Got just another one of a billion busted brackets? Here’s a tip for next year: Put more confidence in the coach.
The players and teams may change, but one constant in the makeup of every Final Four — the penultimate endgame of the bracket tournament — is the appearance of proven coaches. The battle-tested vets. The been-there-done-that, ice-in-their-veins mentors who have just about seen it all. Making picks with the coach in mind is an oft-recommended strategy while caught up in the research of bracketology, yet one that somehow annually slips my attention when the pencil finally goes to paper.
And here we are, entering another season’s finale weekend where the pro-tip on experienced skippers has once again paid off. Florida’s Billy Donovan. Kentucky’s John Calipari. And Webster’s Susan Polgar.
While Donovan and Calipari both venture into the NCAA Final Four on Saturday, Polgar simultaneously leads her troops into the Final Four of college chess — officially known as the President’s Cup, the most prestigious national event for post-secondary schools. The three-day, round-robin tournament kicks off Friday at the New York Athletic Club in New York City, featuring Texas Tech, the University of Illinois, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Webster University – the reigning 2013 President Cup winner.
Polgar has certainly been there, done that. While Webster seeks to defend its national title, this weekend will be the legendary chess icon’s fifth-consecutive coaching appearance in the President Cup’s short 14-year history. With the 2011 and 2012 titles earned at Texas Tech, along with last year’s championship after relocating to Webster’s suburban St. Louis campus, Polgar is seeking her fourth straight national crown.
Of course, as in any collegiate sport, the rosters change with each passing season — though Polgar posts a world-class lineup in defense of this year’s national title. GM Wesley So returns as the squad’s top player, currently ranked 19th on the planet, while GM Le Quang Liem — ranked 38th — serves as Webster’s newcomer this season. GM Georg Meier seeks his third championship as the last player left from the Texas Tech transition; and GM Ray Robson, who will compete in the 2014 U.S. Championship next month, returns after notching his first title as a freshman.
That A-team got a record-breaking, perfect 6-0 score last December in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Team Championship, which determines the top-four schools to compete in the President’s Cup. And it is fair to note that Webster’s B-team also qualified for the Cup (with a fourth-place showing), while the C-team tied for sixth out of 42 teams — though only one unit can represent the school this weekend.
I do not envy any opponent who must look away from the focused glare of So — just a few months removed from competing in his first-ever GM super-tournament — only to meet that of Polgar’s, who paces the sidelines. The former child prodigy, who won the Budapest Girls’ U11 Championship with a perfect 10-0 score at age 4, held the title of Women’s World Champion from 1996-1999 and became the first woman in history to earn the Grandmaster title through tournament play — one of many gender barriers in chess that she personally destroyed.
And rest assured that she is, indeed, staring a hole into her opponent’s souls. The Webster players cannot, of course, discuss the current game with Polgar while in-match, though she serves a different role in the moment: Reading you. Calculating you. Outcoaching you.
“Before the games, in between games, I’m there to observe body language not just of my own players, but of their opponents, too — those can be very telling,” Polgar said. “Players can often look tired or disappointed or confident or afraid, and these types of signals can be a sign to possibly make a change.”
Based on those reads, players can be switched out with substitutes up to an hour before match time. Though, while always staying flexible, she admits a preference to stick with original game plans.
Polgar could make an easy translation to coaching hoops. Much of her attitude has left her well- versed in “coach speak,” stressing group mantras like There is no I in team, while still pushing individual excellence: Win with grace, lose with dignity.
“A lot of the approach and mindset (to chess and basketball) is generally the same,” she said. “You have to be professional, you have to be dedicated and diligent in your practice, and you have to be both physically and mentally fit. Obviously chess is more mentally focused, but that said, physical fitness is more important than people think.”
Citing chess games that can last upwards of six hours – and sometimes two in one day – Polgar says that these elite chess competitions can be just as tough on the body as the mind. Based on her own experiences in the trenches, she brought in sponsorship from local CrossFit26 gyms to keep her athletes in proper physical shape. Each of the Final Four competitors have bought in to the workout regime, and their results are speaking volumes to the methods.
“It has always been important to me, ever since I started competing on a high level since my late teens,” Polgar said. “I realized the more fit you are in your body, the more fit you are in your mind. Among tough women players, I was probably a pioneer in advocating that.
“Today you look at most of the tough players: Vishy Anand, Boris Gelfand, Kramnik – even though they are my generation, they can still compete with the younger players. It is because they recognized early on the importance of physical fitness. Anand is a daily visitor to the gym.”
Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.