Webster Wins Fourth Final Four Title in a Row

DSC_0598This weekend Webster University packed even more history into the memorabilia-covered walls of New York City’s legendary Marshall Chess Club. Since the formation of the St. Louis suburban university’s chess program in 2013, Webster has won the annual national championship playoff, the Final Four of College Chess, every year. No other team can make that claim. This weekend, Webster did it again, making it four in a row.

One key to the Webster victory was the 3-0 performance of its ironman on board one, GM Le Quang Liem, who dismissed, in order, Columbia’s IM Arthur Shen, UT-Rio Grande Valley’s GM Anton Kovalyov, and Texas Tech’s GM Yaro Zherebukh. Webster’s GM Ray Robson trailed Liem’s result by a mere half-point, drawing only Texas Tech’s IM Andrey Gorovets in the last tense round.

All five of the Webster team members who played made positive scores.

Since the team-on-team playoff  began in 2001, only one other college, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, has equaled Webster’s streak, if not its from-the-cradle dominance. But this year UMBC, the original chess scholarship powerhouse, failed for the very first time to make the Final Four. Teams qualified for the honor back in December at the Cleveland Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship.

In order of average team ratings of the Final Four squads, the hopefuls were Webster University, Texas Tech University, the University of Texas-RGV, and Columbia University—the local hero and dark horse. Rules allow any college that qualifies at the PanAms to bring any squad to the Final Four. (All must qualify as legitimate college students according to US Chess rules.) That allowed Webster, who qualified by virtue of its B-Team, to bring its A-lineup, who didn’t do as well in Cleveland, to the playoffs.

Webster has a deep bench. Final Four teams are made up of four players, but colleges can bring up to two alternates. Webster brought six international grandmasters to the shootout. Its top four posted a chart-topping USCF average rating of 2734, more than 80 points better than second-seeded Texas Tech University, who had won the Cleveland Pan-Ams.

Another must-know rule: Final Four standings are tabulated on game-points, not match points. Theoretically, a college could win all three matches and still not take home the President’s Cup, the impressive double-handled silver trophy bearing the engraved names of the championship colleges as well as the names of the individual team members. But Webster never tested that hypothetical, winning all three of the team-on-team matches and outpointing all rivals.

The Webster Gorloks amassed a lopsided 3.5-.5 (three wins and a draw) against underdog Columbia in Round 1, then went on to score 2.5-1.5 —the narrowest winning margin but decisive—over UT-RGV in Round 2 and Texas Tech in Round 3. (A Final Four tradition pairs the highest-rated and next-highest-rated team in the third and closing matchup.)

The University of Texas-RGV is a new name to the playoffs. Its squad is built on the former University of Texas-Brownville program after the consolidation of UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American, and its performance this year at the PanAms and the Final Four is a muscular comeback after four years in the cold. Its strong second-place showing promises that we’ll see them again. Coach GM Bartek Macieja was alone in deciding to bring only four team members.

Not only the players come to the Final Four with their teams. Webster’s GM Susan Polgar, former women’s world champion, accompanied her squad, along with Paul Truong and Dr. Julian Schuster, Webster University Provost and Senior Vice President. Texas Tech’s program leader, GM and former US Champ Alex Onischuk, Outreach Director Olga Achourkina, and Division Associate Vice President Dr. Paul Frazier came to support the Knight Raiders. Doug Stoves, UT-RGV’s Associate Dean even brought his university’s Social Media Manager Alex Garrido, to keep all of the excited supporters back home in Texas updated and informed.

The Marshall Chess Club, at 23 West 10th Street in Manhattan, is a handsome brownstone on a charming New York City street. The club’s history goes back to 1915. The present location was purchased by supporters of Frank Marshall, US champion for 27 years, in 1931 and became home to Frank and his wife Carrie, as well as a magnet to the best players from around the world. A few historical tidbits: It was the site of former world champion Jose Raul Capablanca’s last exhibition. Another world champion, Alexander Alekhine, sat there to play hundreds of speed-chess games against the best of his day. And it was the scene of 13-year-old Bobby Fischer’s mind-boggling “Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne. The non-profit club welcomes visitors.

The event is sanctioned by US Chess and generously sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH) and Two Sigma through the cooperation of the US Chess Trust. BAH’s Brian McKeon presented the trophies in the Club’s main hall, where the famous black bust of Frank Marshall was a welcome photo-bomb in every group.

OrganizerHerman TDHoffpauir (1)

The Final Four was organized by Mark Herman, a retired senior partner from BAH and directed flawlessly by NTD and FIDE Arbiter Mike Hoffpauir, a principal at BAH. Since BAH and Two Sigma have stepped in as sponsors, the Final Four has experienced a big upgrade. Venues have become impressive. Grandmasters Max Dlugy and Irina Krush provide fascinating game-commentary and interviews, live and online at www.chesssupersite.com, where more games from the event are available. And now every school takes home a silver cup, and every participant takes home a plaque to commemorate his or her role in history.

