COLUMBIA, Mo.—It was one of the most brazen moves in the chess world since the Najdorf Sicilian Defense, perhaps even the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit.
Fresh off her second straight national championship, the legendary chess coach at Texas Tech is jumping to another school and taking all the top members of the team with her. No one has ever seen anything like it in intercollegiate competition, not even among powerhouse basketball and football teams that are worth many millions of dollars.
Similar deals are not uncommon in academia, where a star professor recruited by another school may bring along a cadre of researchers, lab assistants and post-docs. But in the competitive realm, the practice is virtually unheard of.
“There’s no equivalent,” said Mike Hoffpauir, a Virginia consultant who helped organize the recent President’s Cup chess tournament, the game’s version of the Final Four, which was won by Texas Tech. “If the coach from Kentucky gets hired by UCLA this summer, the whole team’s not going to go with him.”
Susan Polgar, a home-schooled prodigy from Budapest and the world’s top female player by the time she was 15, is taking her champions to private Webster University in suburban St. Louis, a city that is already home to the World Chess Hall of Fame and the U.S. national championships.
It also has a swanky new chess club and scholastic center bankrolled by a billionaire, the kind of place where students can immerse themselves in chess arcana, learning moves like the King’s Indian Defense and others with mysterious names steeped in the game’s 1,500-year history.
Webster lured the team with the promise of a greater financial investment.
“The program grew rapidly, and Texas Tech wasn’t ready to grow with the speed of the program,” said the coach, who founded the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence, known as SPICE, in 2007. “St. Louis today is the center of chess in America. It just seemed like a perfect fit.”
The Webster program will be based on campus, but its top players will clearly spend plenty of time at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, a 6,000-square-foot shrine to the game where the resident rock star is Hikaru Nakamura, the top-ranked U.S. player and No. 6 in the world. He, too, is a recent transplant to St. Louis. The club was bankrolled by businessman Rex Sinquefield, a retired financial executive and avid chess player who is also active in Missouri politics.
The Knight Raiders of Lubbock won their second straight President’s Cup in Herndon, Va., last weekend, defeating chess powerhouses New York University, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the University of Texas at Dallas.
There are no hard feelings in Lubbock, said Texas Tech spokesman Chris Cook. The school plans to continue its chess program despite the departure of Polgar and her all-star squad of seven chess grandmasters, the game’s highest competitive ranking.
“What these kids have done in the short time they’ve been here is amazing,” Cook said. “They’ve put us in some niches where we haven’t been before. They’ve put us in some countries where we haven’t been before.”
The championship chess team has also helped elevate the Texas Tech brand, Cook said — though chess matches draw far less attention than Tech football under former coach Mike Leach or Red Raider basketball under the irascible Bobby Knight.
Polgar said she was recruited by a half-dozen top programs, though she declined to identify her unsuccessful suitors. In the end, she chose Webster, a former Catholic women’s college in a leafy suburb that now has more than 100 campuses worldwide, including many near U.S. military bases, as well as residential programs in Vienna, Geneva and China.
Provost Julian Schuster, a native of the former Yugoslavia who calls himself “a very strong fan and casual player,” helped broker the deal after learning of Polgar’s interest through mutual friends. He envisions a broader academic focus revolving around chess, espousing a “dream of connecting chess as not only a game but as a didactic tool, to apply in a learning setting.”
Neither Polgar nor Schuster would discuss the specifics of the financial commitment to attract the program.
The Texas Tech students transferring to Webster in the fall will receive scholarships. At Tech, the program had a $30,000 pot for the entire team, but Polgar noted that some top chess schools award individual students that amount.
The team members hail from around the world: Germany, Brazil, Iran, Hungary, Israel and Azerbaijan. In interviews, several said they had no qualms about the surprise relocation. Such is their faith in Polgar, who in 2005 set a Guinness World Record by playing 326 simultaneous games — and winning 309 of those matches, with 14 draws and just three losses. That feat also gave her another world record, with 1,131 consecutive games played.
“It was a very easy decision,” said Georg Meier, a freshman from Trier, Germany. “When the program decided to move to St. Louis, I didn’t have to think twice.”
About 30 schools nationwide have competitive chess teams, from Yale and Princeton to Miami-Dade College and the University of West Indies. And while college chess remains a niche activity, Polgar’s unprecedented move has given the game a brief moment in the spotlight.
Hoffpauir’s consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton heavily recruits elite chess players for their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Some Wall Street firms do the same.
“These players that were here were the equivalent of Kansas and Kentucky, athletes at the top of their game,” Hoffpauir said.
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– GM Susan Polgar