When news coverage and inquiries flooded Webster University upon its announcement that the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) would be moving to campus, Webster President Beth Stroble knew they had hit on something big.
“One of the realizations I quickly came to is that while estimates say 1 billion people worldwide play chess, a significant number of those 1 billion people happen to be in St. Louis,” Stroble said during the formal welcome of SPICE to Webster, which was streamed live to viewers around the world on May 22, 2012.
“It’s clear to us that St. Louis has been positioning itself to become the nation’s center and home for chess. It is our hope and goal that through Webster University becoming home to SPICE, that we will position St. Louis to be the international home for chess, and we think the moves you will hear about tonight are starting to do that.”
She believes the connections and exposure of Webster’s international campus network can help achieve that, and already the conversation has started on Webster’s home campus.
“We know that chess is seen by many people in different lights: As a sport, as a game, as an activity that spurs interest across the typical lines and boundaries — whether we’re talking about countries and ethnicity or gender or academic areas. Already here it has engendered a very stimulating academic community conversation, and SPICE hasn’t even really arrived.”
Chess as Didactic Tool: Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking, Strategic Processing
What’s more, chess stimulates conversation and exercises many modes of thinking. As Webster Provost and senior vice president Julian Schuster said, it activates “critical thinking, creative thinking, strategic processing, personal responsibility.”
“For us, this is not only chess, and it is not only an academic exercise — it is marrying those two and advancing the strategic mission of this University,” Schuster said.
“It is about clarity of thinking, about the ability to frame issues in a strategic way and to have excellence in execution. These are things that everyone who comes out of Webster will need to possess in order to excel in a global world. … Chess can teach us these things and help us understand the world around us.”
Pointing to Susan Polgar‘s remarkable list of achievements as the only world champion in history – male or female – to win the Triple-Crown, and as the first woman to qualify for the Men’s World Championship Cycle, earn the Men’s Grandmaster title, and to receive the Grandmaster of the Year Award, Schuster called chess “a great equalizer. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, your national identity, or whether you’re a man or woman.”
Age is no obstacle either, as evidenced by four members of the Webster University Chess Team who were in attendance at the reception. Polgar introduced them to the audience — American prodigy Ray Robson, Mexican champion Manuel Hoyos, international master Vitaly Neimer from Israel, and Jake Carlos Banawa, already a local resident.
Balancing Chess and Education
Polgar explained that SPICE provides a great opportunity for these players to continue their chess careers while also continuing their education. Many young players face the choice of either one or the other; as Webster students and players under Polgar’s guidance, these players now have the opportunity to do both.
“Being part of SPICE and the chess team, it’s a statement that they chose to combine these — not giving up their chess careers, but wanting to pursue an education and have balance in their life, versus some other grandmasters who choose to give up their education after high school to become a full-time chess player,” Polgar said.
“So I don’t expect any of our players to become world champions, because they are dividing their attention and time to education and studies and classes.
“But with that said, I’m optimistic they will bring a lot of pride and success to the community and to Webster University, obviously on the collegiate level but also representing their respective countries in the Chess Olympiad and other competitions.”