2014 was an exciting year in College Chess. For those of you who are not familiar with the college chess scene, there are two significant college chess tournaments that take place every year. They are the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship and the President’s Cup.
The Pan-American is hosted in part by the United States Chess Federation. It is open to any team comprising four players and up to two alternates from the same post-secondary school in North America, Central America, South America, or the Caribbean. The Pan-American is held annually, usually December 27–30. The current format is a six-round fixed-roster team Swiss System tournament.
The winning team is considered to be the top college or university team in Pan-America. In the event of a tie, the title is shared among the top scoring teams. The top four school move on and compete in the President’s Cup (informally known as the "Final Four of College Chess" and typically held in the first weekend of April.
The President's Cup determines the U.S. college team chess champion. The top winning four US school chess teams from the Pan-American play a round robin tournament. The winning school takes possession of the perpetual trophy, originally donated by President Franklyn Jenifer of UT-Dallas in 2002, for one year.
The Pan-American tournament this year resulted in a final four that was both predictable AND surprising. The interesting fact about this tournament is that University of Illinois tied for First Place in the PanAm which qualified them for a place in the Final Four. They are/were considered the underdogs.
The top chess schools (Webster, UNMB and Texas Tech) actively recruit from all over the world and these schools offer full and partial scholarships and other incentives.
The University of Illinois does not offer chess scholarships, like many other top chess schools. The chess club is completely student run. They solicited donations in order to compete in the President’s cup and through these donations, were able to hire a Chess Coach to train for the event.
The Four teams that made up the Final Four were Webster University, Texas Tech, University of Illinois and University of Maryland –Baltimore.
The 2014 President’s Cup was held April 4-6 at the NY Athletic Club in New York City. It as sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton and the Chief Arbiter was Michael Hoffpaair. The Arbiter is responsible for acting as TD and ensuring all rules and regulations are followed.
Irina Krush and Max Dlugy provided live commentary at the event and was broadcasted on chess.com and the games were made available on monroi.com.
The 2014 President’s Cup Winning team was Webster University and was led by GM Susan Polgar.
Susan Polgar heads SPICE (Susan Polgar Institute for Chess). Her organization is dedicated to bridging the gap in chess from scholastic to adult players. She offers several programs benefiting chess in schools and promoting women’s chess. Polgar held the Women’s World Chess Championship title from 1996-1999. She made history as being the first female to qualify to compete in the Men’s World Chess Championship, among many other chess endeavors. She has led the winning President’s Cup team for four years in a row, twice as head of Texas Tech and now twice as head coach for Webster University.
In additional to her many accomplishments, a great deal of controversy surrounds her. The controversy in the US began in 2007 when claims against her and her husband were made regarding defamation and undermining election efforts of a USCF co-board member. That resulted in her being kicked out of the USCF in 2010.
Her controversy continued. In 2012, Polgar announced that she was taking her entire chess team from Texas Tech University where she was the head chess coach to Webster University when funding issues arouse at Texas Tech. Texas Tech could not meet her funding request of $1million.
She also has been attacked for her recruiting tactics and use of billboard advertising and social media. Naysayers voice that she is buying the national championship.
She even gets flak for requiring her team to participate in Cross Fit exercise program as part of their training program.
More controversy ensued when Webster team member Wesley So decided to switch federations from the Philippines to the United States.
But Susan Polgar isn’t the only controversy surrounding college chess.
The USCF took over the Pan American from the intercollegiate League of America. The USCF has made no effort to control colleges from enticing Grandmasters from all over the world with full run scholarships for the purpose of winning the tournament. Many chess team members are in their 30s and 40s. The only requirement is that the USCF requires is that the teams are comprised of “legitimate college students”. This loose interpretation of the rules includes graduate students.
College Chess became big on the scene in the early 1990s. There are two primary reasons for this. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought an influx of very strong eastern European and former Soviet players to the US. The other reason being that smaller colleges and universities were seeing the value of recruiting chess players to their schools. They found that chess players helped fill their engineering and math programs. Because of this, many schools rewarded chess players with sizable scholarships and incentives.
In addition to Webster, some of the other universities that invest heavily in their school chess programs include University of Maryland, Texas Tech, University of Dallas, Tennessee Tech and University of Texas Brownsville.
The University of Dallas (UTD) offers a full ride scholarship including cost of tuition and mandatory fees through 4 years of enrollment. Additional scholarship includes a $1,000 per semester contribution toward housing expenses. This scholarship is awarded to the winner of the Denker Tournament of High School championship.
The USCF has been discussing what to do with kids between 14-18 who often drop off the chess scene during and after high school. The USCF currently has over 80,000 competitive members under the age of 18. These kids either drop chess in order to focus on their vocational studies or those serious about continuing with their chess career often forgo a college education to focus solely on chess.
