December 17, 2018

SPICE prepares for sixth consecutive President’s Cup

The 2018 President’s Cup College Chess Championship will come down to three things according to Susan Polgar: preparation, will power and luck.

The Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) will play in its sixth straight President’s Cup with Webster University at the end of this month. A win for SPICE this year would tie Webster for the most national championships since the President’s Cup was founded in 2001. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) currently holds the record with six national titles.

Head coach Susan Polgar, assistant coach Paul Truong, and multiple players told the Journal this year’s competition is the strongest they have ever seen. None of the four teams have a huge edge over the others. The stakes are high, and it is not getting any easier.

“It puts us under pressure because everyone is expecting us to defend our title,” veteran player Vasif Durarbayli said. “And every year other teams are recruiting stronger players.”

A dynasty of chess

Polgar won her first collegiate chess national championship in 2011 with Texas Tech University. Polgar has won every President’s Cup since. If Polgar wants to be on top of the college chess world again, she will have to do it without Webster’s top player of the past four years, Quang Liem Le. Polgar said the team is relatively weaker since Liem graduated last year. Liem is currently ranked as the 22nd best chess player in the world. Webster’s strongest player this year, Ray Robson, is ranked 106th.

SPICE has prepared for the President’s Cup by working up to eight hours a day with the players over spring break. Truong believes every second counts when it comes to getting ready for the national championship, and analyzing every statistic possible is one of the hardest parts of preparation.

“I’ll have more grey hair by the end of the day,” Truong jokingly said.

The Guessing Game

Truong said SPICE has a database of over eight million chess games played. Truong and Polgar will use the database to pick four players each round that have the best statistical possibility to beat any four of the opponent’s players. Truong referred to their analysis as all “guesswork,” although the best guesser could choose who takes home the trophy.

Truong believes analyzing data in chess is much more difficult than any sport because the statistics and trends change almost daily, and the sheer number of statistics is mind blowing.

This year’s guesswork will be the most difficult they have ever done according to both SPICE coaches.

How a winner is decided

Players compete to win. The more wins, the better. However,  the most wins does not guarantee an overall victory in chess.

The winner of the President’s Cup will be determined by the margin of victory in each game played throughout the tournament. Once the total points are added up, the teams will know whose margin is the highest over the others.

This is why both SPICE coaches worried about the specific strengths of each player on Webster’s team. Any player can skyrocket or plummet the margin in a single game. Truong said this year’s heavier competition puts a bigger burden on them to choose who to play to try and get the biggest margin over the other teams.

Illia Nyzhnyk believed Webster’s chess team will live up to the test this year. Nyzhnyk will play in his fourth national championship at the end of this month and wants to show everyone that Webster really is the best college chess team.

“If we beat them, it proves that we are just stronger,” Nyzhnyk said.

Tournament Setup

Lineups will be submitted one hour prior to each of the three rounds. After that, it’s all in the players’ hands.

Lineups may not be the same for all of the rounds. The coaches could decide to change them based on the way a certain player competes with another player on the opposing team. Polgar and Truong will go back to the drawing board to analyze which players give them the highest chance of winning.

That’s what the coaches hope, at least, because it is all just guesswork.

The tournament will begin with an opening ceremony on Friday, Mar. 30, and conclude with the cup ceremony on Sunday, April. 1.

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