Published: February 14, 2012
|GM Susan Polgar|
Imagine if a university without a basketball program recruited Mike Krzyzewski, the legendary coach at Duke University, and not only managed to hire him but also persuaded most of his team to switch with him. In essence, that is what Webster University in St. Louis has done by hiring Susan Polgar, the head of the Texas Tech chess program.
Ms. Polgar, a grandmaster and a former women’s world champion, was hired by Texas Tech University in 2007 to create an elite chess program. The university even named the program after her, calling it the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence, or Spice.
Last April, Texas Tech won the Final Four of Chess, a competition in Herndon, Va., among the top collegiate teams in the country. It was Texas Tech’s first championship since Ms. Polgar arrived at the university.
Now Ms. Polgar and her husband, Paul Truong, the manager of the chess team, are leaving Texas Tech, which is spread over more than 1,800 acres in Lubbock and has more than 32,000 students. They are heading to Webster, a university mostly geared toward postgraduate students around the world, whose main campus in St. Louis is 47 acres. The chess program at Webster will be called Spice.
The top 10 players at Texas Tech — eight grandmasters and two international masters, some of whom had just committed to the university — are also switching. They are scheduled to start in the fall; Ms. Polgar is to begin on June 1. On paper, Webster will have the No. 1 ranked team in the country.
In an interview with KCBD, NBC’s local affiliate in Lubbock, Mr. Truong said the switch was caused by a lack of financial resources at Texas Tech. Ms. Polgar told KCBD that the program grew too quickly for the university to accommodate it.
Chris Cook, a spokesman for Texas Tech, said that budget cuts had affected several teams but that they were still adequately financed. “We are giving the programs what they need to compete,” Mr. Cook said. He said the university intended to hire a new coach and a new manager to succeed Ms. Polgar and Mr. Truong.
Julian Z. Schuster, the provost of Webster University, said he was responsible for recruiting and hiring Ms. Polgar and establishing the team. Mr. Schuster said that he and Ms. Polgar had mutual friends and that he had learned she was thinking about leaving Texas Tech. They exchanged e-mails, and Ms. Polgar went to visit.
“Technically, I don’t know who winked first,” Mr. Schuster said. “You know the old expression: it takes two to tango.”
Mr. Schuster said Webster had an endowment of about $80 million and was financing the new program, including the cost of scholarships, entirely on its own. The financial commitment would run at least long enough for the students who are matriculating, some of whom are freshmen, to graduate. Mr. Schuster said that having a top team would eventually more than pay for itself by raising Webster’s profile and stimulating interest in the university.
Mentioning that Webster has campuses in more than 100 places around the world, Mr. Schuster, who grew up in the former Yugoslavia, where chess is popular, said: “I did not grow up in this country. I do not play football. I do not have this connection from the old country. Chess is a global game, and we live in global times. And Webster is a global university.”
Distinguishing itself from other universities was one of the primary reasons Texas Tech created its chess program five years ago. Other universities — including the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County — have made similar decisions.
James A. Stallings, the director of the Dallas chess program, said Webster’s recruitment of such a top team was “unprecedented,” pointing out that most programs start from scratch.
(Coincidentally, just three days before Webster made its announcement on Feb. 3, Lindenwood University, a liberal arts institution just outside of St. Louis that has 17,000 students, said it was starting a chess program and had hired a local grandmaster named Ben Finegold as its coach.)
Mr. Stallings said he was a little concerned from a fairness standpoint about Webster recruiting so many of Texas Tech’s players as well as its coaching staff, but he welcomed the creation of another top program.
“It validates the concept,” Mr. Stallings said. “It is a good thing for scholastic youth in this country.”
Mr. Schuster at Webster said simply, “To use the chess analogy, I think we made the right move.”