You might say that Webster University chess plays it “any which way but lose.” Tell them the rules and they’ll win.
Last December, the Gorlocks swept the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Championships. The PanAms are a big, open event using Swiss pairings and match points to determine success. But this past weekend it was time for the playoffs, the Final Four of College Chess—a single-round robin of four-member teams playing head-to-head at New York City’s fabled Marshall Chess Club. Another, nearly unique difference between the playoff and the qualifier—at the Final Four, also known as the President’s Cup, the team with the most game points is declared champion. That’s a nuance that’s often overlooked and has been mis-reported again this year.
Different rules this weekend? So what. Webster not only won again but established a new record for itself and an even more impressive one for Head Coach GM Susan Polgar. Webster has now won every Final Four since the start of its program in 2013. Five in a row is a record for consecutive titles (and certainly winning every year of your program deserves at least an asterisk). The record for overall wins in the Final Four remains for a while with the six-time champ University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But before coming to Webster, Head Coach Polgar was queen at Texas Tech chess and took that school’s team to Final Four victories in 2011 and 2012. So that’s seven national college championships in a row for Polgar as head coach. And that’s a nice add-on to her many other accomplishments—Women’s World Classical, Rapid and Blitz Champion, winner of 10 Olympiad medals, including five gold, and establishing the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE), which has been instrumental in encouraging US girls in chess.
This year, Webster won every match and, even more crucially, put together 8 game points (the all-time record result is the 10.5 collected by University of Texas-Dallas in 2007; GM Ramirez won his share for UTD) to outdistance Texas Tech’s 6.5. Tech lost its first-round match against Webster 1-3 but then beat Saint Louis University 3-1 and UT-D 2.5-1. SLU trailed Webster and Texas Tech with 5 game points, winning only its match with UT-D. UT-D, a four-time Final Four champion, had a bad, very bad weekend, collecting only 4.5 game points, losing all its matches. This time, both game and match points would have determined the same sequence of finishers, but that hasn’t always been the case. In 2013, for example, Texas Tech won two matches but finished third. (As then-director of the Texas Tech program, that was my initiation into the arcane Final Four factoids.) In fact, it’s quite possible to trail on match points and win the title on game points.
Webster qualified for the Final Four of College Chess playoff for the college championship the same way as the other three teams. All finished in the top four US universities at the PanAms in New Orleans. But Webster actually took the top two spots, its B-team edging out its rating-betters on tie-breaks. Rules dictate that each college can claim only one spot in the Final Four. That’s why UT-D, sixth place at the PanAms, qualified. To make that math work, you have to factor in that Webster-C took fifth place in New Orleans. Remarkably, Webster teams took three spots in the top six in a truly runaway demonstration of dominance.
Three colleges sent their maximum of six players to the Marshall Club, including two as alternates, while the new SLU program brought four titled players and a 1900-player alternate who seemed happy to sit ready but not be called to a board to face off against one of the stars. The teams all had to turn in their four-person lineup an hour before each round. Webster and UT-D sent six GMs. Webster’s top four averaged 90 points above their nearest rival. SLU came bearing three GMs and an IM, but ranked second in average rating.
— Texas Tech (@TexasTech) March 30, 2017
Texas Tech was lowest rated, bringing a lone GM and a trio of IMs in its top four. But the Knight Raiders outperformed ratings to take a solid step up from the third-place result TTU scored in its previous three visits to the title playoffs.
Here were the teams in rating order (top four boards) and their rosters in board order.
