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.