Texas Tech Wins Pan-Ams As Webster's Streak Ends
The full "Check Them Tech" squad after taking top honors at the 2019 Pan-Ams, which were hosted by the Charlotte Chess Center. Photo: Mike Klein / Chess.com.

Texas Tech Wins Pan-Ams As Webster's Streak Ends

MikeKlein
FM MikeKlein
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13 | Chess Event Coverage

The Texas Tech "Check Them Tech" squad won the western hemisphere's most prestigious university open chess tournament in late December in Charlotte, North Carolina. The longtime scholarship program captured its second-ever Pan-Am Intercollegiate Championship, and its first outright.

The team won with a rare 6-0 match score. Texas Tech had previously won on tiebreaks with three other teams in 2015.

The event was hosted by the Charlotte Chess Center and sponsored by the U.S. Chess Trust. (Disclosure: I am a school curriculum and program advisor to the Charlotte Chess Center.)

The winning roster was GM Andrew Baryshpolets, GM Evgeny Shtembuliak, GM Pavlo Vorontsov, GM Sergei Matsenko and alternate FM Aleksey Sorokin (who actually played five rounds and is an FM in name only, since his FIDE rating is north of 2500).

Texas Tech Onischuk
Coach GM Alex Onischuk (holding plaque) does his university's traditional "Guns Up" salute of the Red Raiders. Photo: Mike Klein / Chess.com.

Nearly as notable is what didn't happen this year. For the first time since its inception as a college chess program, Webster University did not win or tie for first. Webster's magnificent run ends like Fabiano Caruana's, with seven in a row. Ever since Susan Polgar moved her SPICE program to the St. Louis suburbs (from Texas Tech), the Gorloks had finished with at least a share of first, with four of the titles coming outright.

A third story, which may have been the most improbable of the event, is how Webster still managed to qualify for the Final Four of College Chess. The top four teams of the Pan-Ams punch their tickets for that event and Webster got there only with its C-team, who finished in second place! Despite an A- and B-team composed solely of GMs, it all came down to the C-team's board four.

The untitled hero Aaron Grabinsky turned around a worse position. His final-round win saved the day for the most dominant program of the decade. 

Other members of that second-place team were GM Peter Prohaszka, IM Brian Escalante and FM Yuriy Krykun.

Webster Susan Polgar
Webster's C-team, with coach GM Susan Polgar. The hero Grabinsky is second from the right. Photo: Mike Klein / Chess.com.

Assistant coach Paul Truong said that the razor-thin Final Four qualification mitigated his team's tournament to a disappointment instead of a disaster. The two other teams making it to the Final Four were Saint Louis University A-team (third place: GM Dariusz Swiercz, GM Alexander Ipatov, IM Nikolas Theodorou, GM Benjamin Bok) and University of Texas at Dallas B-team (fourth place: GM Gil Popilski, GM David Berczes, IM Craig Hilby, GM Angel Arribas Lopez). Second through fourth place all finished with 5.0/6 match points.

Back to the winners. Texas Tech didn't face off against any of the Webster teams, but it did have formidable opposition nonetheless. After beating Ohio State in the opening round, Texas Tech took out the five-time winners Harvard University.

From there the Red Raiders beat the 2019 winner of the Final Four (also known as the President's Cup), the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley's B-team. In a single day in rounds four and five, Tech then dispatched both of the top squads from Saint Louis University. Then in the final round the Raiders needed only a drawn match but took out University of Texas at Dallas A-team for the unblemished score.

"Not even in my craziest dreams," was coach GM Alex Onischuk's reaction to the perfection. The former U.S. champion called this the proudest moment he's had in coaching.

Texas Tech Alex Onischuk
Coach Alex Onischuk (far right) takes some of his players to a celebration dinner. Photo: Mike Klein /  Chess.com.

Texas Tech went into the final day all alone atop the leaderboard, and mathematically had nearly ensured a top-four placement and thus qualification for the Final Four. But during a team meeting where everyone was calculating this, Onischuk said his players stopped.

"The team said, 'Why are we counting this? Let's go for 6-0,'" Onischuk recounted. "Let's go for it. This is our chance. This is our moment."

