov)