Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The importance of College Chess

Paul Truong, coach of the Webster chess team and Director of Marketing & PR for SPICE, just made the following statement regarding the recent big surge in interest in College Chess. Due to space limitation, he decided to have it posted here and provided a link for readers of the Washington Post and FOX Sports:

First of all, kudos to Mike Rosenwald, the author of this article, and Louis Ojeda, Jr., author of this article for covering a very interesting issue.

Secondly, I would like to correct a few misconceptions about College Chess, budgets, and recruiting, etc. College Chess has a long history; however, it has grown dramatically in the past seven years, and now receives serious attention from the media.

As I pointed out to Mike in an email, the secret of building a national championship team has little to do with an arms race. As a head coach, Susan Polgar has led her teams to four consecutive Final Four Championship wins with 2 different universities. The first victory came with a team that was dubbed the “Cinderella team,” the organization with the smallest budget, and by far the lowest rank. No team had ever won the Final Four being the bottom seed until her team did it in April 2011.

So how did they win? Hard work, team work, good strategy, and good coaching! She knows how to coach and how to motivate her players. Her players respect her and they will always fight hard for her.

She is labeled as the most controversial chess coach. Why? Because she sets very high standards for her students, and constantly challenges them to achieve these goals! She demands that her student players focus on their school work. The average GPA of the national championship team is around 3.6 or 3.7, with multiple players with 4.0. She insists that they work out physically to stay in shape and enhance stamina. Many members of her team do CrossFit, and all of them pay attention to fitness. She also asks her players to volunteer in the community, conduct themselves professionally on and off the board, respect one another, stay out of trouble, and be productive global citizens. Some think that is too much to ask. She disagrees.

Today, many universities have world class coaches such as Onischuk, Macieja, Yermolinsky, Milovanovic, etc. Being the only female coach in a division I men’s chess team, Susan has to work much harder to prove that she belongs on the male-dominated elite level. Therefore, she knows that her every move will be severely scrutinized by doubters and sexist individuals. Being a pioneer is never an easy task.

As for the size of the budgets and scholarships, this is another major misconception. As the Washington Post has pointed out, UMBC provides full tuition and a $15,000-a-year food and housing stipend for their fellows. That is quite a bit more than Webster currently offers (when the full value is calculated) and there is no way Webster could match that. The size of chess teams from UT Dallas, Texas Tech, and UT Brownsville, etc. also are all bigger than Webster, so when the full value of their programs are calculated, they too exceed what Webster spends. Webster provides academic and need-based scholarships to the Chess team members, and those students qualify for these types of scholarships just as any other students.

To compare budgets between various chess programs is like apples and oranges. Some programs count office space, utilities, office supplies, and other various miscellaneous expenditures as a part of their budgets while others do not. Some programs are under various Deans / Provosts, which means that whole sections of their budgets aren’t actually counted as being part of the “chess” budget, but rather are calculated as part of someone else’s expenditures. As the famous saying by Mark Twain: "There are lies, damned lies and statistics." This was explained to reporters, but all failed to mention this in their stories.

Another completely false narrative is the reason why Webster University chess team is ranked #1 in the country and won the last two Final Fours. Many have repeated the myth all members of the Texas Tech team left with Susan and enrolled at Webster. This is completely false and can easily be debunked. The fact is four of the five top members of the Webster University National Championship team were freshmen (Grandmasters Wesley So of the Philippines, Ray Robson of the US, Manuel Leon Hoyos of Mexico, and Fidel Corrales of Cuba), and therefore weren’t even in college when Susan left for Webster. This year, grandmaster Le Quang Liem of Vietnam also came to Webster as a freshman. Only one of the top five players on Webster’s team transferred from Texas Tech. He was a sophomore when he did that, having only spent one year at Texas Tech.

All of Webster’s players were heavily recruited by other universities, including many of our rivals. So why did they choose to come to Webster? They did not choose Webster because of better scholarships. If they were interested in a free education, they easily could have gone to other schools that offer top chess players full scholarships, room, board, book money and stipends, something Webster does not do. These players chose Webster because of the reputation of the coach, just like Nick Saban of Alabama football or Mike Mike Krzyzewski of Duke basketball. These players want to learn and play for the best. Simple as that! None of them has ever heard of Webster until the chess program was announced.

And Susan helps them achieve success. Two of her players won world titles last year. Le Quang Liem became the World Blitz Champion and Wesley So won the World University Championship. Three of her players qualified for the World Cup. Eight of her players are Olympians from different countries. This is unprecedented. When Wesley So came to Webster University in August 2012, he was ranked 99 in the world. After a little more than a year training with Susan, he shot up to #18, while winning 11 big events. This is why there is a long list of students wanting to train with the Head Coach of Webster.

So what is the bottom line? Webster University is a small global private tier one university in St. Louis with students from all 50 states and 148 countries around the world. They offer excellent education but they do not have the billions of endowment as some other big universities. They obviously could not match the financial numbers of other giant schools. But the top administrators at Webster University, President Stroble and Provost Schuster made a compelling pitch to why Susan Polgar and her SPICE (Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence) program should relocate to Webster in the Summer of 2012. They understood the value which a top level chess program can bring to any institution in major publicity, image building, and recruiting, etc. They also understood the importance of chess in education and in the global market. A few weeks ago, Susan co-taught a credit course at Webster with Professor O’Bannon: SPICE’ing up Business Strategy with Chess. It was a huge success with big turnout. She is working with several Deans and Professors to incorporate chess into various grad/undergrad courses. This is just the beginning of the new revolution, chess in higher education and the real business world.

That is why she picked Webster over others, and for less money. Winning national championships is great but it is a secondary thing. Giving young deserving students a great education, on and off the chess board, and building characters, are much more important. And this is what Webster University and SPICE is all about!

Paul Truong
Coach of the Chess Team
Webster University

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