The men’s basketball national championship run has brought Texas Tech a new level of recognition on behalf of students, fans and more. However, many may not realize that even prior to this year’s success, Tech has been home to another nationally competitive team: the Tech chess team.
The chess team has finished as one of the top four teams in the Pan- American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships for the last five years, Alex Onischuk, head coach and director of the chess program, said. The Pan-American is the biggest tournament in collegiate chess.
This year, although the team did not qualify to be one of the final four teams, they were extremely close to qualifying.
“We were half an individual point behind the qualifying place. It happens,” Onischuk said. “I consider chess a sport, or at least chess has elements of sport and when you compete against other strong teams, I mean it can happen, especially considering that more and more strong teams enter the competition.”
The team went on to place in two other major tournaments during the spring semester, Onischuk said, taking home national and state titles.
In February, the team competed in the Texas Southwest Collegiate in Dallas, he said, taking home second place.
“We finished overall second at that one, which was good result,” Onischuk said. “We always try to win obviously but this year the UT Rio Grande team played very well.”
In March, the team competed in the U.S. Collegiate Rapid and Blitz Championship in Saint Louis, claiming second place in Blitz and 3rd place in Rapid, he said.
The U.S. Collegiate Rapid and Blitz involved a different kind of game relative to classic chess, Iryna Andrenko, a master’s student studying horticulture from Simferopol, Ukraine, said. Andrenko placed first in women’s rapid and women’s blitz.
“It’s basically the same rules as classic chess, but you have limits, time control,” she said. “So for the blitz, I believe it was 3 minutes and plus two second increments for each move, and for rapid it was 10 minutes for each player and ten seconds increments for each move.”
Both tournaments were very competitive, Luis Torres, an MBA student from Mexico City, said. But, Tech performed well, even though it was often competing against schools with more highly ranked players.
“(In Saint Louis), we were like the underdogs,” he said. “I think we were one of the weaker teams like by numbers.”
The team spirit is one of the reasons the team is so consistently competitive, Torres said.
“We play each other all the time. We help each other. We even hang out outside of chess and school in general,” Torres said. “So I think the team spirit, with Coach Alex helping us, is really important and you can see that in the tournaments that we play as a team. We lose as a team, we win as a team.”
The Chess team’s success makes it possible to recruit students like Torres and Andrenko to the university, Onischuk said, where they go on to train, travel and represent Tech. Maintaining a competitive team is not easy.
“We train hard. We have great support form administration. We have some scholarships to give out,” he said. “So it basically works very close to athletic programs. We operate very similar, in a very similar way I guess. And I think we have similar challenges, you know recruitment, training, so similar challenges.”
Getting to be a part of the chess program has been an incredible opportunity, Andreko said. In Ukraine, where she grew up, she didn’t have the opportunity to travel and compete because of finances.
“Here you have such a great opportunity to travel, to represent Texas Tech, to win trophies. titles and it’s cool,” she said.
As this year concludes, Onischuk said the team is already at work and hoping for more titles and first place finishes in the next year.
“Hopefully next season will have even more success,” he said. “It takes a lot of work.”