Vasif Durarbayli and Liem Le first competed against each other in a chess tournament in 2007. Durarbayli was 15. Le was 16. They played to a draw. Eight years later, Sept. 11, they faced off in the Chess World Cup 2015 held in Baku, Azerbaijan. This time, they were not strangers from different countries. They were teammates and roommates.
A second-year Webster student, Durarbayli, originally from Azerbaijan, was playing in his second World Cup. For junior and Vietnam native Le, it was his fifth. The Chess World Cup is held every other year, and only 128 players in the world can qualify.
The pairings for the tournament were released at the beginning of September. Webster Chess Team members and first-year roommates Durarbayli and Le said they were disappointed to find they would meet in the first round.
“We found out we were not lucky and had to play each other in the first round. Both of us didn’t really want to play each other,” Le said. “We would prefer to play other opponents, but we couldn’t do anything about it, so we had to play.”
Durarbayli said he was upset about the pairing because they were thinking they would prepare for the tournament together instead of against each other.
Durarbayli and Le were not scheduled to face each other in the tournament originally. The bracket had been officially released twice before, but after mistakes were found, the pairings were redone. The final release of the bracket was the one that hurt head coach Susan Polgar the most.
“Of course my heart is bleeding when I know I have to lose the potential of one of my students going to the next stage of the World Cup, but there was nothing I could have done about it,” Polgar said. “It’s just one of those things that sometimes just happens.”
Durarbayli and Le both said they felt odd preparing for a match against each other. They said it was also difficult because of how well they knew each other.
“It’s very hard to play someone you know so well,” Le said. “They know you, and you also know them, so it can work both ways. You really have to try to do something differently than you usually do to get the opponent surprised.”
So eliminates Le
Le won the two-game match against Durarbayli. He ended up winning one more match, advancing to the round of 32. In his third match of the tournament, he lost to Wesley So, a former Webster student.
So dropped out of Webster in 2014 to pursue a professional chess career after winning $100,000 at the Millionaire Chess Open. Le is still a full-time Webster student.
“Compared to other professional chess players, I did very well,” Le said. “If I focused more on chess, I could probably still get better results. I will have to work to improve my play.”
Polgar said it was “remarkable” that Le made it as far as he did because he is a full-time student.
Both Durarbayli and Le said they felt added pressure when it came to the World Cup. Not only did Durarbayli have to compete against his roommate, but he was playing in his hometown.
“There were many people who were supporting me. At some point it is not good for chess because you feel pressure. It is not like soccer, people scream, shout; you should be calm in chess. I think it was more of a distraction than helpful for me,” Durarbayli said.
The added pressure for Le came in the form of school work. Between rounds and games, Le still had to be working on academics.
“During the tournament, I still had to do my school assignments,” Le said. “It’s hard to combine time between chess and academic studies. For us, we have to focus first on academic studies.”
Only four of the 128 players in the tournament currently attend an American university, Polgar said.
The Chess World Cup is very tough even to qualify for, Durarbayli said. Three of the 128 competitors were members of the Webster Chess Team.
Ray Robson, another Webster Chess Team member, also qualified but was eliminated in the first round. He was seeded 41st, but because of the Lufthansa airline strike, he had travel complications.
“Unfortunately they had major travel delays, and instead of getting there timely, which is so important with a 10-hour time difference, both Liem (Le) and Ray (Robson) got there two days late,” Polgar said. “It’s unfortunate because (Robson) was so much looking forward to it. He prepared a lot. Sometimes fate and bad luck happen. Given that they got there hours before their first game, it’s actually remarkable how far Liem (Le) went.”
Assistant Coach and Director of Marketing Paul Truong said he was very proud of how the three Webster students performed.
“Overall, we couldn’t expect more from the students given the circumstances,” Truong said. “It’s not easy.”
Durarbayli and Le said it was not easy preparing for this tournament, but once the match started, it had to be like any other match.
“When you sit across the board, you have to take it like any other opponent; just any other game,” Le said.