December 3, 2008
Written by Cory Chandler
Cory Chandler, a senior editor in the Office of Communications and Marketing, accompanied Texas Tech University’s Susan Polgar and Paul Truong to the 2008 Chess Olympiad in Dresden, Germany. His mission: to recruit chess players from more than 140 countries to Texas Tech.
It’s 9:30 a.m. in Frankfurt and the airport is bustling with mid-morning vitality.
I’m yawning through an hour-old coffee buzz.
I spent the night with my legs pretzeled under me as a phalanx of babies fired off sporadic screams. Somehow, I couldn’t make myself go to sleep.
Now I’m staggering past duty-free shops, buffeted along on the currents of an unfamiliar language, feeling like I should be turning in for bed rather than starting my day. It is, after all, 2:30 a.m. in Lubbock.
And I still have another plane to catch.
But even through my daze, I can already see the signs of excitement. Waiting in the terminal to board, I notice two guys dissecting chess moves over a laptop. On the plane, I sit next to members of the Columbia team who are not only familiar with Susan Polgar, but know about Texas Tech because of the SPICE Cup tournament she’s hosted on campus the last two years.
In Dresden, I see billboards advertising the Olympiad to pedestrians, posters with pieces arrayed in everything from gnome outfits to Playboy bunny costumes, chess displays in store windows and even special tram lines boasting knights and bishops in their windshields.
There’s even a welcome booth at the airport.
These Germans are ready for some chess.
Have no doubt that Susan is a celebrity in the chess world.
It’s half an hour before the Olympiad’s opening ceremony and the organizers have asked Susan to light the torch. I’m supposed to be inside, but thanks to a translation flub, my entry pass is sitting back at the airport. The volunteers who were supposed to give it to me when I landed mistook me for a reporter and sent me on to my hotel.
Until now, I’ve been relying on big hand gestures and significantly raised eyebrows to get my point across when communication breaks down. Apparently, this isn’t enough to describe my esoteric role – I’m not a player, volunteer or journalist, merely a university employee who has come to Germany to help Susan handle media relations for the Olympiad and help recruit students.
I can’t figure out an easy way to convey this.
But once the organizers hear I’m with Susan, ears perk up. I gain my own stature, and before I know it, I’m in a van with a bunch of Germans who are working phones trying to figure out how to get me past the security, which will be tight because of the German ministry officials expected at the event.
As we’re en route, one of the event volunteers turns to me and asks: “So, does Susan travel with bodyguards?”
The scene at the Olympiad: a checkmating frenzy.
We’re talking thousands of people cramming into Dresden’s conference center, this beautiful and spacious curl of glass overlooking the Elbe River, to watch the players compete.
Spectators crowd up to watch and videotape the biggest games, and the matches are projected onto screens throughout the building for those who can’t get close enough.
On weekends, the foot traffic gets so heavy that people begin propping open fire exits so they can enter and leave more easily. My ears are bombarded all day by politely alarming buzzers.
A surprising number of the competitors and spectators are young adults, so we’re in prime position for recruiting.
I show up a couple of hours early, set out my materials and wait for the human deluge.
The look goes like this: raised eyebrows, squinted eyes. A mouth flopped open in confusion.
These people, these chess enthusiasts, they stare at the sign over my head, then at me, then back up at the sign.
They say: “Texas.”
Just that one word, in the same tone you’d use to say, “Huh” or, “You don’t say.”
They look at the brochures on the table, as if searching for answers. For the first three days or so, this is the response I get as people drift past my booth; visitors from more than a hundred countries wondering why a university from Texas would set up shop at a chess event in Dresden.
That’s my cue.
“SPICE is a chess institute Susan Polgar started at Texas Tech,” I say. They latch onto Susan Polgar. They know Susan Polgar – like I said: celebrity. “She coaches the chess team there and we are looking for players. We can offer scholarships to some students.”
I hand them a brochure about SPICE. I hand them a booklet about the university. I load them down with double T stickers, Texas Tech pens and business card holders.
I answer their questions. I tell them, yes, you would be a student there. I tell them how many degrees we offer. In broken sentences full of pantomimes, we talk details, we talk education, we talk chess.
And as they walk away, I can hear them mutter, “Texas.”
But before long I become a known face. I have regulars. There’s this one player from Nepal who walks up every day, beaming, and shakes my hand.
“Good day, friend,” he says, whether I’m in the middle of another conversation or not.
Or there’s the Grandmaster who decided I’m his good luck charm. Every day he drops by the booth to shake my hand and get a new dose of good fortune.
I’m like Norm from Cheers, the guy everyone knows, always sitting on the same stool in the same corner – the guy who’s always glad you came.
My buddies are Bolivians and Costa Ricans. Bermudans. They are Swedish and Indian players who stop to ask questions. They get the address for Texas Tech’s admissions site. One guy asks if he can apply to me on the spot.
We talk. Big hand gestures, significantly raised eyebrows and all. Maybe we don’t speak each others’ language, but chess is its own language.
What’s your story? Contact Cory Chandler
Photo by Cory Chandler.