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College chess team funding scrutinized

  • Washington Post
  • Published Tuesday, April 29, 2014, at 9:46 p.m.

The arms race in collegiate chess – a cutthroat world once dominated by the University of Maryland Baltimore County – is generating new scrutiny following revelations that a highpowered coach at Texas Tech University requested more than $1 million in funding, including a $250,000 salary.

Texas Tech declined, and the coach, Susan Polgar, left the school and took her entire team of grandmasters to Webster University in St. Louis, where the chess world thinks at least some of her wishes were met. Webster has since won two straight Final Four chess titles amid a growing debate about the spending – a discussion that sounds a lot like those surrounding big-time college athletic programs.

“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. “I think we are even though the stakes are smaller.”

The account of Polgar’s requests surfaced last week in a series of stories in the Journal, Webster’s student newspaper, which filed public records requests with Texas Tech and other top chess programs for documents detailing chess spending.

Documents and e-mails revealed that Polgar, a four-time women’s world champion who makes her squad perform physical workouts to improve stamina, had requested the $250,000 in salary for her and $150,000 for her husband, Paul Truong (also a coach), funds for up to 34 full and partial scholarships, and $25,000 bonuses for tournament wins.

In an interview, Polgar said the requests to Texas Tech reflected an offer from one of multiple schools that tried to recruit her. She declined to identify the school but said it wasn’t Webster, adding that she and her husband were making “substantially less” than the offer presented to Texas Tech.

Webster says it spends $635,000 a year on chess, including salaries and expenses. That figure does not include full and partial scholarship totals for the program’s 15 players. Webster’s tuition is $24,500 a year.

Alan Sherman, a UMBC professor and cryptology expert who single-handedly built the school’s program from scratch in the early 1990s, said his team is being outspent by Webster by at least 4 to 1. He was not surprised by Webster’s big bucks chess budget.

“It is the level of funding you need these days to have a really top-notch chess program,” said Sherman, who has been agitating, without success, for more money for his own program.

UMBC has won just two Final Four titles since 2007, after winning four straight in the mid-2000s. Its program offers a variety of scholarships, including five chess fellows funded by the school’s campus soda contract with Pepsi. Fellows receive full tuition and a $15,000-a-year food and housing stipend.

But its two coaches make just $22,000 a year combined, according to data provided to the Journal. Sherman, the chess director, is a volunteer.

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