The other two players are women's grandmasters with less lofty ratings: Nazi Paikidze, a freshman psychology/economics major from the nation of Georgia, and Sabina "Sunshine" Foisor, a Romanian graduate student. The alternate is Adithya "The Smasher" Balasubramanian, the former Virginia state champion.
Webster's four players this weekend are all on full scholarships, as are two alternates. All six players are grandmasters. Fielding so many grandmasters is an advantage because Webster can vary its lineup to better dominate opponents in the Final Four. Polgar works full time on the team, spending hours studying old games of opposing players and preparing strategy.
"I think Webster just decided they wanted to win and if they invested more money they could just outdo the others," Sherman said. "They have the strongest team in the history of college chess. Unlike the UMBC model, where we ramped over a period of five years, they bought their team in a year."
Chess teams should be careful not to get carried away, according to Richard Vedder, an Ohio University professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
"This is a low cost way of getting good PR for a school, and it's in keeping with the intellectual agenda of universities ," Vedder said. "But the other side of me worries that this might become a chess arms race like an athletic arms race, though the numbers are somewhat smaller."
Sherman is sensitive to a potential arms race, too, saying "there's a danger in each school spending more money and not getting any better."
Still, he has pushed UMBC for more funding, including another scholarship, and a full-time coach and director. So far, UMBC isn't budging, even as it displays slick videos of its chess team around campus to pump up students for the Final Four.
"I think it's great what we have helped generate for chess in America because we as a nation need to be more serious about teaching students to think more critically," said Hrabowski, UMBC's president. "However, our guiding principle will be one of balance. We don't have to be dominant to be very good."