SLU Chess Looks Ahead to Final Four


Photo Courtesy of Saint Louis University

The SLU chess team finished 2019 with a string of high finishes in recent tournaments. They now look forward to the President’s Cup, or “Final Four,” the collegiate national championship of chess in early April. 

After taking the Midwest Collegiate Chess and Blitz Championships in October, the team travelled to China in November and took third place at the World Prestigious University Chess Invitational, placing ahead of prestigious universities such as Harvard and Oxford. The team also defeated its host, Nankai University. 

SLU chess team coach and grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez, the first grandmaster from Central America, stated that this was the team’s first time competing internationally as a team, although most of the team’s members have competed extensively as individuals in the past. 

Then, SLU finished again in third place at the competitive Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Tournament, which determines which teams compete in the President’s Cup in New York. The Pan-American Tournament is different from most collegiate chess tournaments in its structure. 

Ramirez explained, “It’s a very unforgiving tournament, simply because it’s a very short event. Tournaments of this strength are usually nine rounds long, which gives a little more wiggle room for mistakes … In this case we had it really rough. We got defeated by Texas Tech, which is one of the best universities in the country, and the fact that we got matched in the last round with number one by rating, which is Webster University.”

SLU went on to defeat Webster, which has won five of the last seven national championships, in the last round of the Pan-American Tournament. SLU Chess Team grandmaster Alex Ipatov, currently ranked 142nd amongst active players in the world by the International Chess Federation, defeated Aleksander Lenderman, ranked 131st, of Webster, which Ramirez said was the highlight of the tournament. Ipatov commented, “[Beating Webster] felt very good. They are our arch-rivals and the highest ranked collegiate team in the nation. We are second.”

In 2018, SLU placed fourth at the President’s Cup. Fellow St. Louisian Webster University also qualified, whose team has won the President’s Cup five times in the last seven years. SLU will again face off against Webster and Texas Tech, as well as the University of Texas at Dallas in New York this April. In contrast to other tournaments, the President’s Cup features only classical chess, in which matches can last for hours as opposed to minutes in blitz or other formats. In addition, teams’ aggregate scores are as important to winning the tournament as victory in individual matches.

Founded in 2015, the team has expanded from five to thirteen members, which allows them to field multiple sets of players within a single tournament. The SLU Chess Team features six male and two female grandmasters. Ramirez commented that the team has also grown closer and developed more chemistry in a relative short period of time since its founding. 

Another factor conducive to the team’s success and in attracting new talent is St. Louis’s chess environment. Ramirez said, “There’s no other city that has the current chess ambiance in the U.S. or maybe in the world. I think for chess players it’s kind of a mecca. There’s always top level chess, lectures, opportunities … we have the resources to be one of the best.”