Changing Lives, On and Off the Chess Board
Webster U chess team’s got game – and a grandmaster coach
By Bill Motchan, Special to the Light
The University of Missouri Tigers and the St. Louis University Billikens were never among the contenders for the NCAA college basketball championship. But on Sunday, Webster University won its fifth straight Final Four victory — in chess. Webster is again the No. 1-ranked college chess team in the United States.
This powerhouse team began its rise to the top soon after it was formed in 2012 and a coach was hired. This isn’t just any coach. She’s considered one of the finest chess players in history.
Susan Polgar doesn’t look particularly menacing. The 46-year-old suburban Jewish mother of two has a friendly smile and a melodious Hungarian accent. You wouldn’t think she was a fierce competitor who is a master of strategy and thinks several dozen moves ahead.
Polgar achieved the rank of Women’s International Master in 1982 and International Master in 1984. In 1991, she attained the highest title a chess player can reach: Grandmaster. She is a multiple U.S. Olympic medalist and she has won four Women’s World Championships. She was the first woman to qualify for the Men’s World Championship Cycle in 1986.
Look through chess record books and Polgar’s name comes up repeatedly. She holds the Olympics scoring streak record of 56 consecutive games (31 wins, 25 draws, 0 losses). In August, 2005, she set a Guinness World Record for playing the most consecutive games in 24 hours (a total of 326, with 309 wins, 14 ties and three losses).
After her competitive career ended and Polgar became a collegiate coach, she continued to rack up records. That included five straight Final Four Championships. The first two were as coach of Texas Tech in 2011 and 2012. Despite those wins, Texas Tech’s leadership decided chess was no longer a priority, and the university slashed the scholarship budget. Polgar told them that was unacceptable and began searching for a new home base.
In the summer of 2011, she visited a half-dozen universities. Webster University wasn’t even on the list, and Polgar was close to signing an agreement with another school when she heard from Webster Provost Julian Schuster, who wanted to begin a chess program. She arrived in St. Louis with a deep base of competitive chess knowledge – and a team, many of whom transferred from Texas Tech.
As soon as she arrived in St. Louis, the wins started piling up for Webster University. A 2012 New York Times article compared Polgar’s move to a what-if scenario in which Duke University’s legendary basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski moved to another college and took Duke’s starting lineup with him.
Looking for the competitive edge
In addition to serving as head coach of the Webster University chess team, Polgar is director of SPICE – the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence – at Webster. She and her husband, Paul Truong, who also is a champion chess player, run the SPICE program. Polgar also operates the Susan Polgar Foundation, a nonprofit organization geared toward promoting the educational benefits of chess for young people, especially girls.
In early March, she was focused primarily on prepping her Webster team for the upcoming collegiate matches to determine the Final Four winner. Polgar regularly studies the motivational techniques of successful coaches in other sports. Ever the competitor, she’s always looking for an edge.
“We’re learning about our opponents, we try to analyze and dissect their games from recent years,” she said. “And we have a database of 7 million games, so from that we study our opponents’ games and look at their strengths and weaknesses, and try to come up with a game plan based on that.”
You might not realize it, but chess is a physically demanding game, so she makes sure her team members have the stamina to maintain focus over a lengthy match.
“For people who play at a professional level or at a very high level, chess can be a very grueling game,” Polgar said. “Chess is an easy game to learn but a difficult game to master, and if you want to compete at a high level or on the national stage, a game can go easily five to six hours. The students at the Final Four will have to play two games a day, and that’s not even counting the preparation time. You need stamina and endurance.”
A coach must keep team members focused on the prize and make sure they are prepared to compete. Polgar is an expert at both, according to Lim Le, one of the elite members of the Webster University chess team.
“She’s a really good coach,” said Le, 25. “She takes care of a lot of things, not just on the chess board, but she also makes sure we eat well and sleep well, that nothing bothers us. She helps us prepare for opponents by knowing their strengths and weaknesses, and recommends strategy for each opponent, so she is very important to my success.”
Le’s teammate Ray Robson, 21, said his chess game has improved since joining the Webster University team because Polgar “can see all the things that are good and bad about my game, and she focuses on the things I need to improve on.”
Robson and Le were nationally ranked chess players before coming to St. Louis. They chose Webster because of Polgar’s leadership and because the city has become something of a renowned chess capital. The World Chess Hall of Fame moved to the Central West End in September 2011, adjoining the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.
