The Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championship was held Cleveland, Ohio in the end of 2015. It was a qualification event for the Final Four of College Chess in April. The event was won, for the first time in the Pan-American Chess history, by the TTU Knight Riders. The other teams qualified are Columbia University, Webster University, and University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. A total of forty-two teams from across the United States and Canada competed.
Chris Torres, the President of Chess & Music Academy, made an extensive interview with Susan Polgar, the director of the Webster SPICE chess program – the team that is defending champion and has chance to take fifth consecutive title. Susan Polgar explains about the SPICE program, the history of college chess, and expects a growth in college chess in the next years.
Q: Congratulations, on yet another success of Webster SPICE at the recent Pan-American Intercollegiate Championship, which was held in Cleveland, Ohio. But first, please let our readers know how did SPICE come about?
A: As you know, I am very passionate about passing on my vast chess knowledge to the next generation. For many years, I was very involved in the scholastic side. During this time, I saw a big percentage of young people dropping out of chess after middle school. I spoke to many parents and they told me that they simply do not see the benefit of chess beyond 6th to 8th grade because very few universities offer meaningful chess scholarships. This is why I decided to personally get involved in college chess. I wanted to change this trend and I think I have made a big positive difference in the past 8-9 years. There are more opportunities now than ever.
Q: After five years at Texas Tech, what prompted to move the SPICE program to Webster University?
A: The top management at Texas Tech was originally very supportive of chess. Unfortunately, shortly after SPICE was formed, the university had drastic management changes. The President, Provost, and Senior Vice-Provost who brought me to Texas Tech either left the university or changed their positions. The new management did not fully understand how important chess is, and therefore they did not properly fund the program as promised.
Most of the original scholarship money came from one anonymous donor. At the end of the 5 years, there was virtually no money left from the donation. I pleaded with the top management at Texas Tech to intervene and provide scholarships for the students and more funding for SPICE. This was after we won our first National Championship.
Unfortunately, they did not. They told me that the money was better spent in other areas. If SPICE did not relocate, many of my students could not continue and graduate. I simply could not allow that to happen. After I made the announcement to move to Webster, Texas Tech got so much bad publicity with regional, national, and international media for losing the top ranked program in the Unites States. Because of this, money “suddenly appeared” for chess.
By that time, it was too late. I already signed a long term contract with Webster.
Q: What are your coaching philosophies, and what is the secret to the impressive successes of SPICE and its students?
A: Objective assessment and hard work! There is no substitution. I do not take in players simply based on ratings. The students must want to improve and be ready to train hard. While we may or may not have the top players on a particular year, we will out-prepare and out-train everyone else, on and off the chess board. Win, lose, or draw, we will be ready to battle hard in each game.
Unlike some “celebrity coaches” who go through the motion for the media or simply by lending their names, I actually spend a lot of time to dissect the strengths and weaknesses of each of my students. Then we work together to fix each weakness and enhancing their natural strengths.
Because of this, my students gained more ratings and win more major events than any other university program in the United States by a significant margin. In fact, in some years, my students win more major titles than all other schools combine.
The success of my students is not a coincidence. They fully deserve the credit for working very hard, staying very focused, and remaining very dedicated to their individual goals.
Q: Are scholarships available only to Grandmasters or can lower rated chess players also apply and become part of the SPICE program? How can potential interested youngsters find out further information?
A: We have scholarships available to students of all levels. Obviously, there has to be a fair scale. The higher the ratings, the higher level the scholarship will be. Any student who is interested in SPICE, or simply to find out more information, they are welcome to check out www.webster.edu/spice. Before they can apply to join SPICE, they must be admitted to Webster University as students.
Q: There is a major difference between the United States and other parts of the world regarding how collegiate sports are being viewed. In Europe for example, sports at universities are not very competitive or being broadcasted on TV with millions of viewers. It is simply considered mostly for recreational purposes, while in the U.S. it is a major multi-billion dollar industry. Tell us a little about the history of College Chess in the United States.
A: College Chess has a long history, going back to over 100 years. Many of the most prestigious universities in the United States have won the national championship. For example, Columbia University won 6 times, Harvard won 5 times, Yale won 3 times, University of Pennsylvania won once, and MIT won 2 times. Webster is in elite company by winning 4 times in just 4 years of existence.
Q: How do students combine their academic studies with their chess training and tournaments?
A: There is a huge misconception that just because students are in the SPICE program at Webster University, their chess would suffer. On the contrary, their strengths and ratings go up, and in some cases, significantly. Here are just some small examples:
– Ray Robson was slightly below 2600 when he joined our program after a period of stagnation. He jumped to 2680 last year after correcting a few weaknesses.
– Ashwin Jayaram became IM at 16. He had 4-5 GM norms but could never cross the 2500 rating mark in something like 8 years. Within 6-7 months at SPICE, his rating jumped from around 2440 to 2515 and became a grandmaster.
– Vasif Durarbayli could not break 2600 after a number of years in the mid to high 2500’s. Within a year at SPICE, he jumped to 2635.
– Alex Shimanov was around 2660+ a few years ago. But because of some bad chess habits and various weaknesses, his rating went down to around 2593. After just a few months at SPICE, he will be around 2630 in the next rating list.
– Wesley So was stuck in the mid 2600’s for 3 years. Within 2 years at SPICE, his rating went to 2762 and he got to top 10 in the world.
There are many other examples. But this does not mean that our students neglect their studies. As a group of around 20, their average grade point average is above 3.5 / 4, with a number of students having perfect 4.0. This is very high.
But this is not all. Many of the students also very focused on physical fitness, which is very important in chess.
Q: How did the 2015 PanAm go?
A: Webster University won 4 national titles. We tied for 1st in the Open Division I (which is the highest division in the US). That is 4 straight PanAm titles for Webster. We also won for the first time Women’s Division I Championship. In addition to the team top placement, GM Manuel Leon Hoyos and GM Ray Robson won top board 1 and 4 as well.
Q: How popular is Chess in Schools in the US?
A: They are getting more and more popular than ever. With the growth of college chess, it will help even more.
Q: Is the game more and more popular in general?
A: In the scholastic and college chess level, absolutely. I expect much bigger growth in the next decade.