The Grandmaster and junior marketing major spent the past year amassing team and individual chess titles in several countries, including the U.S., India and Ukraine.
You could say 2019 was a good year for Texas Tech University chess player Evgeny Shtembuliak.
That would be an understatement.
The grandmaster from Odessa, Ukraine, and a marketing major in the Jerry S. Rawls College of Business, was part of the Texas Tech team in December that took first place at the 2019 Pan-American Chess Championship in Charlotte. It was the win that broke Webster University's seven-year winning streak and secured a spot at the 2020 President's Cup, or Final Four of College Chess, which will be held in New York City in April.
But before the Knight Raiders accomplished that feat, Shtembuliak had already added two more titles to his name for the year: World Junior Champion and Ukrainian Chess Champion.
"It has been my best year in terms of chess results," Shtembuliak said. "I have won almost every tournament that I participated in. My plan for 2020 is to work hard and play as many tournaments as possible. I will try to become one of the best chess players in the world."
Becoming No. 1
Shtembuliak's parents first introduced him to chess at age 5. Just three years later, he became a Ukrainian youth champion and placed second in the European Youth Championship.
"Since I was a very calm kid, they decided that chess would match my personality," Shtembuliak said. "It worked out quite well. Unlike other kids, I was able to spend hours playing chess with no special effort, and I enjoyed it."
Soon, even more accolades poured in. Shtembuliak spent his childhood winning titles in nearly every age group of the Youth Ukrainian Championships, up to the under-18 division. He also placed second three times in European Championships' under-8, 10 and 12 divisions. In 2016, he was part of the Ukrainian team that competed at the World Youth Under-16 Chess Olympiad, along with current Texas Tech International Grandmaster Pavel Vorontsov. Each left that competition with a medal – Shtembuliak with a silver on the fifth board and Vorontsov with a bronze on the second.
By 2016, Shtembuliak earned enough norms to earn the title of International Master from the World Chess Federation (FIDE). In chess, a "norm" is earned when a player competes exceptionally well against other highly ranked players.
He arrived at Texas Tech with one norm toward the next title – Grandmaster – which he officially earned in 2019.
"Throughout my student life with Texas Tech, our team has won many prestigious collegiate events," Shtembuliak said. "Besides that, I have won many personal tournaments, including some of the strongest chess events in the U.S. By far, my biggest achievement in chess is becoming the World Junior Champion. Thanks to the Texas Tech Chess Program, and specifically our coach, Grandmaster Alex Onischuk, I managed to become a Grandmaster and reach a 2625 FIDE rating. This makes me a top-150 player in the world, with approximately a couple of million active players."
Shtembuliak said both of the major individual tournaments he competed in last year, the World Junior Championship and the Ukrainian Championship, were difficult tournaments featuring only the best players from each country.
"The World Junior Championship is by far the strongest tournament in youth chess," he said. "That's why it's also called a 'small chess crown.' Most of the World Champions also won this tournament at some point. I have participated at this level before, but I have never performed as good as this time."
The World Junior Championship was held in October in New Dehli, India, with 94 players from 41 chess federations. Shtembuliak entered the competition seeded as No. 7.
"The start of the tournament was the most difficult," he said. "I arrived one day before the start, and I assumed that it would be enough for me to adapt to a different time zone."
He soon found this was not an easy task when dealing with a 10 ½-hour time difference. It took Shtembuliak almost a week to adjust, but in the end, he said everything worked out well.
"I managed to demonstrate a high level of chess playing throughout the whole event," he said. "The tournament was strong; at least 20 people had real chances to fight for the gold. I am very glad I managed to win every single game and maintained leadership until the end of the tournament.
"It's hard to describe how I felt after winning the most important tournament of my life. I dedicated my life to chess. I tried as hard as one possibly can. It was two weeks of constant pressure. I was happy and relieved. Right after the last game, I called my parents, and it was the best moment for sure."
Just two months later, at the beginning of December, Shtembuliak was among 10 players invited to compete in the Ukrainian Championship, including five from the Ukrainian Olympic Chess Team. The 10 players competed in a closed tournament, which means every player faces off against every other player in the tournament, round-robin style.
"Ukraine is one of the strongest countries in the chess world – they have won all the possible titles, including the gold in the Olympiad," Shtembuliak said. "I would say that this tournament was three times tougher than the World Junior Championship."
Going into the tournament, Shtembuliak said he didn't really have any expectation of winning. His main reason for participating was unrelated to chess.
"I hadn't seen my family for 1 ½ years prior to the championship," he said. "So I decided to play there to see my family. Then, in the first game, I beat one of the strongest players in the tournament."
That player was Ukrainian Grandmaster Andrei Volokitin, a two-time Ukrainian champion and gold (2004) and bronze (2012) chess Olympiad winner.
