As the top collegiate honor presented by the US Chess Federation, the award recognizes the university’s commitment to positively impacting others through chess.
Since 1946, collegiate chess teams from across the Western Hemisphere have gathered in December to compete in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships (Pan-Ams). Texas Tech University's Knight Raiders dominated the 2019 tournament, winning with a rare, 6-0 perfect score and qualifying for the President's Cup, also known as the Final Four of College Chess, to be held in April in New York City.
The team spent the following months preparing for the President's Cup, which the Knight Raiders won in 2011 and 2012. They had no idea they wouldn't get their chance at a third title. The President's Cup, like so many other events in 2020, was canceled due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
But now, the team has something else to celebrate. The US Chess Federation (US Chess), the governing body of U.S. chess competition, recently named Texas Tech the 2020 Chess College of the Year, recognizing Texas Tech's dedication to the chess community.
"In addition to the numerous titles and accolades they have earned throughout the years, the members of the Texas Tech Chess Program have been a source of pride and inspiration for students at Texas Tech and in communities across the state," said Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec. "This award recognizes the talents and efforts of these students, but also the university's commitment to outreach and engagement. The Red Raider family is proud of the Knight Raiders and look forward to their successes in the future."
Established within the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DDEI) in 2007, the Texas Tech Chess Program is well known within the world of chess. Head coach, program director and chess Grandmaster Alex Onischuk has led the Knight Raiders since 2012. The team also won the Pan-Ams in 2015, and has qualified for the President's Cup nine of the last 11 years. Texas Tech previously was named Chess College of the Year in 2014, the same year US Chess named Onischuk Grandmaster of the Year.
The program also is recognized for its extensive outreach and engagement initiatives. Each year, team members spend hundreds of hours leading K-12 after-school chess classes and hosting monthly "Check with Tech" scholastic chess tournaments and summer chess camps for many of these same students. In recent years, the university has hosted numerous events including the 29th NATO Chess Championship in 2018, which brought 76 players from 10 countries to Lubbock and marked the first time the tournament had been held in the U.S.
"We thank the members of the US Chess Federation for this incredible recognition, which is an acknowledgement of the hard work and dedication of our distinguished coach and program director, Grandmaster Alex Onischuk, and his incredible team of players and staff," said Carol A. Sumner, chief diversity officer and vice president of DDEI. "Their championship titles are but part of their commitment to excellence. Their work in community-based programs and work with underrepresented children allows them to know that they, too, can be chess players."
Kelly Bloomfield, chair of the US Chess College Chess Subcommittee, said the vote for Texas Tech was unanimous, citing the university's support and service to the chess community and to US Chess and the chess team's performance at the Pan-Ams.
"The Texas Tech Chess Program is advancing the US Chess mission to empower people, enrich lives and enhance communities through chess," Bloomfield said. "Texas Tech went a perfect 6-0 at the 2019 Pan-Am Intercollegiate Team Championships, held in Charlotte, North Carolina, from Dec. 27-20, a feat which has not been done in many years. Out of five Texas Tech players on the winning team, only one came to the university as a Grandmaster, making the accomplishment that much more remarkable."
Onischuk said he has never been prouder of Texas Tech than he is now. He is confident the program will come out of the current crisis even stronger than before.
"Being named Chess College of the Year is a well-deserved accomplishment," Onischuk said. "Although the Chess Program gets more visibility due to competition, outreach is also very important. Our students and staff work hard organizing scholastic and collegiate chess events. The Texas Tech Chess Program also is continuing to organize online scholastic chess tournaments and camps. Such events allow us to go beyond Lubbock and Texas and share the experience of being a Red Raider around the world."
As the summer begins, chess team members are looking back at an award-winning season cut short while also looking forward to a future that will now include new ways of playing chess.
An extraordinary win by the 'underdogs'
After failing to qualify for the President's Cup in 2018, the Knight Raiders of Texas Tech's A-Team arrived at the Charlotte Chess Center for the 2019 Pan-Ams ready to win.
"The competition is getting tougher every year, and we were definitely the underdogs," said World Junior Champion Evgeny Shtembuliak, a junior marketing major from Odessa, Ukraine. "Winning the Pan-Ams has been one of my biggest goals since I came to Texas Tech in 2017."
Schools competing at the tournament often bring multiple teams, and Texas Tech is no exception, bringing three teams to compete in 2019, including an all-women team who placed first among the female teams.
The difference is in the rankings of the individual competitors. While some schools already have multiple teams filled with Grandmasters – the highest ranking a player can achieve aside from World Champion – many of the Knight Raiders are still working towards the title.
