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Spotlight On St. Louis Chess Falls On Webster's Investment In The Sport

Wesley So and Susan Polgar
Provided by Susan Polgar

The vibrancy of chess in the St. Louis area continues to grow. For example the U.S. Championships return to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis on May 8.

But one of the bright spots – the strength of the university programs here – recently received close scrutiny. While Lindenwood and others are building strong teams, Webster University brought in the chess world’s version of John Calipari or Coach K: Susan Polgar and her team of grandmasters left Texas Tech University for the St. Louis suburbs in 2012.

Polgar has not only coached a team to two collegiate championships in a row, she hosts the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) and has won four women’s world championships. The coach works hard.

The student newspaper at Webster, The Journal, took at look at the cost of bringing in this group first tier competitors.  Dan Bauman asked for but did not get specific numbers for the salaries of Polgar and her husband and fellow chess coach, Paul Truong. But he did uncover a proposal she made to Texas Tech University for salary, 34 scholarships and bonuses that would have totaled more than $1 million.

The Washington Post picked up on Bauman’s work and compared the chess wars to higher profile college sports. “Are we just starting another version of what’s happened in the football or basketball arena?” asked Richard Vedder, an Ohio University professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, in that article.

The Post also talked with Polgar (who evidently did not talk to the Webster student-run paper), and she said she and her husband were making “substantially less” than the offer presented to Texas Tech.

What if they were? How would a $250,000 salary for the head coach stack up with the big names in, say, college basketball? According to USA Today, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski leads the pack with $9,682,032 this year, though that figure does include more than $2 million owed him from the previous year.

And what about the coaches whose teams actually played for the national championship? Kevin Ollie the  coach of the winning Connecticut Huskies makes $1,250,000 with the possibility of $209,999 in bonuses, according to USA Today.

Forbes magazine took a look at what the title game meant to Kentucky’s John Calipari.

It reported that the man who has seen a lot of freshmen graduate to the NBA makes a base salary of $5.4 million. Getting to the championship was worth $275,000 in bonuses, but the bonus total would have reached $650,000 if the Wildcats had prevailed.

Beyond Webster University

The coverage of the St. Louis chess scene is about more than money. Witness two recent Wall Street Journal pieces.

An online slideshow touted the chess program at the Innovative Concept Academy. One of the captions says, “The chess program at the Academy is bankrolled by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, which opened in 2007 and already has 700 members. The club wants to make St. Louis the chess capital of the U.S.”  

That newspaper also printed an oped by Yasser Seirawan  saying that the Soviet Union is losing its dominance in chess to many other areas, including the United States. Seirawan, who has served as resident grandmaster at the Chess Club, writes, “A third force that Mr. Putin is helpless to combat is American entrepreneurialism. Nowhere is that force more evident than in this Midwestern city. About a decade ago, a wealthy chess enthusiast here, Rex Sinquefield, decided that he wanted to foster the game's growth in America, largely because he believed that it contributed strongly to the mental and character development of children.”

Well, that coverage isn't about university money.

(Note: St. Louis Public Radio prints a regular column from the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. And the station has received contributions from Mr. Sinquefield.)

Donna Korando started work in journalism at SIU’s Daily Egyptian in 1968. In between Carbondale and St. Louis Public Radio, she taught high school in Manitowoc, Wis., and worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the copy editor and letters editor for the editorial page from 1973-77. As an editorial writer from 1977-87, she covered Illinois and city politics, education, agriculture, family issues and sub-Saharan Africa. When she was editor of the Commentary Page from 1987-2003, the page won several awards from the Association of Opinion Page Editors. From 2003-07, she headed the features copy desk.