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The Other 'Final Four' Trades In Courts For Chess Boards


We're going to hear now about this year's big final four matchup, but not in basketball. This weekend Webster University of St. Louis, the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Illinois square off outside Washington, D.C. in the Final Four of College Chess, the President's Cup. Those schools emerged in a tie at the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship last December.


Actually, it was a five-way tie because Webster University fielded two teams. We're now going to meet a couple of Webster's players, both of them freshmen. Wesley So and Ray Robson, welcome to both of you. Thanks for coming in today. And with us also is their legendary coach, Susan Polgar who's, I guess, sort of the Bear Bryant of collegiate chess. Does that make sense to you?

SUSAN POLGAR: Thank you. Yeah, I'm glad to be here.

SIEGEL: OK. As attentive listeners to this program may recall Coach Polgar, the Hungarian-born prodigy who has won more championships than we have time to mention, who achieved Grand Masters status by men's standards. That is, she's broken many glass ceilings challenging women in chess. Last year, broke a few hearts at Texas Tech when she moved her chess program from there to Webster in St. Louis.

So, first of all, Susan Polgar, with two separate teams, Webster A and Webster B that were in that five-way tie at the Pan-Am championship, your guys have got to be the prohibitive favorites. How do you keep these two and their teammates from getting too cocky?

POLGAR: Well, obviously it was an honor to qualify for the Final Four but we don't forget that UT Dallas and UMBC won 10 Final Four championships in the past. So they are very experienced players while we have four members in our team who are just freshmen.

SIEGEL: Wesley and Ray, tell me a little bit. You're roommates and both college freshmen as well. First of all, Wesley, where are you from?

WESLEY SO: I'm from the Philippines.

SIEGEL: And Ray, you're from?

RAY ROBSON: Florida.

SIEGEL: And how much chess do you play when you're, you know, in your room? Every day you play chess with each other?

ROBSON: I think when we first got here we were playing almost every day. And maybe now we have to concentrate more on studies. So we still find time to play a few times a week.

SO: But we play games that last for like five minutes per match. So it's a very quick game like blitz games.

SIEGEL: Blitz games (unintelligible), yeah.

SO: It's only of two minutes.

SIEGEL: You know, in arranging for your visit here to the studio today, one of my colleagues asked, well, what hotel are you all staying at? And she was told that's top secret because if all of the teams know where you're staying, you know, you could get pranked and get crank calls. Does this actually happen? Do people try to psych each other out in big chess tournaments?

POLGAR: Well, I can tell you that even from my own competitive days when I played in Olympiad, it did happen. And it happened also in the prior Final Four. Then we don't find anything like that to potentially disturb our performance.

SIEGEL: How important is a good night's sleep before a chess game?

SO: It's really important because each chess game usually lasts around four to five hours. So you need your full energy, not just for the start of the game for the openings, but very importantly for the crucial parts of the game.

SIEGEL: Wesley, why does it take four to five hours to play the chess game when it only takes five minutes for you and Ray to play in the dorm room?

SO: Oh, because we were playing a blitz game. But in Final Four and these kind of tournaments, like it's called a standard game or a long game. So each player has around two hours.

SIEGEL: And would your strategy, Ray, be to take every possible second you can or to move fast and put your opponent - make him sweat a little bit?

ROBSON: Often I'm the one who's using all the available time in getting down to not having much time at the end, which puts me at a disadvantage at that point because I don't really have enough time to consider all the possibilities. And usually it's best to play relatively fast and manage your time well throughout the whole game.

SIEGEL: And we should say, chess is not an NCAA regulated sport.

POLGAR: That's right.

SIEGEL: But are you limited in the number of scholarships that kids can have to play chess at the school or...

POLGAR: Actually, there is no limit. The limit is the budget of the various universities.

SIEGEL: This was an issue when you were leaving Texas Tech, whether you have it and...

POLGAR: Yes, it was.

SIEGEL: ...it would appear that you've recruited from all over the world and a very illustrious group of young chess players.

POLGAR: Yes, indeed. Webster University has eight grandmasters, actually, among our students. And they all come from eight different countries.

SIEGEL: The number of great chess players is incredible, what you're talking about here.

POLGAR: Oh, yeah. There are, I think, only around 1,300 grandmasters in the history of the game. It's absolutely remarkable that within the university program we have eight grandmasters.

SIEGEL: Well, since we have no dog in this fight, as they say, we wish you at Webster University well but also the best to University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Illinois from Urbana-Champaign. The four universities represented in the President's Cup, the Final Four of college chess this weekend. Thanks to all of you.

ROBSON: Thank you.

POLGAR: Thank you.

SO: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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