Webster Wins 2021 Pan-American Collegiate Team Championship

Webster University wins the 2021 Pan-American Collegiate Team Championship
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Webster University won the 2021 Pan-American Collegiate Team Championship in January. // credit SPICE


Webster University claimed clear first place with 8 points over 9 rounds in the first-ever virtual Pan-American Collegiate Team Championships. The Pan-Ams were played over Chess.com on January 4-6, with all participants being monitored for fair play through multiple cameras on Zoom. 

Saint Louis University (SLU) took second with 7/9 and Webster’s B Team, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), and Texas Tech University tied for third, all with 6.5 points.  

Webster jumped out to a 6-0 start and never relinquished their lead.  

“The second day was the key, where we took a big lead through our crucial matches,” said Webster coach GM Susan Polgar.  

On that day, Webster defeated the University of Missouri, followed by Texas Tech, and then SLU. Webster’s sole loss was to UTRGV in round seven. Polgar pointed to her team’s morale and spirit as a key advantage, in addition to dedication and preparation. Unlike most teams competing, everyone on the Webster team played at the same location.  

“I think that it contributed truly to the fact that the team spirit was there, and they weren’t just playing as individuals, and as one for all and all for one,” Polgar said. “We were there to help the students, and they were there to help each other. I think the psychological angle of the support of each other, and team spirit played a role.” 

Texas Tech coach GM Alex Onischuk, whose team won the Pan-Ams last year, thought the virtual format maintained the level of competition expected from the tournament in its normal format. 

“Overall, it was a respectable tournament,” said Onischuk, who also serves as the chair of the US College Chess Committee. “But as always there was a lot of fight, not just in our matches, but also in other games. So I had a very good impression of the tournament, both as a coach, as well as someone involved in the organization." 

[pgn][Event "2021 Pan-American Collegiate Team Championship"] [Site "https://lichess.org/SYvOss2A"] [Date "2021.01.5"] [White "GM Shtembuliak, Evgeny (2620)"] [Black "GM Bruzon, Lazaro (2639)"] [Result "0-1"] [TimeControl "1500+5"] [Termination "Normal"] [UTCDate "2021.01.16"] [UTCTime "02:23:25"] [Variant "Standard"] [ECO "A28"] [Opening "English Opening: King's English Variation, Four Knights Variation, Quiet Line"] [Annotator "IM Vignesh Panchanatham"] 1. c4 { [%clk 0:28:45] } 1... Nf6 2. Nc3 e5 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. e3 Bb4 5. Qc2 Bxc3 6. bxc3 d6 7. d3 O-O 8. Be2 h6 9. O-O Ne7 10. e4 Ng6 11. Ne1 c6 12. f4 exf4 13. Bxf4 { White gives up the two bishops to gain some play on the kingside. } 13... Nxf4 14. Rxf4 Re8 15. Qd2 d5! { The central break creates problems for white due their uncoordinated pieces } 16. exd5 cxd5 17. Nc2 dxc4 18. Rxc4 Ne4 19. Qe1 Qb6+ 20. Nd4 Nd6 (20... Nxc3? { Unfortunately, tactics don't work here } 21. Qxc3 Rxe2 22. Rxc8+) 21. Rb4 Qc5 22. Kh1 Bd7 23. Qd2 Rac8 24. Rc1 b6 25. Bf3 Qg5 { Black's pieces seem much more coordinated, so the decision to trade queens doesn't seem best } 26. Qxg5 hxg5 27. c4 g4 28. Bd5 g6 29. Kg1 Kg7 30. Kf2 f5 31. a4 Re5 32. Ra1 f4 33. a5 b5 34. a6 Rce8 35. Rb2 bxc4 36. dxc4 Re3 37. c5 Ne4+ { A fine practical move in the time scramble, but one that allows equality with best play } (37... g3+ 38. hxg3 fxg3+ 39. Kf1 R3e5 40. Bf3 Nc4 { Keeping the pieces allows some additional threats agains the backrank with less counterplay }) 38. Bxe4 R8xe4 39. Rd1?? { With 17 seconds left on white's clock, a blunder kills the game. } (39. Rb7 $10 g3+ (39... Rxd4 40. c6 Rd2+ 41. Kf1 Red3?? { a tricky trap - the pin now allows white to win } 42. Rxa7) 40. hxg3 fxg3+ 41. Kf1 Rxd4 42. c6 { the ensuing rook endgame is theoretically drawn }) 39... g3+ 40. hxg3 fxg3+ 41. Kf1 Rh4 42. Nf3 Rh1+ 43. Ng1 Be6 44. Rc1 Bc4+! { A cute ending tactic. } 45. Rxc4 Rxg1+ 46. Kxg1 Re1# 0-1[/pgn]

The Pan-Ams are usually played over six rounds with a time control of 90 minutes and 30 second increment. But the 2021 virtual format had nine rounds over three days instead, using a rapid time control of 25 minutes with a five-second increment. Both Polgar and Onischuk thought the changes were positive. 

