Candid interview with Coach & Chief Strategist of Webster University #1 ranked Collegiate Chess program
By Chris Torres
President of Chess & Music Academy in Northern California
Chris Torres: Congratulations on winning the Final Four for the 6th consecutive time. That is impressive.
Paul Truong: Thank you. The credits have to go to our hard working students. We are all very proud of them.
CT: I know that you rarely give interviews. Therefore, thank you in advance for agreeing to share your candid views and immense chess knowledge with many fellow chess players, parents, and coaches around the globe!
PT: It is my pleasure. But I have to warn you in advance, I speak my mind and I rarely hold back J
CT: Not a problem at all. That is good. Many of us would love to know what is the secret of success to the SPICE program, especially at Webster University. How is it possible to win 6 consecutive Final Four Division I College Chess Championships without losing a match against very strong competition? This has never been done before and may never be done again.
PT: Well, a lot of hard work! We have an exclusive system which has proven to be incredibly successful. It is a very complex system but I will try to simplify it for everyone to understand.
Step 1: Scouting
We (Susan Polgar and I) spent a lot of time studying about each of our potential opponents. It is a very thorough and tedious job. We tried to find out everything from their playing styles, chess strengths and weaknesses, body language, on and off the board tendencies, to nerves and mental toughness or lack thereof, etc.
Step 2: Matchups
Once we found out everything we needed to know about our potential opponents, we decided on the matchups which we think favor our team the most. We never go by just ratings since every opponent is good. We cannot take anyone lightly. Every point matters. The right matchups can play a major role in the success or failure of each game or match.
Step 3: Game plan
After we decided on the matchups, we then worked on the game plan on each of the matchup as well as all potential substitutions.
After that, we shared our findings with our students. We started the preparation the minute after we knew that we qualified for the Final Four each year. There was no time for celebration. Our job is not done until after the Final Four is won.
We literally spent between the two of us over 500 hours preparing for every little aspect of the Final Four, including non-chess issues such as choosing the right hotel, flights, and restaurants, etc. We planned for every little detail in advance. If you add the amount of time our 6 players, plus their teammates, spent to prepare, you can safely say thousands of hours.
No team and no coach will out work us. We may or may not have the best team in each given year. We may or may not be the best coaches and strategists. But we for sure will be the hardest working and most prepared team in each and every year. We cannot control the results. What we can control is our focus, dedication, sacrifice, and hard work.
CT: Leading up to the Final Four, how do you structure training sessions so your teams are prepared?
PT: We worked in groups as well as individual sessions around our students’ class schedule. We had general training, in addition to focusing on very specific areas for each potential opponent. We set precise goals and we were fully focused on accomplishing these goals, one at a time.
CT: What are some of the biggest achievements of the SPICE program to date?
PT: In the four years at Webster University, members of the SPICE chess teams won 2 world titles and 36 national titles, including being ranked #1 in the country for over 250 consecutive weeks (https://chessdailynews.com/webster-university-spice-2015-spice-chess-team).
We won 12 consecutive matches in the Final Four without a tie or loss (http://websterchess.blogspot.com/2015/08/the-spice-national-championship-records.html).
We also won 15 national titles at Texas Tech (http://texastechchess.blogspot.com/2012/02/spice-knight-raiders-accomplishments.html).
No program has ever won 6 consecutive Final Four Championships before. It is unprecedented.
CT: What is the expectation for students in the SPICE program at Webster University?
PT: They are expected to maintain a 3.0+ GPA while working hard to improve their chess. They are expected to volunteer with various community outreach programs. And most importantly, they are expected to be model citizens and represent Webster and SPICE properly.
CT: What key coaching principles do you use to consistently lead championship teams?
PT: Hard work, team work, discipline, and loyalty! We lead by examples. We have many stars and superstars in our program. From the first day when they arrive at SPICE, they are asked to check their ego at the door and work together as a team. We treat everyone the same, regardless of ratings. We win or lose as a team. There is no “I” in this team. We are one family. We are very loyal to our students and they treat us the same. We go out of our way to help each student. However, if a student does not follow team rules or becomes disrespectful to fellow teammates, his / her scholarship can and will be revoked, as we have done in the past, even for world class players. No one is above the rules.
