It's the latest victory for the award-winning Knight Raiders after qualifying for the 2017 final four of chess in December.
"Chess is life."
It's a dramatic statement from senior biology and pre-medicine major Salem Al-Sao. But it's one that rings true for many, if not all, of the members of the Knight Raiders, Texas Tech University's award-winning chess team.
Proof of their dedication to the sport came again Saturday when the Texas Tech "A" Team took first place at the Southwest Collegiate Championship. The one-day tournament held at Texas Tech included five rounds of rapid chess played by 23 teams of three players each from Texas Tech, Texas State University, the University of Texas-Dallas (UTD), the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) and the University of Oklahoma.
"Despite being slight underdogs, we dominated the tournament Saturday, scoring 14.5 out of 15 individual points and winning all five matches," said Alex Onischuk chess coach and director.
The "A" Team from UTRGV placed second, with the "C" Team from UTD placing third.
It was the first time Texas Tech has hosted the tournament and comes on the heels of the players' victory at the 2016 Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championship in New Orleans in December. There, Texas Tech qualified for the College Final Four Chess Championship and will compete for the top honor March 24-26 in New York City. They'll face teams from UTD again, along with teams from Webster University and St. Louis University.
"Coach Onischuk and the entire Texas Tech team have represented Texas Tech University wonderfully," said Paul Frazier, associate vice president of the Division of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement (DIDECE). "As we continue to fare well in tournaments both nationally and internationally, I have no doubt we will continue to see great things from our chess program."
Considering their commitment to the program and the game, it's no wonder the team has done so well. Chess is what the Knight Raiders live and breathe. It's what fills the space before, between and after classes and work. It's what brought some of them to the South Plains of Texas from homes in Colombia, Azerbaijan, Mexico and the Ukraine.
"I love playing, learning and teaching chess, and the chess program at Texas Tech has provided that," said Al-Sao, who hails from the state of Palestine in the Middle East. "It's a great chance to learn chess from amazing players and meet awesome people along the way."
Amazing players indeed – in the 10 years since the program was created within the DIDECE, the teams have won more than 10 national titles, and the program was named Chess College of the Year in 2014. Texas Tech players have qualified for the chess final four the past four years in a row and seven times overall.
Currently, the program has 20 students attending Texas Tech on scholarship.
"The chess program brings outstanding students from all over the world to the Texas Tech, offering chess scholarships to qualified applicants at both the undergraduate and graduate levels," said Opal Gonzales, chess unit and outreach coordinator. "Competing at all levels, the program is able to provide opportunities for all ratings from international grandmasters to club players."
While the students have each their own list of accolades, they're not the only Texas Tech standouts in the chess world. Onischuk, their coach since 2012, has ranked globally in the top 100 players for the past 20 years and is currently ranked sixth among American grandmasters. This March, he will be one of only 12 players to compete in the 2017 U.S. Championship in St. Louis. He'll play against players ranked second, third and eighth in the world.
"As a former U.S. chess champion, Alex serves as an ambassador not only for chess nationally but internationally, which brings recognition and accolades to our university," Frazier said. "Through his role, he has encouraged his students and team to be ambassadors as well and to promote our mission of inclusion and equity."
Like Onischuk, most of the students on the Texas Tech chess team have been playing the game for as long as they can remember. When it's time to pick a university, it's not unheard of for them to evaluate chess programs before making a final decision.
Gonzales said that's how Woman Candidate Master Claudia Munoz, a freshman mathematics major from Wichita Falls, found herself at Texas Tech.
"She chose to come to Texas Tech for the chess program," Gonzales said. "She loved how close-knit our team was in comparison to other schools and knew this is where she wanted to be."
Munoz, who will travel to the final four as a second alternate, began playing chess as a 6-year-old in Mexico.
"It is an amazing sport," Munoz said. "It's like its own language."
When she was 8, her family moved back to the U.S. and she continued playing, adjusting her skills to the American rules and becoming familiar with those already on the chess circuit in Texas. Along the way, she encountered the Texas Tech players at tournaments, motivating her to seek a spot on the team.
"I saw how passionate, united and unique the team was," Munoz said. "I always loved seeing how deeply in love the players were with the game."
As part of the Knight Raiders, Munoz said she's had the opportunity to compete in team tournaments against many of the individual players she's played in the past.
"It's really beautiful to kind of see the evolution of us growing up in chess and then finally being at this point, in college and still playing," Munoz said.
Being at Texas Tech has also given her a support system within the program.
"Our team is pretty united in the sense that we hang out a lot, we play chess, we participate in stuff together," Munoz said. "I enjoy the fact I learn from every single one of them, no matter their strength in chess. It's awesome to be among your team members and play a sport you really love."
That sense of camaraderie is one that most players mention when they speak about the program. But it's not the only advantage of the game.
"It offers an outlet," said Richard Davisson, a sophomore microbiology major from Randolph, New Jersey. "I can take it seriously, hunker down and study the game when I feel the need to seriously work at it, and I can play it casually to pass the time with friends."
Chess has given Davisson, a second category master, and the other players the chance to interact with other students who may be interested in joining the program. When the weather permits, members set up tables in the free speech area near the Student Union Building.
"Anyone and everyone are welcome to come out and play a game or two," Gonzales said.
They also take chess to those who may become the next generation of award-winning competitors in Lubbock.
"The program works with 10 chess clubs in schools across Lubbock," said Gonzales. "Much of the chess program's community outreach is through these schools, where Texas Tech members teach strategies, chess openings and critical thinking."
She said bringing high-rated players to schools all across Lubbock means school-aged children have the unique opportunity to learn from the best.. The benefits of the game extend far beyond the chess board.
"Chess is a helpful tool in assisting children in developing critical-thinking and decision-making skills," Gonzales said. "By teaching chess, we are giving students something they can use for a lifetime."
The program also is crucial to the university because it acts as a catalyst for student involvement and engagement, particularly among international students, Frazier said. It strengthens the Texas Tech commitment to diversity while serving as an opportunity for academic and social development.
"Students benefit because they are afforded the opportunities to play a game they love, serve as representatives of the university and meet and engage with students from around the world," Frazier said. "The local community benefits socially from the establishment of local and regional chess clubs that provide students and families with the opportunity to get involved learn new skills and learn about other cultures, traditions and practices."
Gonzales said the team hopes to continue expanding the program both within the university and the Lubbock community. Munoz encourages anyone interested to get involved, whether it's for a single game or as a member of the program.
"We're always looking for new members as players graduate," Munoz said. "Come take your mind off your studies for a bit and relieve some stress."