Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Texas Tech's champion chess team, coach switch universities

COLUMBIA, Mo. — It was one of the most brazen moves in the chess world since American Bobby Fischer took on Russian star Boris Spassky.

Fresh off her second straight national championship, the legendary chess coach at Texas Tech is jumping to another school and taking all the top members of the team with her.

No one has ever seen anything like it in intercollegiate competition, not even among powerhouse basketball and football teams that are worth several million dollars.

Similar deals are not uncommon in academia, where a star professor recruited by another school may bring along a cadre of researchers, lab assistants and postdocs. But in the competitive realm, the practice is virtually unheard of.

"There's no equivalent," said Mike Hoffpauir, a Virginia consultant who helped organize the recent President's Cup chess tournament. It's the game's version of the Final Four, won by Texas Tech. "If the coach from Kentucky gets hired by UCLA this summer, the whole team's not going to go with him."

Susan Polgar, a homeschooled prodigy from Budapest and the world's top female player by the time she was 15, is taking her champions to private Webster University in suburban St. Louis, a city that is already home to the World Chess Hall of Fame and the U.S. national championships.

It also has a swanky new chess club and scholastic center backed by a billionaire, the kind of place where students can immerse themselves in chess knowledge, learning strategies like the King's Indian Defense and others with mysterious names steeped in the game's 1,500-year history.

Polgar in 2005 set a Guinness World Record by playing 326 simultaneous games — and winning 309 of those matches, with 14 draws and just three losses. That feat also gave her another world record, with 1,131 consecutive games played.

Webster lured the team with the promise of a greater financial investment.

"The program grew rapidly, and Texas Tech wasn't ready to grow with the speed of the program," said the coach, who in 2007 founded the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence, known as SPICE. "St. Louis today is the center of chess in America. It just seemed like a perfect fit."

The Webster program will be based on campus, but its top players will spend time at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, a 6,000-square-foot shrine to the game where the resident star is Hikaru Nakamura, the top-ranked U.S. player and No. 6 in the world. He, too, is a recent transplant to St. Louis.

The club was funded by businessman Rex Sinquefield, a retired financial executive and avid chess player who is also active in Missouri politics.

The Texas Tech Knight Raiders won their second straight President's Cup in Herndon, Va., last weekend, defeating chess powerhouses New York University, the University of Maryland at Baltimore County and the University of Texas at Dallas.

There are no hard feelings in Lubbock, said Texas Tech spokesman Chris Cook. The school plans to continue its chess program despite the departure of Polgar and her all-star squad of grandmasters, the game's highest competitive ranking.

"What these kids have done in the short time they've been here is amazing," Cook said. "They've put us in some niches where we haven't been before. They've put us in some countries where we haven't been before."

The championship chess team has also helped elevate the Texas Tech brand, he said — though chess matches draw far less attention than Tech football under former coach Mike Leach or Red Raiders basketball under Bob Knight.

Polgar said she was recruited by a half-dozen top programs, though she declined to identify those that were unsuccessful. In the end, she chose Webster, a former Catholic women's college with more than 100 campuses worldwide. That includes the main campus in a St. Louis suburb and many others near U.S. military bases as well as residential programs in Vienna, Geneva and China.

The Texas Tech students transferring to Webster in the fall will receive scholarships. The program at Tech had a $30,000 fund for the entire team, but Polgar noted that some top chess schools award individual students that amount.

The team members hail from around the world: Germany, Brazil, Iran, Hungary, Israel and Azerbaijan. In interviews, several said they had no qualms about the surprise relocation. Such is their faith in Polgar.

"It was a very easy decision," said Georg Meier, a freshman from Trier, Germany. "When the program decided to move to St. Louis, I didn't have to think twice."

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