Here is another point which I think is very important. When Susan decided to be a full time coach for world class players, she completely gave up her chess playing career even though she was offered a lot of money by various organizers to come out of retirement to play in major events. We believe that there is a real conflict of interest when coaches still actively play competitive chess at high level, especially against their own students. So it is an advantage for SPICE when Susan can devote 100% of her effort for her students to make sure that they will succeed, on and off the board, instead of focusing on trying to beat her own students.
CT: What is the difference between the SPICE training system and other programs?
PT: Here are the comments from two of our players in a recent interview with http://www.stljewishlight.com:
“She’s a really good coach,” said Liem Le, 25. “She takes care of a lot of things, not just on the chessboard, but she also makes sure we eat well and sleep well, that nothing bothers us. She helps us prepare for opponents by knowing their strengths and weaknesses, and recommends strategy for each opponent, so she is very important to my success.”
Le’s teammate Ray Robson, 21, said his chess game has improved since joining the Webster University team because Polgar “can see all the things that are good and bad about my game, and she focuses on the things I need to improve on.”
We do not have a one size fits all approach. We work with each student differently based on their strengths, weaknesses, and needs. This is why our players gain more rating points and win more major titles than all the other chess programs.
I also think a very important factor is we utilized all the talents we have the right way. We would never make team decisions based on political correctness or petty-mindedness. I have seen so many other programs failed because unqualified people were brought in based on who they know and not for what they can do. That is just nuts. It should be who can do the best job. I believe that should all come down to the key principle: “Objective Assessment” in every situation.
CT: What qualities best define the student chess players at Webster University?
PT: Hard working and very motivated diverse group of young people! We are one family. We train as a team and we battle as a team. We have players from all over the world on the team (well, maybe not Antarctica yet), and this creates an incredibly valuable experience for all of the team members. Also, Webster has unmatched gender diversity among its team as it is represented by some of the top young woman chess players in the world.
CT: Why do you think you are so skilled at bringing out the best in young chess players? Is it a natural talent for coaching, years of experience or something else?
PT: Because we care about what we do and we care about every student of ours. All parents can be sure that we will do everything we can to nurture and guide their children toward the right paths, on and off the chessboard. We want to make sure that when they graduate, they are ready to succeed in the real business world.
And our relationships with them do not end the day they graduate. We still stay in touch with students who were with us all the way back to when we started in college chess many years ago. It is a lifetime relationship and we will always try to help them anyway we can. And last but not least, our students know that we say what we mean and we mean what we say. We will always have their backs.
CT: Do you only work with students at Webster University?
PT: No, we have worked with many young talented players in the United States and around the world, including players who have competed in past Candidates Tournaments and World Championships. But of course our time is very limited so we can only help a limited number of players at a time. Just in the past 12 months alone, in addition to our 20+ students, we worked a little bit with GM Daniel Naroditsky, GM Julio Sadorra, GM-elect Darwin Yang, FM Josh Colas, IM Ruifeng Li, IM Awonder Liang, IM Safal Bora, IM Sara Khademalsharieh, WGM Medina Aulia Warda, WGM Zhansaya Abdumalik, IM Nomin-Erdene Davaademberel, IM Nastassia Ziaziulkina, WGM Gunay Mammadzada, and many more.
Moreover, the presence of the Webster program has also immeasurably contributed to the local and regional chess communities by virtue of its team members playing in countless area events, as well as teaching countless people to benefit of the general chess community.
CT: What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in creating the kind of success you’ve experienced as a college level chess coach?
PT: The usual, jealousy and chess politics! Until SPICE came along, only two universities dominated College Chess in the previous 10+ years. The competition at one point became rather unprincipled and a mockery. 40+ year old GMs and strong players were recruited just for the purpose of playing in the PanAm / Final Four. Some of these players probably did not even know where their classes were located. It was a total joke. Things started to clean up with rule changes over the years.
Today, there are a number of competitive schools which recruit serious student players. For example, the 20+ members of the Webster University chess team have an average GPA of 3.5 – 3.7 every semester. But instead of working harder or doing a better job, some people take cheap shots at our program by spreading lies and misinformation.