“The nine rounds make it a fairer result in general, because we get to play all our rival teams,” Polgar said. “For the fairness of the event, I think that the more rounds, the more chances that the best team for that particular tournament will win.” 

In previous Pan-Ams, the top boards in the final rounds of the tournament are usually dominated by the scholarship teams battling for the Final Four spots. This year, a surprise school had not one, but two teams playing on the top boards in the final round. The top two teams of UC Berkeley, who entered five total teams in the event, were both at six points each in the final round. The UC Berkeley A-team faced off against Webster on the top board, while its B-team faced SLU on the second board. 

“That was really cool,” said top UC Berkeley player IM Joshua Sheng. “Some of the players there were thinking of going to chess schools – I know I had a scholarship with a chess school. I just thought it was kind of funny to be able to play against them.”  

A win from either team would have earned a spot in the Final Four, but it wasn’t meant to be. Both teams lost to their higher-rated opponents, and the A-team finished seventh place on tiebreaks. 

“There was no pressure, it was just playing for fun - maybe that’s why it worked,” Sheng said.  

Earning categorical prizes were Yale University as the top Division II school; the University of Washington A-team as the top Division III school; the University of Minnesota Twin-Cities as the top Division IV school, the University of Toronto B-team as the top Division V school; and Howard University as the top Division VI school. Howard University also won an award for the biggest team upset. 

The University of Missouri was honored as the top Women’s team, the California Institute of Technology A-team was the top four-year small college, the University of Toronto A-team was the top international squad, and the SLU C-team was the top mixed-doubles team. 

For individual awards, GM Andrew Tang from the Princeton University’s A-squad won top board, and GM Yuniesky Quesada Perez from Webster’s B-team took board two. UT Dallas A-team’s GM Razvan Preotu won board three, and FM Aleksey Sorokin from Texas Tech took board four. Gregory Gillen won the biggest upset prize. 


The 2021 Pan-American Collegiate Team Championship
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The 2021 Pan-American Collegiate Team Championship was played virtually, organized by the Mechanics' Institute. // credit SPICE

The tournament would not have been possible without the efforts of Judit Sztaray, the general manager of youth outreach and events at the Mechanics’ Institute, which hosted the event. The Pan-Ams were originally planned to be hosted in-person at the University of Toronto in late December 2020, though cancelled in August due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Mechanics’ Institute was selected by US Chess in October to host the virtual event. 

“I know that college students don’t have an opportunity to compete just amongst themselves too often, so I felt it was even more important to provide this opportunity,” Sztaray said. 

Sztaray and the Mechanics’ came with experience from hosting several prior events that had been turned to virtual formats, including the Tuesday Night Marathon and the National Invitational. Sztaray assembled a national team featuring Chief TD Glenn Panner, Assistant Chief TD Brian Yang, NTD John McCumiskey, NTD David Hater, NTD Alan Losoff, NTD Martha Underwood, FA Hugo Arroyo, and Senior TD Reka Sztaray, along with other volunteers. 

“The team that we assembled was hands-down the best ever team that I worked with,” Sztaray said. “We found the best person for every role. I knew all of these people, but I rarely get to work with them. Because it was online, I could really take the best team in the country. I wasn’t confined to California.” 

Onischuk, in his role as the college chess committee chair, said he felt optimistic about the future of college chess and thought that online tournaments would now become part of the collegiate gamut. 

“I think we’re going to keep several tournaments online,” said Onischuk. “As we know, not all clubs can afford to go to tournaments. If we have tournaments online, it will give more opportunities for such clubs to grow and develop and to stay motivated as well.” 

Last spring, the 2020 Final Four tournament was cancelled as the pandemic took its toll.  

“Winning the (2020) Pan-American 6-0, we were very optimistic about the Final Four,” said Onischuk. “It was very disappointing to everyone, to all four schools, that we had to cancel the tournament. If it had happened today, we would have just played an online tournament. To switch like that in two months from in-person like that, we were not mentally ready.” 

This year, the Final Four event will likely be held virtually between the top Pan-Am finishers Webster, SLU, UTRGV and Texas Tech. 

“We definitely anticipate a tough fight as usual,” Polgar said. “They are obviously all strong teams with great coaches as well. We expect a tough fight, and it will come down to largely the nerves and some luck along the way. We have started preparing, and we look forward to the battle.”