The grand Budapest experiment
Polgar’s journey to St. Louis and the top of the chess world began in Budapest, where she was born Zsuzsanna Polgar. Laszlo Polgar home-schooled his three daughters and reared them with an intense focus to excel. He had a theory that geniuses are made, not born, and he set out to prove it. The Polgar sisters’ childhood revolved around learning every aspect of chess, and winning. Susan Polgar’s younger sisters Judit and Sofia are also chess champions.
The rise to the top of the chess world wasn’t always smooth. For several years after Susan Polgar achieved Grandmaster status, she was the No. 1-ranked female player in the world. The Hungarian government wasn’t wild about her ascent and frequently put roadblocks in her path. The experience only made her more focused on success, Truong said.
“People don’t realize that the kind of discrimination that she had to endure, because she was young and a girl in a male dominated sport, and Jewish, coming from Hungary,” Truong said. “A lot of people ask, ‘Why didn’t you go even further in your career?’ But it’s never been about the personal achievement.
“She always thought the game was bigger than her, and she wanted to make a difference. She wanted to break down barriers. So she spent a lot of energy and effort to fight the establishment. If she never had to fight any of that, there’s no telling how far she would have gone with her career.”
The frustration and difficulty led her to become an American citizen so she could compete more freely. That led to her success in the Olympics, representing the United States and winning five gold medals, four silver and one bronze.
Polgar won her first world title at age 12 and her first Olympic gold medal in 1988 when she was 19. She said the intense focus on one skill at a young age can make a big difference later on in a child’s development.
“Age 4 or 5 is a very crucial time,” she said. “The brains of kids are like sponges. A famous psychologist said whatever you train a child to be good at, math or chess, or even a criminal, the child will do. The child will move in the direction the child is motivated. It’s crucial to develop those habits. I was very fortunate, and so were my sisters, that my parents understood that, and they instilled in us that work ethic and put us on the right road.”
Polgar also understands that her childhood was a bit unusual, but she also credits her father’s approach to her successes.
“Our lives were completely different from other children,” she said. “We were home-schooled, and chess became a central part of our lives from an early age, and it gave us a lot of fantastic experiences. We saw the world, visited over 50 countries, we had a whole other outlook on the world, when you see and experience things firsthand.
“Normally, people will stay in their own environment most of their lives and don’t get the opportunity to see other places. So it definitely made us global citizens, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
The downside to the approach Laszlo Polgar used is that a child may not experience common rites of passage like dating, summer camp or spring break in Cancun.
“I remember in my teenage years, I thought I was missing out on certain things,” Polgar said. “At the same time, I understood it’s a sacrifice. Just like in a chess game, you sometimes need to make a sacrifice to win, and I understood that because I was training and didn’t have as much time to go out and hang out. That’s the reason why I was able to travel and succeed in what I was doing.”
Polgar’s two sons play chess and are quite good, but they can’t defeat their mother. Few people in the world can. But they enjoy a childhood that’s less structured than the childhood of their mother and aunts. That life isn’t for everybody, but the commitment and sacrifice is essential to reach the pinnacle of success, Polgar said.
“I strongly believe my father’s theory that it comes down to 99 percent hard work and the rest is the circumstances and the motivation,” she said. “He loved the game, he was motivated, and he understood the importance of commitment and sacrifice to reach the top.”
What lies ahead
Polgar has achieved nearly every top honor in chess, both as a competitor and now coach. What’s left to conquer?
“I’m very much excited to change lives,” she said. “And I think I’m doing that here at Webster through our chess program. And it’s not just our championships and fighting and winning, but also through the guidance we give to the students, the doors we open for them, internships and job opportunities, and through chess, that’s very fulfilling. But long term, I have my foundation, and it’s my dream to give more and more opportunities through chess to people of all ages.
“Chess is a fantastic and very efficient tool to raise the intellect, to develop logical thinking, and the thought process that’s required in chess assessment of the situation in every move, the analysis of the situation and then the decision-making.
“So that decision-making process, 40, 50, 60 times in a single game, it’s so essential. And our society would be so much better if every child would learn chess, at least at some level, to apply it in their academics and their lives. So my dream, and my foundation’s dream is to give that opportunity to more and more children.”