St. Louis University looks to challenge SPICE


St. Louis University (SLU) and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis have teamed up to start the university’s first competitive collegiate chess team.

The team will be coached by Grandmaster (GM) Alejandro Ramirez, a runner-up at the 2013 U.S. Chess Championship.

“It’s an honor to be selected to help build a competitive collegiate team at a university as distinguished as SLU,” Ramirez said in an article on the school’s website. “This is an exciting time to be a part of the St. Louis chess community – it is truly the nation’s chess capital and home to the country’s top tournaments, facilities and scholastic programs.”

Financial executive Rex Sinquefield is president and chairman of the board at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He came up with the idea of starting the program. Sinquefield is also a member of SLU’s board of trustees.

SLU looks to compete against top-tier chess programs, including four-time Chess National Championship winner the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) at Webster University.

“They want to win the National Championship,” SPICE coach Paul Truong said of the new SLU program. “They’re not even thinking about just having a fun program. They are designed to win the National Championship.”

Right now, the SLU roster has four GMs in its first year as a program. SPICE currently has nine GMs on their roster. SLU won’t begin playing in major chess tournaments until the 2016 Pan-American Championship, giving Ramirez the rest of the year to continue recruiting, Truong said.

Truong said that the biggest test SLU’s new chess program brings is not in recruiting players, but in the number of scholarships they can offer compared to Webster’s recruiting budget.

“Other universities, they spend a lot of money. Some universities spend – literally – $100,000-$150,000 a year just for their recruiting budget,” Truong said. “They send people out to try and recruit grandmasters.”

SPICE had to turn down around six GMs last year because they cannot afford more scholarships than they already have. This is the equivalent of a college basketball program turning away NBA-caliber players, Truong said.

The idea of a larger chess recruiting budget has not been discussed between the university and SPICE. Truong said they will revisit the idea when he sees what lineup SLU will have for competition.

“We still have a core intact right now,” Truong said. “We do have a team in place for next year, at least; it’s very, very competitive. We will see what [SLU’s] move is going to be.”

Truong said he believes SPICE’s success in winning six consecutive National Championships, two at Texas Tech and four at Webster, gives them an advantage when it comes to recruiting high-level chess players.

“If a student is very, very serious about improving chess as well as academics, then we are a no-brainer,” Truong said. “If you want to talk about the super-elite, the ones that are very serious about it, yes, we would have an edge. Not only against SLU, but against anybody.”

SPICE uses its previous accomplishments and reputation to recruit players since it cannot compete against major universities financially, Truong said.

Considering Sinquefield’s connections, Truong said it is not a matter of if, but of when SLU’s program will be able to compete at the same level as SPICE. He says it will be a healthy competition.

“They will be bigger than [our program], they will have more money than [our program], there is no doubt,” Truong said. “I’m not sure how much more Webster can afford to grow. We cannot keep matching everything that they can do over there.”

Training harder and putting in more time is the alternative SPICE will take to supplement the difference in budget to stay  competitive, Truong said. A better job at recruiting will be another improvement.

Currently, SPICE sends players to National Championships at the high school and elementary levels as a recruiting tactic to get high-level players interested in the university. They are also involved around the Webster Groves area at local elementary schools and high schools in an effort to tap into the St. Louis market.

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