Here are some of the flat out lies and misinformation:
1) We left Texas Tech because of salary dispute. Wrong! We left Texas Tech because the administrators abandoned our students by not timely living up to the written scholarship commitment. We are very loyal to our students. If we did not look for alternatives, most of our students could not graduate and that was totally unacceptable to us. The administrators let these students down and we had no choice but to protect our students. Texas Tech miraculously “found” money for scholarships after they were humiliated in the news by the national and international media for losing the coaching staff and a number of players. By the time when they “found” it, it was too late.
2) Webster University imported a championship team from Texas Tech. Again, wrong! It is very insulting for our students to keep hearing this fabricated narrative. We did not import a championship team ready made. This is completely false. The facts are absolutely clear. The Webster – SPICE chess program officially began in August 2012. The top 5 players of the Webster inaugural championship A team were: GMs Wesley So, Georg Meier, Ray Robson, Fidel Corrales Jimenez and Manuel Leon Hoyos. With the exception of Meier who spent only one year at Texas Tech, the other four came to Webster University as freshmen. The next two who joined the A team, GMs Liem Le and Illia Nyzhnyk, were also freshman. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that Webster built the most powerful team from scratch. Misinformation continues on this score through the present.
3) Webster University has the biggest college chess program and we offer more scholarships than other schools. That is why we win. Wrong, wrong, wrong! The SPICE chess program does not offer free iPads, envelops full of cash, or better conditions than other major chess programs. Nearly every top school offer similar levels of scholarships. We have a limited amount of scholarships funds available each year. We simply do a far superior job with recruiting, spotting talents, and training.
Last year, we had to decline the applications from about half a dozen strong grandmasters. We have a long waiting list of students trying to get into the SPICE program at Webster. Contrary to the rumors and innuendos, the Webster – SPICE chess program does not have the largest scholarship budget. We just do a superior job allocating our resources and making SPICE a much more desirable destination for top notch serious student players.
Even though the SPICE program won 6 consecutive Final Four championships, which is a record, we did not win the College of the Year designation from the College Chess Committee until this past August, which is supposed to be awarded to the top chess program. Our players take this honor seriously, and feel wronged by the chess powers that be for disregarding their unmatched accomplishments and hard work on and off the board. As a consequence, our students are very motivated to perform and excel even more.
So what happened when the College Chess Committee finally gave this “political” award to our program after ignoring our success year after year? It was promptly rejected because this award now becomes the consolation prize for other schools that did not win. We prefer to win the Final Four than to “wait” for what has become an essentially meaningless and arbitrary political award.
4) We win because we have the highest rated team. This is a very convenient excuse for others to mask their failures. In the first year we won the Final Four, we were the lowest rated team by a huge margin. No one gave us a chance. It was like David vs Goliath but we won. In the second year we won, we had a more competitive (somewhat higher rated player makeup) team but at the similar level as our competition. Some people just cannot accept the fact that a woman can coach a top level men’s team and dominate year after year. So they made up all kinds of bogus excuses.
CT: How do others feel about your program’s success?
PT: Here are some of the numbers in college sports:
– “Bear” Bryant (Men’s College Football Coach – 37 years coaching division I) – won 6 national championships.
– Nick Saban (Men’s College Football Coach – 43 years coaching division I) – won 5 national championships.
– John Wooden (Men’s College Basketball Coach – 29 years coaching division I) – won 10 national championships.
– Mike Krzyzewski (Men’s College Basketball Coach – 41 years coaching division I) – won 5 national championships.
– Susan Polgar (Men’s & Women’s College Chess Coach – 7 years coaching division I) – won 6 consecutive National Championships (with 2 different universities) – Team is ranked #1 for more than 250 consecutive weeks (members of team won 2 world titles & 51 national championships) – The only female to coach a men’s division I team to win national championships and be ranked #1 in division I.
In spite of this, I keep hearing stupid rumors about the idea of banning women from coaching men’s team or changing rules so Webster can no longer win. Even for being the #1 program in the United States for over 250 consecutive weeks, we are not allowed to have any representation on the College Chess Committee while some other universities have 3-4 members in the committee. And it is one person one vote. So what can anyone expect? This would never fly in any other major sport.
