Texas Tech University’s Chess Program director and head coach will begin competing in the U.S. Chess Championship today after being inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.
Grandmaster Alex Onischuk, Texas Tech University's Chess Program director and head coach of the award-winning chess team, the Knight Raiders, has called Lubbock home for the past several years. But he first discovered his passion for chess as a child in a community on the other side of the globe.
“I grew up in a village near the beautiful town of Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsula,” Onischuk said. “When I was about 7 years old, I learned how to play chess.”
The only chess club in town was far from his home, an hour-long trip first by bus, then ferry and finally, by foot. When his parents couldn't take him, his 12-year-old sister would make the journey with him two to three times per week.
“I played in a lot of tournaments and traveled a lot when I was a kid,” Onischuk said. “By the time I turned 15, I was already a decent player.”
At age 16, he placed second in his first major tournament, the World Youth Under-16 Chess Olympiad. Just a few short years later, in 1994 and at the age of 19, Onischuk achieved the highest title in chess, grandmaster.
Today, he will be recognized for those achievements and more as he is inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art.
“It was big news,” Onischuk said. “I'm extremely honored to be inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame. There are only about 60 people in the Hall of Fame, and to be among the greatest American players like Paul Morphy, Bobby Fischer and Sam Reshevsky, players whose games I was studying as a kid, is incredible.”
The induction ceremony will serve as a kickoff to the 2018 U.S. Chess Championship tournament at the Saint Louis Chess Club, where Onischuk will again compete for the crown and his share of $194,000 in potential winnings. Onischuk took second place in the 2017 tournament.
“I'm the oldest player in the field,” Onischuk said. “I'll be competing against the very best players in the country, and some of these guys are the best players in the world. So my expectations are not very high, but I will not give up without a fight.”
Becoming a U.S. chess player
After earning the title of grandmaster in 1994, Onischuk continued to hone his skills before heading to the U.S. in 2001. He spent his collegiate years as captain of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Chess Team, leading it to four consecutive national titles from 2002 to 2006.
“It was an excellent experience,” Onischuk said. “I enjoyed being a part of the team. It was very important for me that when I came to college, I met a lot of people with the same interests and hobbies as myself. Many of the guys I played with are still my friends.”
In 2012, Onischuk arrived at Texas Tech as head coach of the chess team, which is housed within the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. He said his time at UMBC as a player helped prepare him for the work he does with the Knight Raiders.
“What I learned during my time as a student at UMBC was that to win a team tournament, it is not enough to have the best players on your team,” Onischuk said. “It is very important to build a great atmosphere on the team and to motivate players.”
Since arriving at Texas Tech, Onischuk has coached the team to several regional, state and national titles, including a 2015 Pan-American Chess Championship win, the first in the program's history. With the exception of 2013, the team also has qualified every year for the President's Cup, also known as the Final Four of Chess. In 2014, Texas Tech was named Chess College of the Year, and Onischuk was named Grandmaster of the Year.
Woman Grandmaster Carla Heredia, a sports management graduate student from Ecuador, has participated in the Texas Tech chess program for five years. During that time, she had the opportunity to serve as assistant coach within the program while also competing with the Knight Raiders.
“It has been a unique opportunity to be on the team and have Alex as coach, since he is one of the top players in the U.S. and in the world,” Heredia said. “He is a strong player and also a good coach who has worked with talents from around the world, our chess team and even a former World Champion.”
Heredia said Onischuk's background as a player helps him train players in a way that allows them to analyze their games and gain feedback to help them progress as players.
“His chess style is solid,” Heredia said. “He rarely loses, and he is very objective when he has to make important decisions at the chess board. He has a deep knowledge in strategy and, of course, he is able to calculate on the level of the top players.”
But Heredia said Onischuk is more than just a good coach and strong chess player.
“Grandmaster Onischuk has supported me and anyone on the team in achieving our chess goals, and he motivates us to be the best students and persons we can be,” Heredia said. “Furthermore, he has also been a visionary and values diversity and inclusion. In our program, we have people from more than eight countries, and one of our teams is a women's team. Texas Tech is the only chess program in the nation with a women-only team. He is respected, in the U.S. and in the world, as a chess player and also as a person.”