Shen Comments on Win with Krush and Dlugy (1)

Final Standings (game points)

  1. Webster University: 8.5
  2. University of Texas Rio Grande: 7.5
  3. Texas Tech University: 5.5
  4. Columbia University: 2.5

Team Rosters (not necessarily in board order)

Webster University

Average Team Rating of Top Four: 2734

GM Le Quang Liem (2773)

GM Ray Robson (2746)

GM Illia I. Nyzhnyk (2718)

GM Alexander Shimanov (2698)

GM Vasif Durarbayli (2686)

GM Fidel Corrales-Jimenez (2593)

Texas Tech University

 Average Team Rating of Top Four: 2652

GM Yaroslav Zherebukh (2678)

GM Elshan Moradiabadi (2670)

GM Andrii Baryshpolets (2631)

IM Andrey Gorovets (2629)

IM Alexander Battey (2357)

WIM Iryna Andrenko (2300)

University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley

 Average Team Rating of Top Four: 2628

GM Anton Kovalyov (2679)

GM Andrey Stukopin (2664)

GM Holden Hernandez (2603)

GM Carlos Hevia (2566)

Columbia University

Average Team Rating of Top Four: 2342

IM Arthur Shen (2495)

FM Kyron W. Griffith (2415)

NM Aaron Jacobson (2329)

Jonathan J. Pagan (2127)

Theodore Ja Coyne (2066)

Anthony Panat (2026)



  1. I think it’s a poor rule that allows a team to bring whoever they want to play in the championship. Since the Webster B team qualified, the Webster B team should play in the finals, not the A team. That’s not fair to the players who did the hard work to get them there in the first place.

  2. David–I’ve heard that comment from others as well. Some even make the point that, since colleges can enter as many teams as they can field at the PanAms, at least they ought to be restricted to “dancing with the one who brought them” to the Final Four. Others point out that such a system would run into complications if players on the qualifying team were no longer available–for example if the team members graduated, were ill, or didn’t want to go. My article on the PanAms in the March Chess Life examines some other ins and outs of college chess.

    • Mr. Lawrence, thank you, and I agree – obviously if there are extenuating circumstances such as inability to attend or graduation, that would change the situation. But from the reports, it sounded like Webster made the deliberate decision to field their A team for the championships even though the B team was the squad that qualified. That’s the issue I had with it. Clearly I am not privy to any circumstances that might have kept individual players from playing in the finals, but it just seemed like the B team got cast aside for the higher-rated players so that the school had the presumably better chance of winning again. I did read your March article and always enjoy the reports on college chess, so thank you again!

  3. In this case, I think your assumption was correct, David. Webster simply took the strongest team it was allowed according to the rules. Thanks for reading about college chess!

  4. IM Andrey Gorovets writes:
    “In my game with GM Robson, I missed a clear win on move 36: 36. Re1+ Kf6 37. Nd6 and then Ne8+!

    Ray showed me that immediately after the game.”

  5. I have to agree with David. I played at the Pan Ams back in Cleveland last December and thought this was a little weird too. Already, the playing field isn’t level because only a few colleges offer scholarships for chess, so allowing those same teams to have several lifelines to qualify seems a little unfair to schools that don’t provide scholarships to their players (Imagine if Duke/UNC got to send 2 teams to March Madness!).

    I remember in Webster A’s early match in the Pan Ams, where they lost a match because they decided to draw their games with Black early so GMs Liem and Durarbayli could push for wins with White. That gamble failed and they lost both games, and the gamble meant that they could not finish top 4. If chess were any other sport, that decision would have cost Webster A the opportunity to play in the final 4, so I don’t see chess needs to be any different.

    In a perfect world, there should be a scholarship cap for each school, but unfortunately there just simply aren’t enough schools offering scholarships yet.

  6. When we first had a division I team in the PanAm in 2009-2010 at Texas Tech, I proposed multiple times the idea of 1 team per division for each school. So schools can send 1 team in division I, 1 under 2200, 1 under 2000, and so on but not 2 division I teams.

    My idea was soundly rejected because college chess was dominated by UTD and UMBC for over a decade and they had the deep bench. They did not want to relinquish their built in advantage. On many occasions in the history of the PanAm, the B teams won ahead of the A teams but those universities sent the best combine team to the Final Four.

    Because of this rule, we specifically set our teams the way we did to balance out our top 2 teams with no alternates. It backfired and we suffered because some of our players were sick during the PanAm and it effected their performances.

    If the rule is one team per division, we would have put our top 6 players in team 1 so we can have 2 alternates. But we are not crazy enough to send one top team while our rivals have 2. Webster also has no representation in the College Chess Committee so we have no say in how things work. We only play by the rules set by UTD and UMBC many years ago.

  7. […] GM Ray Robson: 21-year-old Webster student Ray Robson  came second in the 2015 US Chess Championship and the 2014 Millionaire Chess Open. He is a member of the top college chess team in the US, Webster University, most recently participating in their fourth consecutive Webster victory at the President’s Cup… […]

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