THE QUEEN’S NEW GAMBIT: CHESS AS A GREAT AMERICAN SPECTATOR SPORT
ENTERTAINMENT – WIRED MAGAZINE
02.12.13 6:30 AM
At age 21, Susan Polgar 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.
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 thedominant 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. St. Louis is home to the top-ranked player in the US, 25-year-old Hikaru Nakamura, as well as one of the game’s most deep-pocketed benefactors, 68-year-old multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield, who stepped up to build the most opulent chess venue in the country and probably the world, the 6,000-square-foot, $1 million-plus Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.
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.
Not surprisingly, people in chess tend to have strong opinions about Polgar. Is she well liked in the collegiate world? “It depends upon to whom you speak,” says UT Dallas chess program director James Stallings, laughing. “We all have our admirers, and we all have our detractors. Certainly she’s done a lot for chess. The move from Texas Tech to Webster was unusual. I don’t think we’ve ever had that happen before, and we may never see it again.” Says UMBC’s Alan Sherman, “I think the way it happened was not very good. There is a stipulation in the rules of college chess that you’re not allowed to recruit from other schools.”
Polgar does the chess equivalent of studying game film, looking for patterns in the play of opposing kids and passing on what she learns.
Polgar insists that she broke no rules. Some of the Texas Tech students decided to stay, some to leave, but none were recruited—”Each of them made their own decision without our influence,” she says. 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.
For a lesser-known school, the logic of investing in collegiate chess is compelling and simple: It’s a cheap way to build a brand. “The joke used to be that UT Dallas is one of the best-kept secrets in the state of Texas,” says Stallings, a former salesman who took over the UT Dallas chess program in 2006. Among the state’s public universities, only UT’s flagship in Austin had students with higher SAT scores, “but people didn’t know about us.” UT Dallas lacked a Division I football or basketball team; there was no chance to get on TV. Stallings expanded the program by aligning his goals with the university’s, forging links between the team and the wider community. He lent out his players to faculty scientists, who performed MRI studies on their brains, and he got the school’s cheerleaders and pep band to perform at matches. Over the years, the school ponied up more and more scholarship money for Stallings to recruit top players. “It’s just like in any sport,” he says. “You seek out the best.” For the past six years, Stallings has traveled to the European Youth Chess Championships, and he offers a yearly scholarship to the best boy and the best girl age 16 or under. Since 2000, Dallas has taken first place or tied for first in the President’s Cup five times.
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.
“Chess really used to have that geeky, nerdy image—all guys with huge beards, smoking pipes,” Polgar says. “Today they’re good-looking young men.”
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.
Webster’s recruitment of Polgar and her players is just one in a string of recent investments that are transforming St. Louis into a chess mecca. Parents of ambitious young chess players are starting to move their families here—people like Abdul Shakoor, who came to St. Louis last September from Columbus, Ohio, so that his 12-year-old daughter, Diamond, could train with elite players. “The influx of money in St. Louis is a very significant factor in chess today,” says Alan Sherman, director of the chess program at UMBC.
Much of that influx can be traced back to one guy: Rex Sinquefield, the silver-haired investment wizard. “I would love to be able to say I’m a grand schemer,” he says. “I’d love to be able to say, like the Emperor in Star Wars, ‘Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen.’” But it wasn’t like that, he insists. “It just happened.” By bringing people together to play the game he loves, he wound up putting his hometown at the center of the US chess scene.
Raised in a St. Louis orphanage, Sinquefield learned to play chess when he was 13. After spending some time away from the game, he got back into it in a major way several years ago—and, frustrated that St. Louis lacked a physical chess club, he ponied up more than $1 million to build the Chess Club and Scholastic Center from scratch. It wasn’t just that he wanted a nice place to play; he believed in the power of chess to keep old brains healthy and nurture young ones. “You have to use every part of your reasoning process,” Sinquefield says. “You have to develop your memory. You have to calculate. You have to develop patience, intellectual patience.”
The facility he built is a 20-minute drive from the Webster campus, in the Central West End of the city. You can’t miss it; right across the street is the largest chess piece in the world, a 14-and-a-half-foot-tall plywood king. The center is important not just because it’s popular in St. Louis but because it has fleshed out what a mass-market future for chess might look like. There’s a reason the US Championship has been held at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center for the past four years. Upstairs in the “tournament hall” are up to 40 boards, neatly arranged in a black-and-white-walled space flooded with natural light—the antithesis of the smoky chess clubs of old. But the most important part of the center is the basement, which features a Monday Night Football-style TV booth where the resident grand master (the day I visit, it’s Benjamin Finegold, the 37th-ranked player in the country) can view all the boards in real time and provide color commentary on a video feed that’s piped back to the plasma screens lining many of the walls upstairs.
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.