An award-winning career
In addition to his work in collegiate chess, Onischuk has won about 30 different tournaments in his career and has been rated among the top 100 players in the world for the past 20 years. Between 2004 and 2017, he played more than 100 games for the U.S. National Team, including in the 2006 and 2008 Olympic Games, where his scores helped the team finish with bronze medals. In 2009, his gold-medal performance at the World Team Championship helped the team secure a silver medal.
Onischuk also has competed in the U.S. Championship tournament every year since 2004, taking first place in 2006 and placing in the top three seven other times, including a second-place win in 2017. Of all the tournaments, there is one first-place win that stands out.
“The most memorable was the 2006 U.S. Championship,” Onischuk said. “I remember waking up next day after I won the title with realization, ‘I'm the strongest chess player in the U.S.'”
Grandmaster Robert Hess, one of Onischuk's teammates on the U.S. National Team and coach of the U.S. Women's Team at the 2016 Olympics, said working with Onischuk, first as a competitor, then as a teammate, was invaluable to his growth as a player and future chess coach.
“He helped me prepare at a level I was not accustomed to,” Hess said. “Working with him to face strong grandmasters was a privilege and an experience I'll never forget. His professionalism was apparent throughout; his thorough research helps him understand which types of positions favor him and which should be avoided. Alex has a wealth of knowledge. His style is extremely solid: he tends to steer clear of exceptionally sharp lines, instead relying on his masterful technique to outplay his opponents.”
Hess said Onischuk's preparation for games is meticulous, and coupled with his tremendous understanding of the game, allows him to frequently squeeze a victory from slight advantages.
“In many ways his games are ‘more than meets the eye' in that you have to take time to truly comprehend the nuances,” Hess said. “Opponents are often left shaking their heads, not realizing where exactly things started going downhill. But chess is a game of plans not moves, and few know that better than Grandmaster Onischuk.”
Hess said without question, Onischuk is worthy of inclusion in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.
“On a personal level it is moving to see one of my chess mentors inducted; on a professional level, he obviously deserves it,” Hess said. “If a U.S. Championship title were not enough, he became one of the handful of American players to ever cross the 2,700-rating threshold, and he represented the U.S in more than a dozen international team events.
“He has paved the way for younger generations – and players not born in the U.S. – to realize there is a stable path to success at the top of American chess. Each and every year, Alex is a contender for the U.S. Championship and has pushed his colleagues to improve their own level of play, or else they will not be able to overcome him. I've never heard a negative word about him, and students of his are fortunate to have the advice of such an esteemed player and incredible individual.”
The future of chess at Texas Tech
Onischuk said he looks forward to continuing the work the Texas Tech Chess Program does on and off campus. Several events and projects are in the works in upcoming months.
“In June, we will host the NATO Chess Championship on campus,” Onischuk said. “This is the first time this tournament will be held in the U.S., and the chess program has partnered with the Office of International Affairs, Military & Veterans Programs and the Knight Raiders Chess Club organizing this event. We expect about 10 countries to participate in the tournament.”
On June 6, the chess program will host the Lubbock Chess Open at the Frazier Alumni Pavilion. All players from beginner to expert are welcome to participate. From June 25-29 and July 23-27, the program will host its annual summer chess camps for players ages 7-17.
“In addition to competition, Texas Tech chess has an excellent outreach program,” Onischuk said. “We organize seven scholastic tournaments and two chess camps annually. The chess program also has a strong academic connection. My students and I create the UIL test for elementary and middle school kids every year. Last year more than 30,000 kids took this test in the state of Texas.”
Onischuk said he hopes to one day establish a chess class at Texas Tech. For now, recruitment of more players and maintaining a high level of success and skill within the program is a top priority.
“Working with students and seeing them improve is the best part of my job,” Onischuk said. “Our A Team has done extremely well over the past five years, and every time we compete, I get emails and letters from the faculty members, administration and from people in the community. I always pass them along to the team. It means a lot to me and the team to be recognized for the hard work we do.”