The Webster University Chess Team won their fourth consecutive Chess National Championship April 2-3. Their victory ties a President’s Cup record.
The Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) qualified for the President’s Cup after tying for first at the Pan American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship. The top four teams go on to New York.
SPICE finished in first place by its smallest margin since coming to Webster, only defeating second place finisher University of Texas Rio Grande (UTRG) by one point, the equivalent of winning one match.
Paul Truong, one of the two SPICE coaches, said that the final score is not indicative of how well the team plays every year.
“The final score never really tells the whole story,” Truong said. “Last year we actually should’ve had less points than we did. This year we should’ve had more points than we actually showed.”
Truong said the reasoning behind this year’s lower score was because the team did not capitalize in four particular games, which lead to draws instead of wins. Truong said if the team capitalized in those four opportunities, their final score would have been 10 and a half points, which would’ve been a new record.
The team was lead by junior captain Liem Le. Le went undefeated at the Final Four, winning all three of his matches. Le also recorded the winning point for SPICE to clinch the National Championship.
“He’s really the perfect captain for the team,” SPICE head coach Susan Polgar said. “He’s very responsible, very motivated, very organized… He’s not just an individual player now, but can be a strong team leader as well.
Truong said the whole team looks up to Le. After round two of the National Championship was over, the team chose Vietnamese cuisine for dinner in honor of Le’s performance against UTRG. After Le clinched the National Championship in his final match, the team felt it was appropriate to let him decide that night’s dinner. Again, it was Vietnamese food.
Four in a row
This year’s win marks the fourth consecutive Chess National Championship for Webster University. The only other team to accomplish this was the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in 2003-2006.
For Polgar, this is her sixth consecutive Chess National Championship as coach. She won two at her previous school, Texas Tech University.
Even after winning four consecutive National Championship, Truong said each year brings new challenges.
“Each year has different types of pressure,” Truong said. “The lineups of each university that make the Final Four change every year. And so does our lineup, so it’s like every year is a new experience.”
This year’s lineup consisted of Grandmaster (GM) Le, GM Ray Robson, GM Illia Nyzhnyk, GM Aleksandr Shimanov, GM Vasif Durarbayli and GM Fidel Corrales Jimenez.
Truong said tying the record of four consecutive National Championships today is a little more impressive due to the increase in competition today than back when UMBC played.
“Everybody knew about [UMBC],” Truong said. “It’s a little bit different, because in those days there were only two real powerhouses and then the rest were just average programs. There was UMBC and University of Texas Dallas (UTD).”
Between those two programs, they won the first ten National Championships. Six were won by UMBC and four were won by UTD.
Today, Truong said there are five or six schools that could win any year. Along with that, Webster has went 12-0 in all its matches over the four year streak, a record that Truong calls unprecedented.
“The winning margin in the four years is bigger than anything, anybody has ever done,” Truong said. “On top of that, you’re talking about the overall level of competition is just way way way higher than what it used to be.”
Despite the success, and the opportunity to break the consecutive chess championship record, the team said they will not be distracted going forward.
“We’re not looking at the four. To us, it’s always one game at a time, one year at a time,” Truong said. “It wasn’t our goal when we started the program four years ago to break that record. And next year, it will be just another year. We have to take care of business.”
Polgar thinks of the record as a goal for her team to accomplish going into next year.
Polgar’s impact on chess
Polgar is a five-time Chess Olympiad champion, recording five gold, four silver and one bronze medal. She won the 2006 Women’s Chess Cup Championship and is the only World Champion to win the Triple-Crown of chess.
Polgar is the first woman in history to coach a collegiate men’s Division I team to a National Championship victory and the first woman to do it for six consecutive years.
“I wish more women would get an opportunity to coach in chess or in other sports,” Polgar said. “I think women are just as capable. I think, at least initially, we need to fight even harder than the guys because that’s just how society perceives women in general. Unless you prove yourself, you start out with a handicap.”
Truong said people do not really understand how significant Polgar’s accomplishments are.
“It still doesn’t click in people’s mind that this is something very, very rare,” Truong said. “If you look at some of the other major college sports, let’s say like college football, let’s say college basketball. Other than John Wooden, who won ten National Championships and seven in a row, she [Susan Polgar] is basically number two. Even Nick Saban of Alabama, he only won five. Mike Krzyzewski won five. It’s very rare, and she won six in a row in seven years.”