Texas Tech
The Texas Tech ladies won the top women's team, making it a two-fer for the university. Photo: Mike Klein / Chess.com.

All of their wins in rounds three through six came by the score of 2.5-1.5. In the final round, Onischuk was left wondering about the team's plans for a perfect score.

"Today I was not regretting it but I was really worried about it. The match looked pretty bad for us," said Onischuk.

One of those concerns was on the top board, where all three results were possible for much of the game. The Tech captain Baryshpolets took his chance with an exchange sacrifice after his opponent refused a three-fold repetition deep in the endgame.

Andrey Baryshpolets
Baryshpolets (Texas Tech, left) against GM Razvan Preotu (UT-D), moments from clinching the title for Texas Tech. Photo: Al Lawrence /  U.S. Chess Trust Managing Director.

"He's the most experienced player but I've seen him saving worst positions than this," Onischuk said. The win was the second-to-last game in the entire tournament and clinched the title and perfect score for Tech.

Onischuk's squad needed that win after its board three's Tiger Modern never achieved equality and its fourth board's piece sacrifice netted only a perpetual. Luckily the Raiders had found their way back to an even score thanks to their board-two player, who might be the hottest player in college chess.  Shtembuliak is now the current World junior champion and current Ukrainian champion . 

"He won everything this semester," Onischuk said. "He won three tournaments and his performance was like 2800+ in all three tournaments. He played very well, including here. Right now, he's the best player on our team."

In the final round, the rising star played a Rf6 idea, and coupled with a pawn on e5 and pressure on the b1-h7 diagonal, had some shades of Fischer-Benko, 1963, which was curiously also played on December 30!

As with any college sport, the competitions begin even before the first move is played. Onischuk revealed a somewhat surprising strategy to fill out his roster in Lubbock.

"Unlike some other teams, we recruit young, talented, strong players. But not like 2700s. I assume they will all go to other schools. We have a kind of dynamic in collegiate chess. St. Louis is obviously attractive to many players, so I kind of assume all the best players will go to St. Louis, either Webster or Saint Louis University. I believe that collegiate chess should be about school. We are really focused on school. I told my guys that if they perform well at school, academically, this is what matters. Chess is second place. All of my guys, except for one, they became grandmasters while at Texas Tech. Some other schools have eight, 10 GMs, that have played in 10 Olympiads, so it's a bit different."

It also doesn't hurt that Onischuk has found a winning pipeline from his homeland. Three of the players on his A-team represent Ukraine.

Texas Tech's "everyman" approach was evident in the final standings as well, where none of its players from the winning team finished with more than 4.0 points.

An unlikely star for the storied Webster program became longtime member Aaron Grabinsky of their C-team. He scored 5.5/6 to win an individual silver on board four, and his one draw was to GM Benjamin Bok. But it was what he did for his team in the final day that really counted.

Facing the newly-formed chess program of the University of Missouri in the last round, Grabinsky was again the underdog against WGM Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova.

[In a breaking development, as this article is being published, Polgar reports that Grabinsky's win over GM Andrew Tang at the Charlotte Open (which followed the Pan-Ams) has helped him cross 2400 FIDE and thus earned him his final qualification for the IM title.]

The need for the C-team to bail out the A- and B-teams came after Webster's top team, which had an average US Chess rating north of 2700 (the highest of any foursome), went down against Saint Louis University's top team in round six.

"It's pretty shocking actually," coach Polgar said. "I thought the B-team had the best chance as of this morning...But we had some hope in the C-team as well. I'm very proud of the C-team...Aaron was the key player in winning the final game."

She also noted that the lone grandmaster on the team, Peter Prohaszka, played well in winning individual gold on board one.

Even though none of her teams closed out the decade with another title, her run in the 2010s might never be matched. Consider: In the 15 competitions Webster has entered (eight Pan-Ams and seven Final Fours), it's won 12 of them, with three second-places.

Pan-Am Chess
A view of the playing hall at the 2019 Pan-Ams. Photo: Mike Klein / Chess.com.

Polgar said one of the contributing factors to the A-team's final-round loss was the health of some of her players. More than one had to rush to the bathroom and vomit just before the round.

One topic of debate is a possible rule change to the Final Four tournament, traditionally held in the spring in New York. Currently, if any of a school's teams finishes in the top four, then that program may send anyone it likes to the President's Cup. Translation: Even though one C-team and one B-team finished in this year's top four, it's possible than none of those players travels to the Big Apple.

The U.S. Chess Collegiate Chess Committee is considering amending that rule, with the new requirement that the foursome who actually comprised the qualifying team must be on the roster in the Final Four (with two alternates also being allowed to attend). 

Does Polgar agree with such a change?

"I don't think so honestly because each university is one unit at the end of the day...It's debatable whether it's a good rule or not that they do allow multiple teams (in the Pan-Ams). But if they do, at the end of the day, it's one university." Polgar said that she had not yet figured out which members will represent Webster at the Final Four.

GM Alejandro Ramirez, coach of Saint Louis University, said that if and when the rule takes effect it will alter his thinking in the setting of his lineups. In 2019, he didn't "stack" all of his highest-rated players on his A-team.

He also said that "gone are the good ole days" of this event simply being between UT-Dallas and University of Maryland, Baltimore County (two of the oldest chess scholarship colleges in the U.S.). He said he's not surprised that only two A-teams qualified for the Final Four.

Unlike his crosstown rival, Ramirez said he already knows that the four players on his A-team will be on the roster for the Final Four, but he's yet to select his alternates.

Alexander Ipatov
GM Alexander Ipatov (right, SLU) beat GM Aleksandr Lenderman (Webster) in the final round to get the Billikens into the Final Four. Photo: Al Lawrence / U.S. Chess Trust Managing Director.

"Hats off to Webster-C," Ramirez said. "They had an amazing event and their only loss was to us and it was by the minimum margin. It could have gone either way...They played with fire, they played with passion, and I'm happy to see that a team that is not full of GMs can come here and compete."

As happy as he was for the tertiary team of his intra-city rival, Ramirez was especially happy for his own players' must-win final round over their A-team.

"From a morale standpoint, it's nice to beat someone that has been dominant on the chess scene for so long," he said. "It's going to give us a great boost."

2019 Pan-Am Intercollegiate Chess Championship | Final Team Standings (Top 10)

Place School Rd. 1 Rd. 2 Rd. 3 Rd. 4 Rd. 5 Rd. 6 Score TB1
1 Texas Tech University - A W44 [4.0] W20 [3.0] W8 [2.5] W10 [2.5] W3 [2.5] W7 [2.5] 6 65.5
2 Webster University - C W34 [4.0] W33 [4.0] L3 [1.5] W18 [4.0] W19 [4.0] W12 [2.5] 5 73.5
3 Saint Louis University - A W35 [4.0] W21 [4.0] W2 [2.5] W11 [3.5] L1 [1.5] W5 [2.5] 5 72.75
4 University Of Texas At Dallas- B W42 [3.0] W25 [3.0] L5 [0.0] W15 [3.5] W17 [3.0] W10 [2.5] 5 52.5
5 Webster University - A W23 [4.0] W19 [4.0] W4 [4.0] W12 [3.5] D6 [2.0] L3 [1.5] 4.5 80.5
6 Webster University - B W37 [4.0] W22 [3.5] W9 [3.5] D7 [2.0] D5 [2.0] D8 [2.0] 4.5 67
7 University Of Texas At Dallas- A W28 [4.0] W24 [4.0] W17 [3.0] D6 [2.0] W11 [2.5] L1 [1.5] 4.5 66
8 U Of Texas Rio Grande Valley - B W47 [3.5] W26 [3.0] L1 [1.5] W33 [3.0] W22 [4.0] D6 [2.0] 4.5 57
9 U Maryland Baltimore County - A W43 [4.0] W31 [3.5] L6 [0.5] W25 [3.0] D20 [2.0] W21 [3.0] 4.5 49.25
10 Saint Louis University - B W46 [4.0] W29 [4.0] W16 [4.0] L1 [1.5] W14 [3.0] L4 [1.5] 4 64.5

For full results, final team placement is here and final individual placement is here.

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