"It gave me a great deal of confidence for the rest of the event," Shtembuliak said. "Eventually, everything turned out the best way possible. I managed to play incredible chess and scored seven out of nine points, winning the championship."
Shtembuliak wasn't the only one surprised by his win.
"No one expected this result from me," he said. "I scored 4.5 out of five points versus our Olympic team. In 2018, Anton Korobov won this tournament with a score of 5.5 out of nine. This shows how strong the players are. It is by far the toughest tournament I have ever won. It gives me a lot of confidence for my future career. Now, I hope I will get invited to represent Ukraine for the 2020 Olympics."
Competing with the Knight Raiders
Immediately after winning the Ukranian Championship, Shtembuliak joined his Texas Tech teammates to prepare for the Pan-American Championship, held at the end of December. Each year, the top four teams of the tournament are awarded spots to compete at the Final Four of College Chess in the spring.
"For our team, this was the most important tournament of the year," Shtembuliak said. "We not only wanted to qualify for the Final Four, but also win the whole thing. We had a pretty bad experience in this tournament last year. We were leading the event, but lost the last round and did not qualify. It put some extra pressure on our team, and we all decided to fight for a win."
That is exactly what the team did, achieving a 6-0 score in the championship. After the competition Onischuk, who has taken teams to the competition every year since his arrival at Texas Tech in 2012, said he could not remember the last time a team had accomplished a perfect score.
"I believe Alex did a great job preparing us for the event," Shtembuliak said. "I am very happy and proud of my team and what we accomplished. This spring, we will prepare intensely for the Final Four. I think that we have good chances to win that as well."
Onischuk was one of the main reasons Shtembuliak said he initially chose to attend Texas Tech.
"I love chess, and I believe that it is one of the best intellectual games ever created. Texas Tech University has one of the strongest chess teams and definitely the strongest coach in nation," he said, "There are many chess programs out there, but I wanted to work with Alex Onischuk because I knew that none of the other coaches would help me improve my game as much as Alex would."
Carol A. Sumner, chief diversity officer and vice president of the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, said she had similar thoughts about the Texas Tech Chess Program when she was considering her move to the university.
"The Knight Raiders were one of the most interesting programs in the division," Sumner said. "Having the chess program as a part of the division has been such an incredible opportunity to show that a college education and a passion for chess can be one and the same. It is an incredible honor to be a part of the team supporting Coach Onischuk as he leads and develops the players as a team and as scholars. It is equally as humbling to watch our students realize their ability to be international champions as representatives of Texas Tech University."
Onischuk said while a coach can only help a player so much, the work that player puts in makes the biggest difference.
"No one can excel at chess unless they work countless hours by themselves," Onischuk said. "I watched Evgeny win game after game at the World Junior and the Ukrainian championships, but it was not until I saw him playing at the Pan-Ams when I realized what an excellent player he has become."
Since arriving in Lubbock, Shtembuliak said he's grateful for how significantly his life has changed. As much as he enjoyed playing chess in Ukraine, he said aside from his parents and his first coach, Roman Tisevich, it was hard to find support for his passion.
"There are many talented kids in countries like Ukraine, but unfortunately, most of them will never get a chance to develop their talent in something bigger," he said. "Texas Tech has given me tons of opportunities. I have an opportunity to compete in elite tournaments nationwide, and I work with one of the best players in the U.S. At Texas Tech I have a good environment to study and grow as a person. I will get a good degree in something that I am interested in."
Being a Red Raider has also given him the chance to get involved in the community, sharing his talents and passion with others.
"It has been a wonderful experience," Shtembuliak said. "I always feel like I am a part of something great. What I love about the Texas Tech Chess Program is that we try to promote chess in Texas. We run chess tournaments for kids almost every month. On average, we have about 150 kids participating in each event. Our program also makes UIL tests for schools. After graduation, I want to promote chess as widely as possible. I think chess is a great educational tool, and it should be taught in every elementary school in the U.S."
The traits Shtembuliak exemplifies, whether at the chessboard or in the community, are just as apparent among the rest of the team, Sumner said.
"The accomplishments Evgeny has achieved are incredible, as is his humility," Sumner said. "It is the same for his coach and his team members. While they are not ones to brag, their tenacity and work to be world-class champions in every way is something special. We could not be more proud."
Shtembuliak said he encourages anyone interested in chess to consider Texas Tech.
"The program has a very friendly atmosphere and incredible team spirit," he said. "Almost every weekend, we meet up in Buffalo Springs for a 10-km run. The Knight Raiders Chess Club has weekly meetings open to Texas Tech students, faculty and staff every Tuesday, and many Grandmasters attend those events, which is a good opportunity for students to ask questions and improve their game. If you are considering attending Texas Tech to get a degree, do not hesitate. It is a great community. You are going to love it."