In the mid-1990s the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) had some problems, says Tim Redman, a former English professor at the school.
“The president at the time, Frank Jenifer, said that we were the least-known university in Texas. We need to attract better students, we need to make ourselves better known, we need to make connections to the community,” Redman says.
So how do you build the reputation of a small school like UTD, with limited resources? Redman had an idea.
“We can do that by offering scholarships to really impressive students who happen to be chess players,” he says.
Improving the school with elite chess was an unconventional plan but not completely out of left field. Redman himself played on champion chess teams at the University of Chicago in the 1970s. A few schools had tried chess scholarships, although it had only really stuck at one university in Maryland. But the UTD administration gave Redman the green light. He recruited a team of top players and a Pan-American championship followed in just the program’s second year.
“At that point I said, ‘We’re going to get national publicity for this.’ We did,” says Redman.
The attention paid dividends. Applicants, enrollment, average SAT scores, fundraising – everything grew. UTD was on the map. And after a while other Texas schools took notice. The first was what was then the University of Texas Brownsville (now UT Rio Grande Valley, or UTRGV), which had long been a hotbed for scholastic chess.
Bartek Macieja, a Polish grandmaster – the highest title in chess – now coaches the UTRGV team.
“Almost every school – elementary, high school, middle school – all of them have a chess program. It’s amazing. So every second week there are school tournaments with a bout 600 to 800 participants,” he says.
Lubbock didn’t have the same chess community to build on. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything, chess-wise. Susan Polgar was the first chess coach at Texas Tech. She is a grandmaster from Hungary.
“We had to buy chess sets and chess clocks and you know, furnish the office, recruit players – because we didn’t have a single titled player at that time, so we started absolutely from scratch,” she says.
By the mid-2000s these three Texas schools were scouting and offering scholarships to elite players from around the world. They came from Russia, Ukraine, India, Israel, Cuba, Venezuela, France, Lithuania and Croatia to play chess in Lubbock, Dallas or Brownsville. The three schools in Texas are now among just a half dozen in the country that offer full chess scholarships. And according the UTD’s coach Rade Milovanovic that’s created a more competitive environment than ever before.
“So it’s more work for me – to prepare team strategy, to do selection, who will play on the team. Back in years when the program started, I started in 1999 – we had only one grandmaster. Now we have like six grandmasters,” he says.
The proof is in the trophy cases. Since the President’s Cup – or the Final Four of Chess – started in 2001, one of the Texas teams has qualified every year. Usually, more than one makes the tournament, sometimes all three. UTD has 10 Pan-American Intercollegiate Championships to its name. UTRGV made three straight Final Fours in the late 2000s. Texas Tech won back-to-back national championships in 2011 and 2012. Tech’s coach Alex Onischuk is one of the best chess players in the world.
“Because we have three, here in Texas, excellent programs, it’s even hard to win the state championship. But once you win something, you really feel that you deserve it,” he says.
The three teams met recently at a tournament in Lubbock held high in a suite attached to Texas Tech’s 60,000-seat football stadium. To a newcomer, it felt more like a UN summit than a chess tournament. Competitors chatted in Russian, Spanish, English and other languages. Some watched tutorials or old matches on YouTube to warm up. Others played practice rounds or talked through how to attack different positions on the board.
Prassana Rao is a UTD graduate student from Mumbai. Growing up, Rao was one of the best young players in Asia. Now he’s on the third-string team in Dallas. One of the reasons he came to UTD is to become a grandmaster, and he’s just a few successful tournaments away.
“I think it’s my dream. I have been working on chess from the age of six or seven so it’s almost like getting a 15-year-old dream. It’s quite important and close to my heart,” he says.
Rao is like almost all of the players at this tournament in that he actually plays less chess now than he did before coming to Texas. Joshua Ruiz is a sophomore at UTRGV originally from Colombia. Some summers, he would go to Cuba to train in the country’s vibrant chess scene. But now, things are different.
“I used to train like eight hours per day. Since I got here, I don’t have the same time to train. I have to study, make homeworks. So for example my level has decreased. It’s a disappointment, right? But now, my priority has changed,” he says.
Making a living exclusively through chess is possible for only a few dozen top players in the world. Although that goal is out of reach for virtually all collegiate players, it doesn’t mean they take competition any less seriously.
“It’s a very great experience to compete with those teams because here in the U.S. there are like lots of very strong teams that offer chess schools. And, like, losing is not acceptable to me,” says Pavlo Vorontsov, a Tech sophomore from Ukraine.
Luckily for him Vorontsov and his Tech teammates won the Lubbock tournament – they beat UTD in the final round. But an even bigger prize waits for each of them. Those two teams will meet again later this month in the 2017 Final Four.