SPGI 2015 - Chess Class with GM Polgar and FM Truong

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

St. Louis Trip, Day 3, Sunday, July 26, 2015
Sunday morning we attended an optional session with Susan Polgar and Paul Truong.  They told about how they came to work at Webster University and about their chess program, SPICE, and gave pointers for young chess players.
Left: Susan Polgar  Right: Andrei Botez and Paul Truong (This fun photo was the only one I got of  Paul: Andrei is actually much taller!)
Paul Truong met the Webster University provost, Dr. Schuster, on ICC in 1998 and chatted with him online.  They never imagined years later they would be working together to create one of the biggest chess programs in the world.  

When Susan and Paul decided to move on from Texas Tech, a mutual friend let them know that the provost was looking for a chess program for his university.  After 10 minutes on the phone, it was agreed that they would come to Webster.  The University has campuses in various countries, and spends a million dollars on chess every year.

They have such limited space in their chess program that they turn down most GMs--only taking the best.  Most of the chess students have 4.0 GPAs.  

The first thing they do when they get a new student, is to have him/her do a self-evaluation; then Susan and Paul each independently evaluate the student.  They believe it's important for every chess player to find his or her strengths and weaknesses and work from there.  "Random studies don't work; you don't study math randomly!"
Assess, evaluate, and then set goals.  You need a lot of short term goals to reach your long-term goals.

It's not easy to become a good chess player.  Susan studied 6-8 hours every day when she was training.  Then, incredibly, when she qualified to play in the World Chess Championship in 1986, she wasn't allowed to play because she was a woman, and the championship was considered a men's event.  Today Susan Polgar is so busy that she has to schedule events two years in advance.

When Susan and Paul decided to start their tournament for girls, people were incredulous on whether the plan would work (In 2002, the USCF had a less than 1% female membership).  But it worked!  Chess, they say, can open doors and teach you lessons and skills, decision-making, discipline, and self control.

Discipline, according to Susan and Paul, is the key word.  When you commit to study chess, focus!  Turn off your phone and computer.  Avoid distractions.  Spend 30 minutes, or even just 5 minutes every day completely focused on what you're doing.  Know your goals and work toward them.

You need discipline during your tournament games.  Arrive on time--not late.  Every minute on your clock counts.   Don't make careless decisions and play fast, or make random moves just because you feel like it.  Understand why your opponent made his last move.  Consider each position as a chess puzzle where you have to find the best move.   
Question & Answer Session
(Questions players and/or parents asked Susan Polgar and Paul Truong)
Q: What study materials would you recommend?
A:  The Amatuer's Mind and Reassess Your Chess by Jeremy Silman.  Also study endgames and tactics.  And it's important to play and learn from your mistakes.  3 or 5 minute blitz is good practice, but that's the fastest I recommend.  One-minute chess is for mouse skills, not chess skills.   Review your games to find your weaknesses.

  Puzzles are important too. When you're solving puzzles, work on pattern recognition.  Have a stopwatch and pencil and note how long it took you to solve the puzzles.  Then go through the book again and see if you are faster.  Find the right level of puzzles for you, and as you get better, increase the difficulty level.  If you can't find the solution to the puzzle after 10-15 minutes, look at the solution, make a note that you couldn't solve it, and move to the next puzzle.  Don't spend too much time. 

Q: What should I do when I only have 50 seconds left on my clock?
A:  You need good time management so you don't get that low on time.  But if you are at that point, focus 100%, and trust your instincts. This tournament has a 90 30 time control.  Save 20-30% of that time for emergencies.  If you're playing G/30, play as if it's a G/15.  If you're playing G/90, play as if it's G/75.  Getting into time pressure is a bad habit that causes blunders.  

Indecision causes players to waste a lot of time.  Use time in positions where you need to calculate.  Don't waste time on positional moves that don't require calculation.  Don't spend 10-15 minutes to decide which rook to move to d8!  Play quickly, and make a natural move.  You won't make a better move after 10-15 minutes than you would in a minute or two if there are no forceful lines.  If you don't know what to do, just try to improve the position with something logical.  

Q: Is it good to analyze between games?
A:  Save the deep analysis for after the tourney.  Only do light analysis between games--to make sure you don't make the same mistake in the next game.  Conserve your energy; your brain won't function well if you're tired.  Relax, get over your loss, and be ready to start your next game fresh and energized.

The same goes for during games.  If you make a bad move, don't beat yourself up mentally.  The position is still fine if it just went from +.08 to -.02.  Get the best out of the current position.
Q: Should I look at my opponent's rating before the game?
A:  Yes, that's a good idea.  But even if she is lower rated, assume she'll always find the best move.  Don't assume your opponent will mess up.  And don't be scared of higher rated opponents.  Your opponent's rating should not affect how you play.  Play your best.  Don't gamble or try tricks unless you've already lost.  

Q: Do you ever listen to music while you play chess?  A:  We prefer peace and quiet.

Q: How can I prepare mentally for a game?
A:   Assess yourself and assess your opponent.  Consider his style, personality, strengths, and weaknesses.  If you're playing basketball and your team is a foot shorter than the other team, your strategy shouldn't be dunking.

Q: Should I study opening theory?
A:  Don't do much opening study until you've reached the 1600 rating range.  To start with you need to study tactics and endgames.  You just need to know enough about openings to not get checkmated in the first five moves.  Don't spend any more than 10% of your study time on openings.

After the class, we headed to the cafeteria for lunch, and then got ready for a city bus tour (coming soon)!
Disclaimer: This class was reconstructed from my imperfect notes.  If you notice any mistakes, just let me know. 


  1. Hello Bethany,
    I do not know anything about chess, but it seems great when you get a curses.
    Beautiful pictures too.
    Best regards, Irma

  2. Beautiful image of the chess pieces.

  3. I've played giant chess before

    1. The giant chess sets are neat! But it's hard for me at least to keep the position on the board in perspective when the pieces are so big! Great that you've played it before.

  4. I love those giant chess sets! They are so eye catching. And the answer "You need good time management so you don't get that low on time" is great advice. And could be applied to many different areas of life.

    1. Ah! Yes, it can be tough in life sometimes to manage time wisely as well.

  5. Wow, back then, not allowed to play because she was a woman. Amazing.