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Collegiate chess checks into St. Louis universities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: 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.

Polgar's players

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.

Fifteen miles to the north and across the Missouri River, Finegold and Lindenwood admission staffers have spread an international net while emphasizing regionally grown talent. The school plans to build a 30-person club over the next few years, offering partial scholarships to top players, while also encouraging lower-ranked players to join the team in hopes of turning “experts and masters into international masters and grandmasters,” Finegold said.

“Most of the top players at the colleges in the U.S. are going to be foreign nationals who come here, go to school for four years, do well in chess and then go home,” Finegold said. “Lindenwood's probably going to have 90 percent just local people and Americans who are improving their game.”

Finegold hopes a homegrown team will encourage collegiate players to remain in the area after graduation, returning to the St. Louis chess scene as an improved player and stronger advocate.

To date, recruitment has been slower than initially expected. By the beginning of next year, Finegold hopes to have around 10 players, expecting a varsity team with ratings significantly lower than Webster’s squad. As of early June, five players had committed to the school. 

Finegold hopes to have a squad competing at Webster’s level within three or four years, along with four or five B teams.

Webster and Lindenwood’s faceoff can seem like a friendly David and Goliath situation (Polgar described Finegold as a “family friend for 25 years”). Polgar’s team is stocked with seasoned Grandmasters, while Finegold will initially rely on Masters as his top players.

Club level at Washington University

But an even smaller David is on the board. Washington University’s chess club is the oldest team in the St. Louis area, ringing in its fourth year this fall. Even with its relatively advanced age, the student-run program lacks the institutional support and thousands of dollars in scholarship money that Webster and Lindenwood use to court top chess players.

Senior Jacob Zax founded the club as a freshman in the fall of 2009, along with fellow student Nick Karlow, after discovering there was no formal chess club on the campus. Zax noted that clubs had been started prior to his arrival, but maintained little cohesion or interest.
“There really was not a culture of chess when I got to Wash U.,” he said.

Before his first semester was over, Zax had formed an official club through the university’s student government. Two and a half years after its founding, the club sent two squads to the Pan-American finals, one of which was ranked 8th in the nation entering the tournament.

The team has found success, albeit with little money or visibility. The program relies on financial support from the Student Union via Student Activities Fee charged to each undergraduate student, as well as “small stipends” from the Chess Club of St. Louis, according to Mike Wilmering, communications specialist there.

For the upcoming Fall semester, the club submitted a $983.80 budget. The budget was designed to cover half of the squad’s entry fee for a tournament in Chicago, a night of rated chess games on campus, four chess clocks and three Pointers pizzas with a 15 percent gratuity, according to documents from the Student Union.

There are no Grandmaster advisers, no paid recruiters and certainly no Associated Press interviews. But Zax said the University indirectly plays a large part in the club’s success.

“I think we can continue to be competitive, given the appeal of WashU as an academic career school, even without money,” Zax said. Washington University routinely ranks as one of the top aniversities in the country, with notoriously strong sciences and a several billion dollar endowment.

The club’s roster boasts several players with ratings over 2100, and Zax said the program’s foundation is firmly in place. Zax is already anticipating the arrival of Adarsh Jayakumar, who will arrive on campus a full year after Zax graduates. Jayakumar, who FIDE ranks 6th among all Americans under the age of 18, deferred admission to the university for a year to play competitive chess full time in Europe, with plans to join the team in the fall of 2014.

The cooperative culture of chess

Inequalities in financial backing often cause rifts in other sports — take, for example, the cacophony surrounding Albert Pujols’ departure from the St. Louis Cardinals after signing a hefty contract with the deep-pocketed Los Angeles Angels, or the occasionally unethical tug of wars waged for top football and basketball prospects by NCAA Division I universities.

For St. Louis’ collegiate chess heads, the presence and proximity of other highly skill collegiate teams can only benefit thers. Polgar, Finegold and Zax all lauded one another’s efforts and teams, emphasizing their collective promotion of chess over a race for top players and tournaments.

“The more universities that get in the ring and move resources to support chess, the better for the game,” Polgar said in a previous interview for the St. Louis Beacon. Zax and Finegold echoed her sentiment, hoping that an abundance of players would not only sharpen their teams’ skills, but raise interest in chess across the region.

“We are going to maximize our outreach the whole community; chess is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter what is the color of your skin, what is your ethnic origin, what language you speak,” Schuster said.

Schuster’s sentiment, that what is good for chess is good for the people of St. Louis, is repeated over and over, by university presidents and high school coaches and Chess Club staff members. It is the mantra of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, which each team has strong ties to. Polgar said the club’s auxiliary support helped draw top players to St. Louis. Finegold moved to St. Louis to work for the club. And Washington University’s first chessboards and clocks were donated by the club, a useful gift and an encouraging sign of support.

But when there is a game to be played and a championship to be won, there is always competition, even if it is lies between the lines of well-wishing and cooperation.

“They’re buying the national championship, like the Yankees,” Finegold said, comparing Webster’s team to the Major League Baseball juggernauts.

Finegold’s team is more comparable to the 1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

“We’re an expansion team. We’re new, but we’ll be one of the best in three or four years,” he said.

Approximation of chess ratings = (Sum of opponents’ ratings + 400 x [wins – losses]) / Games

FIDE Rankings, from highest to lowest, with rating approximations:

  • Grandmaster (GM): 2450 – 2800+
  • International Master (IM): 2400 – 2550
  • FIDE Master (FM): 2300 – 2400
  • Candidate Master (CM): 2200 – 2300

Ratings and rankings of St. Louis chess players, with FIDE rating, rank in Missouri (if Missourians), among all active American players, and among all active players:

  • Nick Karlow, Washington University, 2035, 14 Missouri, 818 active national players, 28649 active global players
  • GM Ben Finegold, Lindenwood coach, 2494, 2 Missouri, 34 active national players, 856 active global players
  • GM Georg Meier, Webster Player, 2637, 4 nationally (Germany), 124 active global players
  • GM Hikaru Nakamura, 2775, 1 Missouri, 1 active national players, 7 active global players

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