CT: You have personally developed a very tough reputation in chess. You are known to butthead with chess politicians quite often. How did that come about?
PT: I am a very practical and logical person. When I see problems, I immediately find solutions for them. When I see things which need to improve, I find a way to do it. I cannot stand bureaucracy and political correctness. I am very much a goal oriented person. I am also known to be brutally honest with my assessments, including with myself, and I am often right about it.
I walked away from chess when I was a teenager to focus on school and then a professional career after. Why? Because I saw little chances of making a decent living as a professional chess player, especially 30-40 years ago. So being a political refugee, a boat person originally from Saigon (Vietnam), who came to the United States with absolutely nothing, I could not afford to be irresponsible by chasing an unrealistic dream. I had to work hard while going to school (both high school and college) to help support my family.
In spite of the huge handicap of not having money to enter big tournaments or hiring good coaches, I was still ranked among the top 10 juniors in the country at that time. My peak FIDE rating was around 2400. I believe that I was the first Asian to qualify for the U.S. Junior Invitational Championship. So after careful and objective assessment, I decided to change my focus. I quit playing chess. My last FIDE rated game was probably around the mid 80’s.
When I came back to chess 15 years later as a champion for the game, very little changed. It was still dominated by a political organization in the U.S. to protect the “power” of some instead of doing the right things to promote chess as a whole. I have not been shy in taking on the entrenched chess establishment and advocate for changes that would promote and improve the quality of chess in the United States.
When I was elected to the USCF Executive Board nearly 10 years ago, in my first ever board meeting, a fellow board member walked up to me and said: “Some like you (Asian) have no business being on this board.” They were OK with people with criminal records on the board but not Asian. What a welcome, right? The ironic thing is if you look at the scholastic chess population today, a huge percentage is Asian and they still have no representation on the board whatsoever.
I started to clearly see so many racist and sexist people sitting at the power position. They will lie, smear, and distort anything and everything to protect their power, interest, and money making machine at the expense of devoting parents who want the best for their children. When I refused to go along with the “business as usual” approach by these politicians, the smears, lies, and attacks started to come my way.
Some of these people claimed that they want to do good things to help chess. Really? Are they serious? Susan and the Susan Polgar Foundation were approached by the USCF to help boost scholastic and women’s chess in 2002. They came to us. We did not go to them. The first all-girls national event which was approved by the USCF was the Susan Polgar National Invitational for Girls in 2003.
This year, the 13th year of the event, we offer more than $200,000 in scholarships, $7,500 in cash prizes, and special training plus free room and board for 50-60-70 girls with ZERO entry fees for a 5-day event. It is by far the richest all-girls tournament in the world and the most prestigious all-girls event in the United States.
Because of Susan’s tireless effort to promote girl’s chess, the percentage of girls/women in chess went up 10-15 folds. Do you see one blurb about it on the USCF website or magazine about it? Of course not! Do you see them promote the opportunities for young female chess players in the U.S. to earn over $200,000 in college scholarships? No!
The next Susan Polgar Foundation event which was approved by the USCF in 2003 is the Susan Polgar National Open for Boys and Girls. We offer more than $100,000 in chess scholarships and prizes each year since that time. Not a word from the USCF in many years. The federation simply denies young players the opportunities to win college scholarships purely out of pettiness and political interest. How does this benefit young players? Of course it does not.
The Susan Polgar Foundation has awarded, through sponsors and partners, over $4 million in chess scholarships and prizes for young players since 2003, which is more than any other chess organization in the U.S. Do you see it mention anywhere? Of course not!
The annual SPICE Cup is in its 10th year. It used to be the highest rated round robin tournament in the United States for many years before the Sinquefield Cup. Many players earned FIDE norms and titles from the SPICE Cup, and it has always been free for titled players and most players. Again, do you see one blurb about it anywhere? No! I can give many more examples but I think you got the idea.
