College Chess Turns Out High-Stakes Championships

The Final Four tournament was a real nail-biter, coming amid controversy over huge salaries and reports of top recruits stolen. Professor Richard Vedder discusses college chess with NPR's Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Final Four Tournament was a real nail-biter, coming amid controversy over huge coaching salaries and reports of top recruits being stolen. Well, that's big-time collegiate chess. Yes, chess - a sport where nobody has to lift anything heavier than a pawn. But are those schools with teams that excel in the game investing in chess, almost like football or basketball? Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity at Ohio University has been looking at the issue. He joins us from member station WOUB in Athens, Ohio. Thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD VEDDER: Glad to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Now this came to light when a reporter, filing a Freedom of Information Act request at Webster University, discovered the chess coach had requested a $250 million salary from Texas Tech.

VEDDER: Yes. That's right. The details are a little bit murky, but it appears that that coach - her name is Susan Polgar, who, by the way, is a well-known chess player...

SIMON: Yeah.

VEDDER: ...And world champion. She had been at Texas Tech University and Webster, in effect, paid her something close to, if not exactly, $250,000 a year. But Webster rated Texas Tech.

SIMON: And let's put that - if it is a $250,000 salary for Coach Polgar, into some perspective. A big-time college football or basketball coach will get millions, right?

VEDDER: Yeah. Yeah. The $250,000 that Susan Polgar gets is less than a months salary for a top football coach in the NCAA.

SIMON: Coach Polgar gets her team to do exercises?

VEDDER: Physical exercise, in her opinion, improves stamina, mental dexterity, and it's more than sitting in front of a chessboard. The potential here is enormous, and maybe we should look to Webster's program as an innovative way of improving national fitness.

SIMON: (Laughter). Yeah.

VEDDER: (Laughter).

SIMON: I'm just wondering, though, about the - just wondering the trainer who goes, OK, all you chess players.

VEDDER: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, sure.

SIMON: I want to see some lift in that finger.

VEDDER: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIMON: I think I understand where the revenue comes from for collegiate football and basketball. It's sold out stadiums and TV ads. But where does it come for chess?

VEDDER: If you can't buy a basketball or football championship, which sometimes costs millions and millions of dollars, I think it's clever to do something distinctive. And chess is somewhat distinctive. It's different. There's only a few schools that are really concentrating on it. But at least in intercollegiate athletics, there is a revenue base from ticket sales and television revenues. And that does not, to my knowledge, exist in chess.

SIMON: Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Thanks very much for being with us.

VEDDER: Glad to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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