Webster U. (USCF 2732)-GM Susan Polgar
GM Liem Le
GM Ray Robson
GM Alex Shimanov
GM Vasif Durarbayli
GM Illia Nyzhnyk
GM GM Priyadharshan Kannappan
St Louis U. (USCF 2642)—GM Alejandro Ramirez
GM Dariusz Swiercz
GM Yaroslav Zherebukh
GM Francesco Rambaldi
IM Cemil Can Ali Marandi
University of Texas-Dallas (USCF 2603)—Jim Stallings
GM Denis Kadric
GM Danny Raznikov
GM Holden Hernandez
GM David Berczes
GM Gil Popilski
GM Angel Arribas
Texas Tech University (USCF 2527)—GM Alex Onischuk
GM Andrey Baryshpolets
IM Sergei Matsenko
IM Pavlo Vorontsov
IM Luis Torres
WIM Iryna Andrenko
WCM Claudia Munoz
The qualifying teams are free to bring any players they wish to compete in the Final Four, not necessarily the ones who got them there. In addition to its six team members, Webster brought GMs Manuel Leon Hoyos and Ashwin Jararam as assistant coaches, an act of recognition for the squad that won in New Orleans. “We brought everyone on our B-team,” Coach Paul Truong said.
Heroes and zeros
The event’s top scorer was no surprise. Webster’s team captain, brilliant Liem Le, 29th in the world and a recruit from Coach Paul Truong’s native Vietnam, scored 2.5-.5, permitting only SLU’s Swiercz to draw in the final round. On the other hand, the top performer for Texas Tech was a bit of a shock. Fourth-board Torres, USCF 2356, was matched against opponents out-rating him by hundreds of points. Yet he scored 2-1, without losing a game, and was clearly a key to Tech’s Cinderella second. On the dip side of the emotional rollercoaster, SLU’s fourth board, Ali Marandi (somewhat mysteriously dubbed “JJ” by his teammates), lost all three of his games. JJ finally came to SLU from Turkey after romancing, and some might even say jilting, both Texas Tech and six-time champ University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It should be noted that JJ had a sparkling PanAms, scoring 5.5-.5 and tying for the best individual result. He was certainly part of the reason SLU got to the Final Four this year.
At the close of the event, three participants headed for St. Louis to participate in the US Championship: Texas Tech University Head Coach and former US Champion GM Alex Onischuk, St. Louis University’s second board GM Yaro Zherebukh, and Webster University’s second board, GM Ray Robson, a veteran of the US Championships despite being just 22. The trio’s next stop is a reflection of how powerful college chess has become.
— Susan Polgar (@SusanPolgar) March 31, 2017
— US Chess (@USChess) March 29, 2017
Sponsors and volunteers made it happen
There could be no event without sponsors who realize the value in supporting chess. Two Sigma, who also hosted a lavish reception the Friday night before the showdown, and Booz Allen Hamilton have been generous in their support—and occasional recruiters of the talent pool they bring together, since both Two Sigma and Booz Allen Hamilton are worldwide leaders in solving the most complicated challenges with cutting-edge technology and management skills. Likewise, not enough could be said of the support by Tournament Organizer Mark Herman. Mark, a former CEO of his own award-winning gaming company and a retired division head for Booz Allen Hamilton, has improved the Final Four dramatically over his seven years as the event boss. Among other upgrades, he’s made sure every competitor and all four schools go home with impressive trophies and plaques to commemorate and publicize their achievements. This year, Mark worked with Jonathan of Cluen.com to make sure the event’s website was more accessible than ever, streaming live commentary by GM Max Dlugy, former world junior champ, current impresario of Chess Max Academy in Manhattan and author of the just-out book “GM Insides.” This year the Final Four website collected thousands of unique viewers from 25 nations around the world. Brian M. McKeon, Executive VP of BAH, a longtime tournament player, was on hand to take in Max’s explanations of every game.
Mike Hoffpauir is another seven-year Final Four stalwart. This year he was again integral to making the tournament possible, although he had to relinquish his normal duties as chief TD because he has recently been elected to bring his wide-ranging experience to the US Chess Executive Board. Oscar Garcia graciously stepped in as international arbiter for the event.
The national championship tournament was sanctioned by US Chess and facilitated by the services of the US Chess Trust.
And of course, the Marshall Chess Club in New York’s Greenwich Village was the perfect host for such an elite showdown. Frank Marshall’s famous statue seemed to follow Dlugy’s commentary unblinkingly.
Al Lawrence is the Managing Director of the US Chess Trust and chairs the US Chess College committee.