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On Chess: St. Louis dominates at the Pan-Americans

The SLU team consists of, from left, Cemil Can Ali Marandi, Yaroslav Zherebukh, Dariusz Swiercz, Francesco Rambaldi and Nozima Aripova.
Provided by Alejandro Ramirez

Collegiate chess is a phenomenon that has boomed in just the past couple of decades. Even though there have been important collegiate tournaments around the country for almost a century, only recently have colleges taken a keen interest in attracting brilliant minds through chess and offering considerable scholarships to reel in these players.

The biggest rivalry of the previous decade was between the University of Texas at Dallas, my alma mater, and University of Maryland at Baltimore County. These powerhouses grew exponentially, until they consistently attracted grandmasters from all over the world to be part of their prestigious program. Since then, many challengers have cropped up and started providing serious competition. Nowadays, they are joined by Texas Tech, University of Texas at Rio Grande and the biggest team on the block, Webster University, only to name a few.

Spearheaded by former Women's World Champion Susan Polgar, Webster has taken most of the collegiate chess titles in the past few years. However, the competition grows even stiffer, as a new competitor has joined the fray, Saint Louis University. This chess program, which I coach, was inaugurated this past Fall and is already making waves.

The Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Championship is the first important tournament in every academic calendar year. This year's tournament was played in New Orleans and attracted 60 strong university teams from throughout the U.S. and Canada. There is no limit to how many teams a university can bring and Webster took no chances, fielding four teams, two of which were entirely made up of grandmasters. St. Louis had a total of seven (!) teams representing our area: Webster's four, Saint Louis University, two from Washington University and one from Lindenwood. At the end of the day, Saint Louis proved again that it's the U.S. Chess Capital for a good reason.

From the start of the tournament to the end, it was domination by the teams from St. Louis. Webster's top two teams claimed first and second, while just behind them Saint Louis University came in third. Texas Tech was fourth. The Pan-American is also important because the top four universities qualify to the most prestigious of college chess tournaments: the President's Cup, colloquially known as the Final Four.

The President’s Cup will take place in March. It was no surprise that Webster, Texas Tech and UT-Dallas qualified, and while everyone knew that SLU was a top contender this year, it was still a pleasant surprise to many that they were able to do it on their very first year as a chess program.

As head-coach of SLU, I must say I'm tremendously proud of the students who represented the university in New Orleans. Being a full-time student at SLU is already a challenging task and being able to keep high grades, which all of the top universities demand as part of their chess program, and keeping their chess strength is an impressive feat.

Two out of the four Final Four universities are from St. Louis, and the competition is strong. Everything comes down to the showdown in New York City, March 24-26.

Alejandro Ramirez earned his Grandmaster title by the age of 15. That achievement set Ramirez as the first Centro-American to earn the elite GM title. Ramirez is the new coach of the Saint Louis University Chess Team.