Checkmate: A Glimpse into SLU’s Chess Team


Rebecca LiVigni

Concentration: SLU Chess coach Alejandro Ramirez looks on in a game of chess during Atlas Week. SLU Chess has placed twice in the President’s Cup Tournament.

Many beginner chess players know a simple trick called the “four-move checkmate” that allows for a quick defeat of the opponent in four simple moves. I know from personal experience that this does not work against the Grandmasters on SLU’s Chess Team.

The SLU Chess Team held a meet and greet last Tuesday, April 10, as part of Atlas Week in order to expose other students to the world of chess.

“Chess is small world,” said coach Alejandro Ramirez.

Being such a small world, there are not many people who understand what the community is like. There are only around 1,400 people who hold the title of Grandmaster, the highest-level players can attain. With such a small number of people globally, Ramirez uses this to his advantage. He goes to tournaments and talks to players and coaches to recruit people to the university.

He has done just that. In the past two years since the chess team began, SLU has picked up a seven-player roster, all Grandmasters. The team, comprised of five undergraduate and two graduate students, has seen remarkable success in the President’s Cup, known as the final four of chess, with a third-place run in 2017 and fourth place in 2018.

These successes do not come overnight. The players have been working on their craft since they were children and all of them come a long way from home to pursue their studies and chess in what Cemil Can Ali Marandi calls “the chess capital of the world.” St. Louis is home to the two top chess colleges, SLU and Webster University, making it an ideal location for aspiring chess players.

As international students, many people would assume that the move to the United States would be difficult. For the chess team, it is less difficult than one would think.

“We have to go play tournaments with other people,” said Francesco Rambaldi, the youngest player on SLU’s team. “We travel a lot, so we get to see a lot of other things.”

It is a common story among chess players; they travel and compete from a young age. Like most students, it is hard for players to be away from their families for extended periods of time, but their families are no strangers to hectic schedules. Junior Dariusz Swiercz left his home in Poland, leaving his sister and parents to pursue higher education and chess mastery.

“It is easier because we are used to such situations,” said Swiercz. “Still, it’s hard, because the distance is the entire Atlantic ocean.”

SLU now has a chess facility that grants the team adequate space and technology to meet and train. As an individual sport, the team largely practices on their own, and players compete in individual tournaments. A big part of keeping up with each other and with other players comes from the individual training. Players get to target specific parts of their game and work to improve them.

“I analyze openings,” said Rambaldi. “The main part of studying openings is trying to get into positions that your opponent didn’t expect.”

These small steps taken each day keeps players sharp, so they can perform well as a team.
The team meets once a week on top of their individual training by themselves and with coach Ramirez. Ramirez says the team meeting is important because, “they can still learn an incredible amount from each other…because even though it is an individual game, the team atmosphere is very important.”

The team has performed well in its young age. Ramirez and all the players are hoping to improve in the final four next year and are looking to pull ahead of their local rival, Webster.