But if a USCF insider puts on an event, even a tiny one, it will be promoted and talked about over and over again. It is one of the perks for being a part of the political system. This is the same pattern for those entrenched chess politicians in the United States going back for many decades. And one wonders why with approximately 45 million chess players in America, only 80,000 or so are USCF members. That is a joke. It should be many times bigger than that. But chess politicians are known to shoot themselves in the foot.
As for the way these chess politicians treat Susan, it is a disgrace. Everyone is welcome to compare her chess resume (https://chessdailynews.com/about-susan-polgar-2/), as a player and coach, with every person inducted to the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame so far. She has a far superior resume by a big margin. She spent more than half her chess life in the United States and broke just about every record imaginable during her playing and coaching career.
Do you see her in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame? Of course not and not even one person has the guts to show us the criteria for inducting anyone to the Hall of Fame. Complete silence! One board member even said some years ago that the only way she will ever be in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame is if she buys an admittance ticket.
Everything is a political process as usual. If you play by the politicians’ rules and be a part of their system, you get rewarded, even with little accomplishment or success. If you do not, you will be ignored or punished. Susan is not the only one. There are many other victims. How about these players?
GM Max Dlugy
-Former World Junior Champion
-Former US Junior Champion
-Was ranked #1 in the world in blitz
-Was ranked as the top American junior
-Was a member of the US Olympiad Team
-Twice finished 3rd in US Championship and much more…
GM Patrick Wolff
-2-time US Champion
-Former US Junior Champion
-Former US High School Champion
-Was ranked as the top American junior
-2nd for Vishy Anand in the World Championship and much more…
IM Stuart Rachels
-Former US Champion
-Former US Junior Champion
-Youngest US Master at 11 years 10 months, a record that lasted from 1981-1994 and much more…
GM Roman Dzindzichashvili
– 2-time US Champion
– Played top board for US Olympiad Team
– Won Lone Pine, Hastings, World Open, and many other big tournaments and much more…
GM William Lombardy
– Former World Junior Champion, the only in history to have a perfect 11-0 score
– Coach and second of the late Bobby Fischer
– Member of many US Olympiad Teams
– Multiple time Olympiad medalists
– Gold medalist at World Student Team Championship
– Multiple time US Open Champion and much more…
There are many more. All of them have better chess resume than many currently in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame. Why are they not in? How is that fair? This is supposed to be an honor bestowed to players for their lifetime achievements on the chessboard or their immense contribution to our sport.
But there are no written criteria to be nominated and voted in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame. There are no rules which say that one has to be a current member of the USCF or U.S. citizen (Susan is a U.S. citizen) to be in the Hall of Fame. There is no rule that says one has to be born in the U.S. Many in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame were never members of the USCF and were not born in the U.S. The problem is there is no transparency in the process. The nominating and voting committees can ignore the deserving players and put in people who have no business being in the Hall of Fame. They have to answer to no one.
The USCF also screams constantly that FIDE is corrupt. Even as Kasparov sued FIDE (which costs FIDE millions of euros), got banned for 2 years by the ethics commission for corruption, and broke off from FIDE to form PCA which disrupted the World Championship cycle for many years (I am not saying what he did was right or wrong since I am a fan of him as a player, it is for others to judge), he was elected to the Chess Hall of Fame. So FIDE has no problem electing their biggest opposition. Why does the USCF not elect deserving people who have clearly proven themselves on the chess chessboard? But this is how chess in the U.S. has been run for years. It is who you know.
If I do not speak up, who will? Since I do not make a penny from the federation or these politicians, I am not afraid to speak up while many others are very afraid. They are terrified of the retaliation from these politicians.
Most average folks are not even aware of the problems. They are being hidden and brushed under the rugs. This is not right. I do not care about being politically correct. I do not care for being liked or disliked by chess politicians. I care about doing the right things for chess. I care about solving problems timely. I care about coming up with intelligent and logical solutions. I care about all chess players being treated fairly and respectfully.
This is why I also fight hard for my students. I give them everything I have. That is my commitment to them. I need to protect their rights and interests and point them to the right paths.
CT: Well, thank you so much for the enlightening answers. Once again, congratulations to Webster and good luck to your students.
PT: Thank you.