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Webster University favored to win Final Four ... of Chess

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 5, 2013 - University of Illinois as the fierce underdog to Webster University's likely championship, blue polo shirts worn in competition, and a request that the audience remain silent during matches.

Such is the world of collegiate chess. And this weekend, it is all coming to a boil in suburban D.C. Four collegiate chess teams, including local Webster University, will go head-to-head this weekend at the national Final Four of Collegiate Chess in Rockville, Md.

Four players from Webster’s chess team will face off against teams from three schools that emerged from this winter’s Pan-American Intercollegiate Championship. Their adversaries include scholarship-offering powerhouses University of Texas - Dallas (UTD) and University of Maryland - Baltimore County (UMBC), and a surprise student-run team from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. All teams will bring six players, which includes two alternates.

To determine the champion, each player will play one player from another team in a round-robin style tournament -- three games for each player, a swift and volatile situation.

"It's a crapshoot ... in three rounds, anything could happen," said Paul Truong, who is one of chess' fiercest promoters and the husband of Webster Coach Susan Polgar

Expectations are high for Webster -- all six players travelling to the Final Four are Grandmasters, and the University’s A & B teams (combined for the Final Four because a school could have only one team) were part of a five-way tie for first. Polgar, a Hungarian child chess prodigy and Grandmaster trailblazer for women in chess, coaches the team or leads the "knights of the round table," as she calls them.

"All of the eight grandmasters that we have here, they are basically superstars on their right, and national heroes in their own countries," Polgar said, noting that "the first thing we tell them is that while we certainly respect or support their individual accomplishments or fame, they have to understand that here we work as a team."

She advises them on chess and helps analyze thousands of opponents' games, but she claims her main job is preparing the team for competition as a team.

"They all have high egos obviously, because they are superstars, and basically they need to leave their egos at the door."

While UT-Dallas and UM-Baltimore County have competed in high-level collegiate chess tournaments for several years, Webster’s team is new to the game. Several of its players, as well as Polgar, however, are no strangers to championship collegiate chess.

What do the letters mean?

The World Chess Federation, or FIDE, is the governing board of international chess competition. Recognized by the International Olympic Committee, the organization runs the World Chess Championship, among other tournaments. Chess players have “Elo” rating based from FIDE-sanctioned play. This rating determines both ranking and title. A players ranking is his or her own FIDE rating relative to other players’ ratings. The FIDE Rankings, from highest to lowest and with rating approximations, are:

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

Grandmasters on each team:

Webster: 6

UT - Dallas: 4

UM - Baltimore County: 2

Illinois: 0

Several of Webster’s players were Texas Tech University students this time last year, where Polgar coached. As documented in Beacon articles, Polgar and a majority of her top players left Texas Tech for Webster in the past year.

"The two powerhouses in collegiate chess, Baltimore and Dallas, they had won all of the first ten Final Fours, until Texas Tech came on the scene in the last two years when we won those two championships. Before that it was all between Baltimore and Dallas," Polgar said.

However, four of the Webster students attending the Final Four are freshman, new to the tournament--but certainly not collegiate chess. 

Webster backs their players with scholarship money, sends them across the country and documents them with photo ops. The institution gives credit to a group of athletes performing mentally excruciating work -- Polgar noted that the players had put in thousands of hours of preparation over the season, pouring over opponents games and looking for patterns and weaknesses to exploit.

Two hundred miles away, another team is preparing for its first Final Four tournament, yet under very different circumstances. In Champaign, Ill., a collection of freshman and sophomore chess players are without a coach, scholarship money or official institutional backing -- but they are Final Four bound regardless.

Eric Rosen, FIDE Master, a former national high school champion and the 9th place finisher at the World Youth Chess Tournament U-18 Chess tournament in 2011, leads the Illinois team in ratings and is the only ranked player on the team.

He rooms with long-time friend and Chess Club President Michael Auger, and turned down a full-ride scholarship to UT-Dallas, opting to attend Illinois because of its renowned computer science program. At Illinois, he assembled a group of Illinois chess illuminati.

“A lot of the players on our team came from Illinois high school chess, so we were all good friends and knew we were going to U of I together and knew that we wanted to play in the Pan-Ams, so we were able to organize the trip to go,” Rosen said.

“Our expectations were just to have fun and maybe pull off a few upsets, but we were definitely not expecting to tie for first place,” Rosen said of the team's finish at the Pan-American Tournament, which they entered seeded 14th.

And, as in basketball, bracket-busting upsets happen.

Take Illinois’ Pan American upset of the University of Texas-Brownsville, a top-4, scholarship-offering school with two Grandmasters and an International Master. Illinois -- student run and coachless, rermember -- won two games and drew the third.

"They were a cinderella team -- they fought very well," Polgar said.

"That's what's interesting in sports -- not always do the 1, 2, 3, 4 top teams necessarily qualify."

At the Pan-Americans, the six rounds of play insulate top-seeded teams from upsets and bad luck; or makes it hard for underdogs to win. Contrarily, the Final Four’s three-game structure adds a healthy dose of unpredictability- - any single game upset could swing the balance of power.

“The Final Four is a very concentrated event -- it’s only three games. In less than 36 hours, everything is done from the moment it started,” Webster GM Anatoly Bykhovsky said.

As with Webster players, Rosen said time spent out of class and not studying had been largely focused on chess: During our interview, Rosen was on a break from studying for a computer science exam, noting that once the exam was finished, his mind would turn back to chess and the weekend.

Likewise, my interview with Bykhovsky and GM Wesley So, a Webster freshman phenom from the Phillipines whose facebook page has more than 5,000 likes, interrupted a homework session. So was putting the finishing touches on his work when I arrived with 45 minutes to spare before class.

For now, the team has put aside the books.

“From Friday night, the moment that we know all the pairings, to Sunday afternoon, about lunchtime, once the last round is done, we figuratively live and breathe chess,” Bykhovsky said.

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