The Susan Polgar Institute of Chess Excellence (SPICE) team put together a first-place finish at the Pan-Am Championships. Along with defeating the competition to win their sixth consecutive Pan-Am, the team overcame a number of obstacles that could have threatened their successful finish.
Additional pressure was placed on the rest of the team due to the sicknesses of some team members. B Team members Illia Nyzhnyk and Manuel Leon Hoyos suffered from a severe flu, leading to speculation on if they would be capable of playing.
“It was a nightmare,” SPICE coach Susan Polgar said. “We had so many scenarios in our heads on who to play or who not to play because of their changing health situation. What made it worse is because we prepared so hard based on particular lineups which we felt would give us favorable matchups against other teams, a lot of our preparation just went out the door due to lineup changes.”
Factoring in heavy snowfall that turned the six and a half hour trip to Columbus into an 11-hour struggle, along with a mix up with the hotel’s computer system, the chess team managed to rally and remain focused on their goal. In fact, some team members thrived under such pressures. Hoyos, who participated as his final Pan-Am Championship, finished the game with four wins and two draws despite having the flu.
The Gorloks had experience on their side, winning five consecutive championships prior to the event. Team captain Ray Robson, who was part of a 2016 group that won U.S. Olympiad Gold, helped the team with a strong start.
“I don’t think there was a moment during the tournament where we lost belief in our chances to win the tournament,” Robson said. “We definitely had tough matches, but we remained on the top board from start to finish, and maintained belief that we could win.”
Polgar also attributed the team’s calmness under adversity to Robson, who was a grandmaster for the team during their their fifth straight President’s Cup during last April’s contest.
“We fought hard and gave everything we had until the last game,” Polgar said. “In spite of the physical conditions, our players were always upbeat and relaxed. Just as in past years, we never knew who it would be, but somehow, someone always pulled through for our team. It is a complete team effort every single year. This year, it was Ray Robson.”
At the tournament’s end, the A Team finished in first place. The B Team came away with a second place tie. The two led the way, as the C Team ended the contest with a 25th place finish, and the D Team ended in 16th place.
The team now has its sights set on the President’s Cup, a final four event that takes place from March 30 to April 1 in New York City. The team will prepare to play against St. Louis University, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Texas Tech University.
The prospect of Webster University winning that tournament would mark another historic achievement. Polgar would make history with the coaching record for most collegiate championships in the United States. An eighth consecutive championship would elevate her ahead of former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden for the most consecutive championships in history.
When asked about the possibility of such an achievement, Polgar insisted on taking a game-by-game approach. Rather than focusing on individual accolades, she instead attributed her goal of changing the culture in sports, and paving the way for female coaches in the future.
“I hope that my success will open the doors for female coaches in chess, as well as other sports,” Polgar said. “It is important to show that women can do as good of a job as men if given the right opportunities and being in the right environment.”