Chess, Classes, Roommates, Frisbee
Top coaches like Polgar don’t exactly teach their players chess strategy; the players already know what they’re doing. But a coach can help around the margins. Several hours a week, Polgar studies the chess equivalent of game film. Chess players tend to hone their skills on the Internet now, as poker players do; because chess websites record and save those games, it’s easy to analyze the styles of top players, probing their openings and endgames, searching for weaknesses. Polgar looks for patterns in the play of kids from opposing schools and passes along what she learns to her team. Mostly, though, she tries to encourage the students to do their own analysis. “Obviously they are very sharp already and very knowledgeable themselves,” she says. “I think I can help them more in guiding them in the psychological aspect of the game, or what may be unpleasant for a certain opponent.” Asked for an example of psychological advice, Polgar laughs. “That, I think, is a professional secret.”
Where she really shines is in recruiting, a chess coach’s number one job. Polgar’s talent for attracting top players owes a great deal to her name and reputation but also to her polyglot charm—she speaks five languages fluently, plus some Hebrew and Esperanto—which helps her attract young players who are already ascendant overseas. Polgar and her husband, Truong, are magnets for ringers. “I think they have a wonderful skill to connect with the players and to connect between the players,” explains Israel’s Vitaly Neimer, an international master (one cut below grand master) who played for Polgar at Texas Tech and transferred to Webster as a sophomore. Collegiate chess is an appealing path for talented young players because it lets them develop their game while maintaining some semblance of a normal life: classes, roommates, frisbee in the quad. As soon as Polgar announced she was moving to Webster, she and Truong started getting emails from players around the world. “They contact us,” Truong says, “because they understand.” One recruiting coup led to another. After Polgar snagged a shy, dark-haired 24-year-old named Manuel Leon Hoyos, who just happens to be the top chess player in all of Mexico, Hoyos reached out to his friend Fidel Corrales Jimenez, ranked third in Cuba and 174th in the world—”another rock star,” Truong says—and just like that, Webster gained another young grand master.
Portrait of Chess Players, Marcel Duchamp, 1911
One evening in May, about 100 people gather at a building on Webster’s campus for what amounts to a chess pep rally. Inside, men and women pick at desserts with icing shaped like chess pieces. The president and provost of the university sit on a makeshift stage along with the star of the show, Polgar, looking elegant in a sequined dress, blue blazer, and black high heels.
Onstage is Schuster, a wiry man with a thin mustache. He introduces Polgar as “arguably one of the strongest players in the history of chess.” She thanks him and points to her players in the crowd, asking them to stand: Georg Meier, a grand master from Germany; Neimer; and Ray Robson, a lanky, freckled 18-year-old often considered to be America’s next great chess hope. (When Polgar first met Robson in 2009, at a tournament she organized in Texas, she was so impressed with his play that she declared him “the next Bobby Fischer.”) A university employee presents the players with black Puma jackets embroidered with a newly designed logo for the chess team. Everyone claps and whoops.
Eventually the college president takes the stage and asks the crowd for two volunteers: one to take on Robson in an exhibition game and one to play Polgar herself. Two men raise their hands. The audience applauds their bravery, and soon 30 or 40 people gather around a chessboard at the back of the room.
Robson is up first. He sits across from one of the volunteers, Masoud Assali, a public-safety officer at Webster. To level the playing field somewhat, Robson removes his glasses so a cream-colored blindfold can be tied over his eyes. He’ll have to remember the position of all the pieces as the game progresses.
“c5,” Robson says.
He is playing black. Truong picks up a black pawn and moves it two spaces forward.