Article by Jason Fagone for Wired Magazine
Julian Schuster first heard the rumor a year and a half ago. Susan Polgar, the legendary grand master known to journalists as “the Queen,” was unhappy in her current position as Texas Tech’s chess coach. She was feeling unappreciated. She had made this known to certain people in the tight-knit world of chess, and the news had traveled from one of these confidants, a foreign grand master living in Texas, to the ears of Schuster, a passionate fan of the game, in St. Louis.
He knew her story, of course; it had achieved the status of legend. Her father raised her and her two sisters to be chess prodigies. In the 1980s, the three Polgar sisters began showing up at tournaments and crushing all comers, men and women alike. At age 21, Susan, the eldest of the three, became the first woman to earn the title of grand master in the way men always had, by proving she could hold her own in competition against other grand masters. Once, over the course of 16 hours and 30 minutes, she played 326 chess games simultaneously, winning 309 of them—a world record at the time. She blazed a trail for women in the game.
Beyond her career at the board, Polgar had made a name for herself as a dominant coach—arguably the dominant coach—in the thriving if mostly invisible world of American collegiate chess. In 2007, at the age of 38, she took her first coaching job, at Texas Tech, whose team was then unranked. By 2010 she had led the Knight Raiders’ all-male squad to the President’s Cup, known as “the Final Four of college chess”; the following two years the Raiders won it all, topping not just Yale and Princeton but the two traditional chess powerhouses, the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
But the conflicts between Polgar and Texas Tech over the kind of issues usually associated with big-time football programs—scholarships, resources, the future of the team—were real, as Schuster, provost of Missouri’s Webster University, would soon learn. A small private school with an unusually dense network of international campuses, Webster lacked a chess team, despite the fact that its main campus was located just outside the city limits of America’s new chess capital. St. Louis is home to the top-ranked player in the US, 25-year-old Hikaru Nakamura, as well as one of the game’s most deep-pocketed benefactors, 68-year-old multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield, who stepped up to build the most opulent chess venue in the country and probably the world, the 6,000-square-foot, $ 1 million-plus Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.
In the summer of 2011, Schuster, a native of the former Yugoslavia who grew up hearing tales of the Polgar sisters’ heroics, invited Susan to St. Louis. He gave her a tour of the Webster campus and, later, talked to her about the resources the school could provide if she decided to coach there. Polgar liked what she heard. In February 2012, she announced that she would be transferring to Webster as its new chess coach. But not only that; eight of her players would be transferring too. Webster would be picking up their scholarships. It was unprecedented: A college chess coach was shifting allegiance from one university to another and bringing a significant chunk of her team with her. No volleyball coach, no tennis or baseball coach, had ever done anything close. News of the deal made The New York Times, USA Today, National Public Radio, and even that custodian of the sporting zeitgeist, ESPN.com.
Polgar’s sudden departure from Texas Tech surprised her fellow collegiate chess coaches, but they couldn’t deny that the move made sense for Webster; they knew how useful chess could be for a school looking to boost its intellectual reputation.