Chess In The COVID Era | Webster Kirkwood Times | – Webster-Kirkwood Times, Inc.

Chess Engine

Grandmaster Susan Polgar watches on as Grandmaster Yuniesky Quesada (left), from Cuba, and Grandmaster Emilio Cordova, from Peru, work on their chess skills in this snapshot of pre-pandemic training. Quesada and Cordova are members of the Webster University chess team, which has been ranked number one in Division 1 College Chess since its inception.| photo courtesy of Webster University

Since its inception in August 2012, the Webster University chess team has ranked number one in Division I college chess. Earlier this year, the team won the 2021 Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship, the foremost college chess tournament in the Americas.

Though the team is no stranger to that competition of the nine years theyve entered, theyve won eight 2021 presented its own challenges. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the country, this years training and tournament were conducted entirely online.

While online chess is by no means a new concept, for many members of the Webster University chess team, it wasnt the norm.

Training online is something I have been quite used to for a long time, since I coach chess and most of my students are online, said player Alex Lenderman. However, playing online on a regular basis has definitely become something of a novel experience for me in 2020. By the time I played Pan-American, however, I was fully comfortable with it.

Like his teammates, Lenderman started playing chess before age 10. He became a Grandmaster, the highest title one can achieve in chess apart from World Champion, at age 20. All four members of the Webster University A Team have achieved Grandmaster, as have all members of the B Team, which took third place in the 2021 competition.

Lenderman attributes his skill to learning chess at an early age.

I think just like with learning a language, it is important to start chess young since there are many tactical patterns that become second nature as an adult if you have learned them as a child, he said.

Alex Lenderman, a member of the Webster University chess team, became a chess Grandmaster at the age of 20.| photo courtesy of Webster University

A Big Draw

Since 2021, the Webster University chess team and its players have earned two world championships, multiple Olympiad gold medals, five world open championships and 55 national titles. Its constant success is no doubt in part due to the instruction of Grandmaster Susan Polgar.

Polgar started the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) at Texas Tech University in 2007, moving it to Webster University in 2012. A native Hungarian turned American who was once the top-ranked female chess player in the world, Polgar was the third woman in history to achieve the rank of Grandmaster in 1991. Today, she is one of only 37 women to hold the title.

Polgars institute has attracted chess talent from all over the world. Websters chess team currently hosts students from Cuba, Hungary, Armenia and Peru, among other countries.

Most (players) come specifically to join us because of the chess program. They know they will get a great education and also have the opportunity to work with the team and improve their chess, said Polgar. And for the social aspect, theyll immediately have a group of people theyll have a mutual interest with.

According to Polgar, chess training is a complex affair. Students access a database of over 13 million games to study the recent games of their opponents. In addition to preparing for likely opening moves, players practice from certain positions to make better decisions. Students also work to eliminate their own weaknesses in pattern recognition, creativity, calculations and playing complete games.

Polgars teaching approach focuses on the whole student, making sure they are mentally, physically and academically looked after to keep them balanced.

I try to create an atmosphere for students in the program that is positive and encouraging for each other. I believe in a holistic approach, not just about the Xs and Os of the game, said Polgar. Its especially important when every player is not from St. Louis, which means theyre far away from their families.

Webster Universitys chess team took first place in the recent annual 2021 Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships. The Pan-Am Tournament, held annually as the foremost intercollegiate chess championship in the Americas, featured 59 teams competing online. | photo courtesy of Webster University

Looking to the Future

Though training through Zoom is drastically different, Polgar said it has opened some eyes to the positive side of virtual chess.

The big events used to be held in person, but casually a lot of people used to play online, so it only really changed the professional players lives in that they no longer were traveling for matches because of the pandemic, said Polgar. Professional chess has moved largely online in the last year. It represents cost savings and its convenient for the sponsors. You dont have to put players up in hotels for two weeks. It has a lot of benefits.

One negative side, said Polgar, is that online games must be verified to confirm neither player has received outside help via an online chess engine. Algorithms flag potentially suspicious moves and a panel of chess experts must determine whether or not cheating has occurred. It took several weeks to verify the results of this years Pan-Am competition.

Whether online or in person, Polgar said her students intend to continue playing chess after graduation. As technology marches on and the world develops, so too do the opportunities for a career in chess.

Some of them are considering a professional career as a chess player. Many of them will end up having careers in their field of study. Some will try to do a hybrid to stay in chess, but more as a promoter or teacher or entertainer or commentator, said Polgar. Over the past decade, a lot of new doors have opened to chess players in addition to being a professional player. There are new positions that did not exist a decade ago.

To learn more about SPICE or the Webster University chess team, visit

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Chess In The COVID Era | Webster Kirkwood Times | - Webster-Kirkwood Times, Inc.

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