Dastardly Doings in Chess World: Webster U. Poaches Texas Tech's Coach, Team

Feb 16, 2012 at 1:40 pm
Susan Polgar, Webster University's new queen of chess. - image via
Susan Polgar, Webster University's new queen of chess.

Since we know now that chess is a sport, maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the chess community is resorting to sports-like behavior: boosterism, trash-talking and now wholesale poaching of the best collegiate players.

Case in point: This school year, Webster University has no chess team. Next year it will have the number-one ranked team in the country, thanks to its recruitment of Susan Polgar, former women's world champion and current chess coach at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Nearly half of the Texas Tech team has decided to follow its coach: Eight grandmasters and two international masters have already committed to study at Webster starting this fall.

Polgar cites Texas Tech's lack of financial support as her reason for leaving. When she arrived in Lubbock in the fall of 2007 to start up the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (known as SPICE), the university allotted her $15,000 for scholarships. When the chess team won the national championship last year, that amount was doubled, but, as Paul Truong, Polgar's husband and team manager, told KCBD News in Lubbock, many top-tier chess schools offer $30,000 per player.

"A grandmaster is the highest title in chess, and around the world there is maybe 1,200. Tech could potentially have eight grandmasters next year if we would have enough funding," he said. "Imagine having eight Michael Jordans or eight Tom Bradys...it would be insane. Unfortunately we don't have funding, and if we don't have funding they go elsewhere."

The exact terms of the deal haven't been worked out yet, says Webster spokeswoman Susan Kerth, but all the money will be coming out of the university's operating budget and each of the ten players transferring from Texas Tech will be receiving a scholarship.

There are other attractions, of course, notably the St. Louis Chess Club, which lured Hikaru Nakamura, one of the world's top-ranked players to relocate here and which helped get us named the United States Chess Federation's Chess City of the Year for 2011. Not to mention the deep pockets and generosity of local chess-loving billionaire Rex Sinquefield. Lindenwood University, meanwhile, has announced it will be starting up its own team, but from scratch, coached by Ben Finegold, the Chess Club's grandmaster-in-residence and chess correspondent for the St. Louis Beacon.

Polgar was never officially on the hiring block. Webster's provost, Julian Z. Schuster, learned through mutual friends that Polgar was considering leaving Texas Tech and initiated an e-mail conversation; eventually Polgar came to St. Louis for a visit and the deal was done.

Texas Tech is trying to put on a brave face. "With the most recent rounds of budget cuts, we're all experiencing a little tightening in the purse strings so to speak," Chris Cook, a university spokesman told KCBD. "We have other national championship programs. We did see the importance of the chess program, but you have to meet the needs of all programs while staying in the overall budget."

Webster, solidly in the NCAA's Division III, has no such conflicts. (Quick, do you know the team nickname?) Could chess become the hottest collegiate sport in Webster Groves? (It's the Gorlocks, after Gore and Lockwood Avenues, two streets that border the university.)