Legendary chess players are defined by the brilliance of their moves.
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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 USA.”
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,” Truong said. “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,” Truong said.
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.”