Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Adding and subtracting chess excellence

Webster University adding chess excellence
May 2, 2012

ST. LOUIS – Susan Polgar introduced the possibility of change shortly after her chess team's achievement, the choice either to stay or leave each player's decision alone.

On Dec. 30, the grandmaster and Texas Tech coach addressed her 18-member squad in a conference room at a hotel in Fort Worth, Texas. It was minutes after they had competed at the Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championships and clinched their third consecutive appearance in the college chess Final Four.

An opportunity was available. Webster University, a small private school in suburban St. Louis, had offered Polgar a position to start a chess program. Scholarship funding for her team at Texas Tech was limited, so in recent months she had explored options elsewhere.

During the meeting at the hotel, Polgar stressed the importance of self-evaluation. She told her students there was a chance to create at Webster, but she also advised them to choose what was best for their own futures. As in preparation for a chess game, she told her players to approach the options with logic before making a decision.

More than four months later, Polgar and nine students who were present in that room – including each member of the two-time defending national champion Division I team – are preparing for their transition to St. Louis. With it, they will face challenges involved with change as they attempt to build a program together. With it, they will face opportunity as they grow through shared anticipation and struggle.

Polgar likes to say that change is the only constant in life. Soon, she and the rest of her team will discover what their new chapter will teach them.

"Sometimes, change is good," Polgar, who plans to move to St. Louis in early June, told "Sometimes, life creates circumstances that you have to be proactive and look for the change and just go with it. … Circumstances change, and you have to be ready to adapt to the changes. As long as the changes are not going in a negative direction – it's at least comparable or better – there's no reason to feel bad about it. You have to accept it as part of life."

Change has been part of Polgar's life, and it has made her one of the world's most recognized figures in chess. She was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary, and she quickly became one of the game's rising stars. At age 12, she earned her first world title by claiming the World Chess Championship for girls under 16. At age 15, she became the world's top-rated female player. And at age 16, she became the first woman to qualify for the World Chess Championship.

Polgar, 43, moved to New York City in 1994, and she continued to build her reputation within the game. In 2003, the United States Chess Federation named her "Grandmaster of the Year," the first woman to receive the honor. And in 2007, Texas Tech hired her to lead a chess program within a region more known for its passions of oil and football.

With time, though, Texas Tech became a power under her guidance. Her Division I team captured its second consecutive national championship in early April in suburban Washington, D.C., making Polgar the first woman to lead a men's Division I team to consecutive titles.

By that point, though, Polgar knew more change would come for her and her squad. The previous year, shortly after Texas Tech had claimed its first national championship, Polgar had hoped the university would promise more funding for scholarships for her students, some of whom she had recruited from countries such as Brazil, Israel and Azerbaijan. The program had survived with the help of a private donor, but assistance was running out.

As months passed, little changed with the situation. She grew less optimistic that they money would come. So early last summer, Polgar began looking. She spoke to about six schools, with Webster being the last one, about making a switch.

"We love Texas Tech, and we appreciate the opportunity the university gave us here," Polgar said. "We just feel they weren't able to commit timely for the scholarships for our students. I personally thought at least a moral obligation to my students, whom I recruited personally from all around the world. … It seemed about a year ago, it clearly seemed the funding was not there toward their scholarships."

Meanwhile, Julian Schuster, Webster's provost and senior vice president, sensed an opportunity. Last summer, he learned through a grandmaster in Texas that Polgar was considering a move. A former chess player, Schuster became interested in the game's value as a tool to sharpen students' critical and creative thinking skills. He wanted to start a program at Webster.

Late last year, Schuster approached Polgar with an offer to make the 47-acre campus in Webster Groves, Mo., her new home. Her background had intrigued him: He considered her an "educated chess player" and "arguably one of the strongest female players in the history of the game." He promised ample funding for her students, an environment within an urban setting with a strong chess culture and a global reach with international campuses in countries such as Austria, China, Thailand, Switzerland, Great Britain and the Netherlands.

Polgar was pleased with the pitch presented by Webster leadership. By January, an agreement was made: She would lead the school's program.

"Change is never easy," Schuster said. "You go from known to unknown. You know with the unknown there is always an anxiety. … The biggest challenge is with great power comes great possibility. They have repeated as champions in the last two years. We at Webster would expect that they continue the winning streak. It is not easy being first. … The challenge is to continue on the trajectory of success."

There also is a challenge knowing what will be left behind at Texas Tech. Polgar and Paul Truong, an assistant coach, have bittersweet feelings about the move. They are eager for the opportunity at Webster.

But they also realize they created a recognized program in west Texas that made an impact through outreach chess events and by hosting numerous local, regional and national competitions. New routines must be made with their move to St. Louis.

But they also understand change presents a chance for growth. Polgar views the transition as no different than any other life cycle: Visions, like the people who carry them, mature with time. And on occasion, a move is necessary to allow a dream to reach its full potential.

"We can adapt to this very easily, because we are all chess players," Truong said. "As chess players, you have to adapt to constant changes. It doesn't matter how much preparation you put into a game – you can guess your opponent will play a certain opening or prepare something for you and you prepare something to counter that – but when you get to the board, things can change rapidly.

"There are big surprises. You don't have time to go back to the drawing board – you have to make decisions on the board instantly. … For chess players, it's like, OK, you see a problem in front of you, and you have to find a solution."

Polgar anticipates some time will be required to grow comfortable at Webster. There will be small adjustments, like finding new friends and new doctors and even a new hairdresser. But there will be a larger transition as well: She will work to maintain the success her program enjoyed at Texas Tech, all while shaping a new legacy.

After all, anticipation will follow her to the Midwest. The New York Times compared her move to a school previously without basketball hiring Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. Truong has likened the team's depth to having eight Tom Bradys or Michael Jordans on the roster. Polgar will work to meet a standard of her own creation, and observers will anticipate results fast.

But in the process, she will receive help from students who trust her. They value their connection. The Webster announcement surprised some, but others were eager to join what U.S. News & World Report has ranked as a Tier 1 institution.

Both Polgar and her team – she estimates she will have at least 14 players when most students report to campus in mid-August – will live the transition together. Change has taught them to be flexible. Change has taught them to move forward with an open mind.

"It wasn't a tough decision, exactly," said grandmaster Anatoly Bykhovsky, a sophomore from Israel who will join Polgar at Webster this fall. "I just love my coach, and it was pretty much my decision. It didn't take me too long."


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