St. Louis, the nation’s chess capital, is also the home of the nation’s top-rated collegiate chess team: the Webster University Chess Team. Webster’ team has won a record five consecutive Final Four national chess championships, from 2013 to 2017. They also placed first in eight out of the past nine Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships, including seven in a row from 2012-2018.
Webster University President Julian Schuster understands the value chess offers the university in terms of education, community, and humanity. In 2012, as Webster’s provost, he established a formal chess team and hired Susan Polgar, a Hungarian chess prodigy and the first female Grandmaster by contemporary standards, as its first coach.
The official title of Grandmaster is given by FIDE, the French acronym for the World Chess Federation. The qualifications to become a Grandmaster involve:
Grandmasters are skilled and experienced at the game of chess, and the proof is in their performance. Something that only comes from practice and training.
A current search on FIDE’s database shows only 1318 active Grandmasters worldwide, about 0.3% of registered players. Of those, 63 active Grandmasters are registered as American. Webster’s chess team is mostly international, and the current roster includes eight grandmasters, almost all of whom are under the age of 30.
Susan Polgar became the top-rated female player in the world at age 15. She earned five gold medals in the Women’s Chess Olympiad and was the Women’s World Champion from 1996-1999. As a coach at Texas Tech, she was the first woman to lead a men’s Division 1 team to a national title.
Polgar’s impressive resume led her and her husband and assistant coach, Paul Truong, to found Webster’s chess program, called SPICE (The “Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence”). And they indeed are excellent. In Polgar’s nine-year run as coach, the team earned more titles than all other university chess programs combined. SPICE has been ranked as the number one collegiate chess team every day for nearly a decade.
Styles of gameplay are as varied as fingerprints, and Polgar’s coaching embraces that uniqueness. With over a dozen countries represented in the team, the breadth of cultural and educational backgrounds makes students’ needs highly individualized. Susan Polgar has always believed that genius is made, not born. Skills are the product of dedicated practice, not talent alone.
The method, then, had to be both expansive and personal. “We train together, we travel together, we eat together, we celebrate holidays together, and of course we fight together. And I think that’s ultimately the secret to our success,” Polgar says. Even in an individual sport, the key, they found, is teamwork.
Susan Polgar retired in May 2021, saying her and Truong will always be Webster Gorloks at heart. Leadership, however, is staying in the Webster family. SPICE alum and chess Grandmaster Liem Le has taken over as head coach with Polgar’s deepest blessing.
Liem Le came to Webster after his own run of youthful successes. In 2005, he won the Under-14 World Youth Chess Championship and earned the title of Grandmaster at age 15. He is best known for winning the 2013 World Blitz Chess Championship. In Blitz chess, each player is allowed a total of 10 minutes of thinking time. To be good at Blitz chess means being comfortable making quick and confident decisions. Both are traits of Webster’s new coach, who today, at age 30, ranks 30th in the world.
Under his leadership, the team has already won more titles than any other participating school at the 2021 U.S. Collegiate Rapid and Blitz Individual Championship which took place this past month.
SPICE is an embodiment of the St. Louis legacy in chess. This city has learned a lot from chess, and the youthful Grandmasters living here are proof that the learning never stops. When asked for one tip to improve your game, Polgar simply said, “Always think before you move.”
To learn more about Webster’s chess program or to follow the team’s progress, visit http://webster.edu/spice.
Occasionally, Saint Louis Bank hosts chess lessons led by Webster’s chess team—we invite community members to attend with their children to learn the game or hone their skills. To be on the invite list for future Chess Lessons, send us an email!