"Some of our competitors could easily fight for the top places in the Chess Olympiad tournament," said Shtembuliak. "I feel like it made our success even sweeter. We won every single match we played. It is hard to describe what I felt like after the tournament ended. I was simply happy for myself, the team and our coach, Alex. Everyone gave their maximum effort. We have worked hard for the last couple of years, and we finally got it. I really think hard works always pays off."
International Grandmaster Pasha Vorontsov said the win was one of the most remarkable moments in his chess career. Vorontsov, who graduated this spring with a bachelor's degree in computer science, said he plans to pursue a master's degree at Texas Tech and continue his involvement with the chess program.
"I have dreamed about winning this title with Texas Tech ever since I joined the program in 2016," Vorontsov said. "Crushing the field with a perfect 6-0 score made this experience even more extraordinary. Obviously, after such a success the plan was to continue training and, hopefully, dominate the President's Cup."
Coping with COVID-19
In the weeks leading up to the President's Cup, originally scheduled for April 3-5 at the Marshall Chess Club in New York City, the team remained optimistic that they still would be able to compete somehow.
"With the pandemic developing rapidly, in the middle of March, it became clear we would not play the President's Cup in New York City," said International Grandmaster Andrii Baryshpolets, a doctoral candidate in agricultural and applied economics from Kyiv, Ukraine. "However, we had serious hopes to play the tournament online, and we know the head coaches and the organizers did their best to make this idea work."
Ultimately, conducting the tournament online was not a feasible option.
"We had a team meeting with Alex on Zoom," Shtembuliak said. "I figured something was wrong because Alex looked quite upset. He told us the tournament was canceled. This is like a nightmare for any competitor. You dedicate most of your time to training to show your best performance, and then you are told you will not even get a chance to perform. It still makes me sad. We had the big plans for the President's Cup. It could have been an excellent opportunity to show Texas Tech's dominance in American chess again."
By the time the team members got the news, the Texas Tech campus was also in distance mode, with all in-person classes and campus events canceled until further notice.
"Moving the tournament online was almost impossible because not only was our campus closed, but all the campuses of the teams that qualified for the President's Cup were also closed," Onischuk said. "So, unfortunately, we couldn't do it this semester, and since the fall is already part of the next season, it was decided to cancel it instead of rescheduling."
Receiving the Chess College of the Year award helped the team deal with the loss of the tournament.
"I'm happy about it, of course, and I feel we deserve this award," said FIDE Master Aleksei Sorokin, a foundational engineering major from Barnaul, Russia. "Our team showed incredible results at the Pan-American Championships, thanks to the great support of our program and all the excellent opportunities to train and practice."
Planning for the future
For now, the team members are focusing on academics and finding new ways to continue training.
"At this point, I can just study hard and keep working on chess," Sorokin said. "I hope someday life will go back to normal and face-to-face classes and chess tournaments will resume."
Baryshpolets said as a doctoral student, he feels his day-to-day life hasn't changed quite as much as some of his team members.
"Most of the time, I work on my research, and I just had to organize a working place at home instead of coming to my department's office," he said. "But I really miss in-person trainings and meetings with my teammates and friends. It's really great to be named the Chess College of the Year. It was a collective success, and I want to thank all our chess team members, our coach, Alex, and the Chess Program staff for being one big chess family here at Texas Tech."
Vorontsov said it's important to stay healthy and be ready for life post-pandemic.
"In terms of chess preparation, our team has been doing a lot of activities to maintain good physical shape, which is quite important for chess players," Vorontsov said. "Retreats to Buffalo Springs Lake used to be a weekly thing. Last year, Coach Alex and I ran the full Lubbock Mayor's Marathon, which, unfortunately, was canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, in the future, we are planning to do a biking trip together as a team. Once the pandemic is over, we will be even stronger and ready for new successes."
While competing at the 2020 President's Cup is out of the question, Onischuk said other upcoming tournaments have the potential to be held virtually.
"We are going to stay busy; chess can be played online," Onischuk said. "Right now, the US Chess College Committee, along with chess directors and coaches, are developing new regulations including eligibility and fair-play rules for online chess. I expect Texas Tech to play in three big tournaments this fall, the U.S. Collegiate Blitz and Rapid, the Texas Collegiate Super Finals and the Pan-American Championships online."
Locally, the Knight Raiders have started hosting online K-12 tournaments, with the first two held in May.
"In the first one ever, we had exactly 125 kids online," Onischuk said. "The majority of the kids were from Lubbock, Plainview and other areas around here, but we also had quite a few kids from other parts of Texas, even California and Oklahoma. We're still doing outreach; the interest is very high and I think we can actually grow from this.
"Hopefully, when we get back to normal, we'll still keep the momentum. Our kids from Lubbock, our scholastic players, they get to play against the international players or against kids from other parts of the country. We get to promote Texas Tech and then people outside of Texas or outside of the U.S. learn about our program and about Texas Tech. I think it's pretty cool."