With scholarship opportunities like Denker and programs like Susan Polgar’s Foundation which helps promote chess in schools are steps in the right direction in bridging the gap from scholastic players to lifelong competitive adult players.
The next step is getting chess built into schools as part of the primary curriculum in the United States. Chess is incorporated in the scholastic curriculum in more than 35 nations across the globe, including Brazil, China, Armenia, Venezuela, Italy, Israel, Russia and Greece.
Q&A with Wesley So
First off, congratulations on your team’s win in the President’s Cup (Final Four). How did it feel to win as a team in comparison to other tournaments that you have won individually? Was there more or less pressure?
I feel there is less pressure when playing in a team event. The responsibility, preparation, and work is divided within the team members. I am glad to be a part of our team and do my share.
At what age did you become a Grandmaster?
My father taught me chess when I was 7. I was fascinated with how the pieces move. We started reading chess books and I would replay tons of games in the hopes to improve. I joined weekend competitions and age group championships.
My first international event was in 2003. Greece World Youth Under 10. I became a Grandmaster when I was 14. At that time it was good for 7th youngest in the world to achieve the title. I think it was that time I decided to be a chess professional.
What is your highest rating?
FIDE 2744, which was good enough for the 15th place in the World.
For what accomplishment are you most proud?
2x Collegiate Chess Champion and World University Games Champion. I have several other wins like the Capablanca Chess Memorial and Las Vegas Triple Crown last year. Do you play chess online? Yes, I do play chess online. I have accounts on ICC Chessclub, Playchess, and chess.com.
How many hours a day do you train?
I train anywhere between 2-8 hours per day. But I don't work everyday. It really depends on my schedule. I can train really hard at times, and I can be lazy too, but when I work I try to get the most out of my time. I know hard work and preparation is important for me to continue improving and achieve my current goal of reaching 2750+.
You recently switched chess federations. What is the biggest advantage of being part of the United States Chess Federation?
I think the biggest advantage is: exposure. I will be able to play in strong events that I won't be able to otherwise, fight for medals in team events, and work with stronger teammates. In addition my family has been living in North America already for several years, and I think it makes a lot of sense for me to switch federations. How did you come to study with Susan Polgar at Webster University? Did she seek you out?
Yes, Susan recruited me to join her team in 2009. I was only 15 then, but I was fascinated of the idea of playing serious chess while studying in a university. I joined her team in 2012, and I didn't have any regrets. Are you also a Cross Fit enthusiast? Do you think physical stamina helps you with your mental stamina? Are there any other routines or practices you do to help you prepare for a game? I like CrossFit, I wish they would do exercise sessions longer than 1 hour. Physical shape definitely affects a chess player. Chess games and tournaments can drag out and take a long time, and to have full energy the whole time is hard. If you look at the top players these days, notice that all of them are in a good physical shape.
I sleep a lot during tournaments. At least 8-9 hours a day, preferably longer. And avoid doing anything tiring an hour before the game.
What was the worst chess mistake you recently made?
Over the board, you have to see my game against Dutch GM Giri in 2010. I was White, completely winning and blundered a mate in 2. Do you analyze your games immediately following your rounds in a tournament?
It's good to take a quick look, but I don't analyze my games too deeply during a tournament. Experience tells me it's not too helpful, as there is only a small chance that the same position would arise again in the same tournament.
You just completed your Sophomore year at Webster University. What are you studying besides chess?
I am studying Finance. My parents are both accountants, very good in math, and they said they would help me with any problems I have about that subject.
How do you see yourself 10 years from now?
It's hard to tell. A World Champion?!.
I imagine you don’t have much free time, but do you have any other hobbies or interests?
I like physical and outdoor activities. Sports, running, partying, whenever I have the time. Watching and following sports. I also love road trips around the US. My dreams include going to an NBA Basketball game and Universal Studios.
I try to read different kinds of books everyday. I think they are better than surfing the Internet. Do you have any advice for kids to help them become better players?
If you really want to improve, work hard, be confident, and never give up. Or just be my student :) Do you believe that anyone can become a Master or Grandmaster? Why or why not?
I think anyone can become a Master as long as they are serious about it and get the right training. Becoming a Grandmaster is a lot trickier, because you do need International exposure to get it. Are you planning to attend the Millionaire Chess tournament? As a player or spectator? What are your thoughts on chess as a high stakes game? I love Vegas, though I am not sure if I would attend the event. First of all it is my 21st birthday on the start of the event (October 9)! And I have school classes. That tournament will be assuredly tough though. Whom do you most admire and why?
My favorite chess player is Carlsen.
-Jen Vallens 2014 OFF DA ROOK newsletter