Villanova and Michigan’s Monday night tip-off for the NCAA national round ball championship generated plenty of drama for the 12 million or so who watched on TV and could hoot and holler at home. That other Final Four championship was decided earlier, on Easter Sunday—and the sport that focuses not on hoops but squares roiled up about as much drama as the crowd at the Marshall Chess Club could handle, even getting some of the crowd hushed into silence by none other than U.S. Chess President Mike Hoffpauir.
The 2018 rendition of the event that stretches back to 2001 was “The strongest ever,” according to Hoffpauir. Two of this year’s players, GMs Ray Robson of Webster U. and Yaro Zherebukh of St. Louis U., plus Texas Tech Head Coach Alex Onischuk, compete in the U.S. Championship in mid-April.
A dynasty at stake
Webster University had owned the national playoffs since GM Susan Polgar began its program in 2012 and was shooting for its sixth straight national title. The Final Four is a matchup of four-player teams head-to-head. Teams can bring up to two alternates and must deploy their squads in rating order within 50 points. Importantly, it’s not match points but total game points that determine the winner. That longstanding rule was key this year. If match points were the gold standard, Webster would have stretched its record to six, since they scored 2 ½ match points to UT-RGV’s 2. Game points make for an exciting event. A team can lose a match but come back with lopsided wins.
In Round 1, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UT-RGV) grabbed 3 game points in its 3-1 defeat of St. Louis U., with key wins from GMs Vladimir Belous and Hovhannes Gabuzyan. Meanwhile Webster, on the back of Ray Robson’s sole win, picked up 2 ½ in a narrow win against Texas Tech. Then in Round 2, Webster beat UT-RGV 2 ½ – 1 ½. That put Webster up ½ going into the final round.
A position for the college chess history books
Then the UT-RGV team members showed themselves to be true pressure-players, racking up a 3-1 lead against fellow Lonestar hopeful Texas Tech, collecting three more points to finish with 7.5.
In the Webster-St. Louis matchup, three games were drawn and title hopes came down to one remaining game. Robson and St. Louis’ GM Dariusz Swiercz had both consumed the 90 minutes in the SD-90 time control and had only the 30-second interval to choose each move.
In this dramatic endgame (below), if team captain Robson finds the win, Webster wins its sixth championship with 7.5 game points and better tiebreaks. Incidentally, in that outcome, Robson would become the only player ever to play on six Final Four championship teams. That would remain an unsurpassable record, given the rule against playing more than six. If Robson fails to win the last game going, UT-RGV breaks the streak and takes home the title.
Position after 82. … Kc7
What’s the winning move?
Here’s the game:
Coach GM Bartek Macieja’s squad of five International Grandmasters returned to campus in Brownsville in time to watch Villanova and Michigan, or hit the books for upcoming exams.
“You can’t win the Pan-Ams without a hero,” Webster’s Paul Truong said. GM Vladimir Belous filled that role for UT-RGV. He was the only player to score 3-0, and he did it on Board 1 with two Blacks. Robson turned in an outstanding 2 ½ – ½ as an impressive last hurrah to college competition. He just couldn’t find that last winner.
GM Pavlo Vorontsov played a vital game for Texas Tech, as he did at the PanAms to secure the team’s qualification. But this time his opponent was Zherebukh.
St. Louis University’s GM Alexander Ipatov came through with a big win on Board 1 in Round 3 to put Webster in the hole.
Polgar was gracious in rare defeat. “All streaks come to an end,” she said. She congratulated Bartek and the UT-RGV team on their performance. At the closing ceremony, Hoffpauir pointed out that Webster’s five-in-a-row national college championships were a record, and Polgar’s personal record as seven titles in a row as coach (two from her pre-Webster days with Texas Tech) stands as an imposing career statement among her many other achievements.
UT-RGV, Webster, Texas Tech and St. Louis U. had qualified for the playoff by finishing as one of the top four U.S. college teams at the annual Pan-American Intercollegiate College Team Championships held at the end of December, where match points, not game points are primary. Once a college is qualified, it is not committed to bringing the players who got them there but may bring any eligible player. The College Chess Committee applies strict eligibility rules, which are strictest for GMs and IMs. All players are verified college students pursuing degrees.
Just making the Final Four playoff distinguishes a college as one of the chess elite. Here are the universities who competed in the 2018 Final Four of College Chess in order of their finish. The lineups given were those used in the first round. US Chess ratings used were official in February. It’s notable that Texas Tech continues to qualify and do well in the Final Four with “only” two GMs while the other scholarship powerhouses send six. And we should also note that Texas Tech’s coach, GM Alex Onischuk, U.S. champ in 2006 and in the playoff with GM Wesley So just last year, will be inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis on April 17, before he starts competing in yet another U.S. Championship.
Univ of Texas Rio Grande Valley (2683.0)—7.5 game points
Head Coach: GM Bartek Macieja
GM BELOUS, Vladimir (2684)
GM DRAGUN, Kamil (2686)
GM STUKOPIN, Andrey (2683)
GM GABUZYAN, Hovhannes (2679)
GM HEVIA ALEJANO, Carlos Antonio (2569)
Webster University (2716.8)—7 game points
Head Coach: GM Susan Polgar
GM DURARBAYLI, Vasif (2694)
GM SHIMANOV, Aleksandr (2713)
GM ROBSON, Ray (2734)
GM CORI, Jorge (2723)
GM NYZHNYK, Illia (2697)
GM PROHASZKA, Peter (2688)
Texas Tech University (2635.5)—5 points
Head Coach: GM Alex Onischuk
GM BARYSHPOLETS, Andr (2670)
IM MATSENKO, Sergei (2620)
GM VORONTSOV, Pavlo (2644)
IM SHTEMBULIAK, Evgen (2608)
IM TORRES ROSAS, Luis Carlos (2421)
St. Louis University (2699.5)—4.5 points
Head Coach GM Alejandro Ramirez
GM IPATOV, Alexander (2723)
GM SWIERCZ, Dariusz (2757)
GM ZHEREBUKH, Yaroslav (2701)
GM RAMBALDI, Francesco (2617)
GM ALI MARANDI, Cemil Can (2571)
IM DERAKHSHANI, Dorsa (2373)
Chief Organizer Mark Herman, CEO of his own award-winning gaming company and a retired division head for Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH), has steadily improved the Final Four during his eight years of remarkable volunteer service to the event. Mark again worked with Jonathan of Cluen.com to stream live commentary by GM Max Dlugy, former world junior champ, and seven-time U.S. Women’s Champ Irina Krush.
Hoffpauir is another eight-year Final Four volunteer, tireless in his many efforts all over the country for chess. He flew into New York from BAH business in Japan to oversee the team meetings, making sure the special rules governing the event were followed. Oscar Garcia again served as international arbiter for the event.
Two Sigma and Booz Allen Hamilton sponsorship key
Two corporations who believe in the benefits of chess make the improvements in the college championship possible. The Final Four of College Chess was once again generously sponsored by Two Sigma and BAH through contributions to the U.S. Chess Trust. The event is sanctioned by U.S. Chess. And of course, the Marshall Chess Club in New York’s Greenwich Village was again the natural host for such an elite showdown.
He is a two-time winner of the Chess Journalist of the Year award (2000 and 2016) and a former Executive Director of the US Chess Federation. He currently serves as the Managing Director of the U.S. Chess Trust.