SLU’s Fledgling Chess Team Plays to Win Across the Board
Saint Louis University’s chess team isn’t short on impressive statistics and accolades:
three international grandmasters, one international master, a top-four finish at the
Pan-American Collegiate Chess Championship, and third place at the 2017 President’s
Cup, the Final Four of college chess.
But the most notable number of all may be this one: seven months. That’s how long
the five players on SLU’s squad — Dariusz Swiercz, Yaroslav Zherebukh, Francesco Rambaldi,
Cemil Can Ali Marandi and Nozima Aripova — have been competing as a team.
SLU's chess team members are, back row from left, Nozima Aripova and coach Alejandro
Ramirez; and, front row from left, Yaroslav Zherebukh, Dariusz Swiercz, Cemil Can
Ali Marandi and Francesco Rambaldi. Photos by Steve Dolan
By any estimation, SLU’s arrival on the collegiate chess scene has been remarkable.
Accidental? Not at all.
The chess program began as a strategic initiative of SLU administrators and alumni,
in particular, chess aficionado and SLU trustee Rex Sinquefield (Cook ’67). Their
goal was to build a competitive chess program at SLU, through thoughtful recruitment
and donor-supported scholarships, to complement the University’s reputation for academic
excellence. Chess has long been used as a tool for teaching problem solving, creative
thinking and focus, and in recent years, more educators — from kindergarten to college
— are embracing the game.
“The chess team is a great addition to Saint Louis University, attracting exceptional
students from around the world,” Sinquefield said. “We all should be very proud of
the team’s achievement in their inaugural year. For them to make the final four out
of the 60 teams participating [in the Pan-American Collegiate Championship] and come
in third overall in the Final Four is quite the accomplishment.”
Like Sinquefield, head coach Alejandro Ramirez is proud of what the team has accomplished
in such a short amount of time.
“The effort has been great,” Ramirez said, acknowledging the commitment of the players,
who balance academic expectations with demanding competition and travel schedules.
The search for top competitors to fill SLU’s roster has taken Ramirez around the world,
and he’s recruited players at tournaments from Las Vegas to Reykjavik. The resulting
team is not only highly accomplished but notably international as well. SLU’s players
represent Italy, Poland, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Ramirez is originally from
“Chess is a multicultural game,” he said. “It certainly adds to the experience, but
sometimes we completely forget that we are from completely different parts of the
Dariusz Swiercz, SLU’s strongest player and first board (a term akin to first chair
in an orchestra), added that most of SLU’s players already knew one another, having
competed in the same tournament circuits for years.
In assembling the team, Ramirez isn’t just seeking chess talent; he’s also looking
for players who have what it takes to succeed academically in a university setting.
To that end, the team’s undergraduate players are pursuing degrees in biology, economics,
computer engineering and finance, while graduate student Yaro Zherebukh, the team’s
second board, is working on a master’s degree in applied economics.
A Unique Partnership
With interest in chess on the rise among U.S. colleges and universities, SLU’s nascent
program stands out, and not only because of the team’s aforementioned achievements.
St. Louis has become an epicenter of global chess in recent years, and this is a big
selling point for players considering SLU, Ramirez said, noting that St. Louis has,
per capita, more chess grandmasters than any other city in the world.
But what makes SLU’s program particularly distinctive is its partnership with the
Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, widely recognized as the premier chess
club in the country and one of the most distinguished in the world.
“There is no other college chess team program that offers players more playing, coaching
and training possibilities,” Ramirez said. And no other collegiate team “is so close
to, and in partnership with, the best chess club in the world.”
Top players on the global chess scene are absolutely taking note. Zherebukh jokingly
called his path to SLU “inevitable.” A promising chess program combined with the University’s
strong academics and beautiful campus? The decision was an easy one, he said.
Ramirez coaches players Aripova (left) and Zherebukh.
Playing the Long Game
While it may seem like achieving No. 3 status in less than a year would be solid grounds
for taking a well-deserved break, the Billiken chess team shows no signs of slowing
At the end of March, Zherebukh competed in the U.S. Championships, an invitation-only
tournament open to 12 of the strongest players in the country. In May, Rambaldi will
play in the French League championships, and Ali Marandi and Swiercz will compete
in the European Chess Championship in Minsk, Belarus.
In addition to overseeing the current players’ intense competition and training schedules,
Ramirez is focused on growing SLU’s team, which is still small by collegiate standards.
One new player, Olexander Ipakov from Turkey, will join the team in June, and there
are plans to add two or three more players in the fall.
The team’s headquarters in Morrissey Hall, where the players train while on campus,
is also growing. An outdoor playing area, complete with a life-size chess board, will
be ready for student use later this spring.
Notable achievements: Wins at Cappelle-la-Grande in France in 2010, ahead of 82 grandmasters
and 650 players; 2016 Marshall Chess Club Championship win; second place in the 2016
American Grand Prix circuit
Ramirez became a chess grandmaster at the age of 15 and gained international recognition
playing in multiple Olympiads and World Championships. He took second place in the
U.S. Chess Championship of 2013 and holds multiple major open victories, including
the World Open and U.S. Open.