Your Ordinary Grandmasters

Vasif Durarbayli and Liem Le traveled a long way to get to Webster. Here, these roommates juggle classes, friends, hobbies and extracurricular activities. They pursue their studies while working on their craft.

Do they sound like average Webster students? That’s because they are.

They just happen to be two of the best collegiate chess players in the world. The World Chess Federation has recognized them both as grandmasters, a lifelong title.

Durarbayli and Le are members of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE), the reigning collegiate chess team in America. SPICE has held the No. 1 position in Division 1 College Chess since 2012.

Le, a finance major from Vietnam, has been studying at Webster for a year, while Durarbayli, an economics major from Azerbaijan, has been at Webster for two years.

Le, Durarbayli and all of SPICE are indicative of Webster’s mission to be an international university. SPICE, like Webster, attracts international students. The team is comprised of different nationalities Vietnamese, Indonesian, Eastern European that render the commodity of uniqueness moot because of sheer cultural variety.

“For me, [Webster] is a great place to have a good education while playing with the top team in the whole world,” Le says. “I have a lot of friends here and I’ve gotten to do the things I love.”

Le and Durarbayli, like many other students, packed up and left home to go to college. Like fewer students, they had to travel across the world for it. The sentiment is the same, however.

They’ve learned to cope like the rest of us. Le and Durarbayli have each other to fill the hole dug by familial separation. Their collective culinary knowledge has changed since coming to Webster.

Durarbayli says, “[Le] cooks well, so he teaches me.”

Despite the differences between their home countries and Webster’s St. Louis campus, Durarbayli and Le have adapted to the social, cultural and literal climate of Webster. Both come from climates that are warm year-round.

Le says, “The weather is different, very different [in Missouri.] In Vietnam, it is very hot the whole year, versus here where there are four seasons.”

Le and Durarbayli, upon graduation, intend to dive into the world of business.

“I’m very interested in business, especially finance,” Le says. “Since I was in high school, I was always interested in investment. I tried to get some knowledge in the field by pursuing this major [finance].”

Knowing financial transactions and mathematics is Le’s doorway into the world of business.

Durarbayli approaches business on a larger scale through his major, looking at the greater economies that businesses exist within rather than focusing on the small cogs and wheels of a commercial operation.

“I want to have a business, so that’s why I want to know how economics work,” Durarbayli says.

College, especially the end of it, is a crossroads for students. Residence and employment, keys to the future for many, dictate which path a soon-to-be graduate takes. But for international students, choice of residence gets more complicated.

“I would love to stay in America, but I’m flexible,” Le says. “It depends on my future. I’ll decide that later.”

Durarbayli is more ambivalent about his future in America.

“I haven’t decided yet,” he says. “After the first year, it was really hard to leave here, since the cultural diversity is really different from my country.”

Despite their status as two of the world’s chess grandmasters, Durarbayli and Le are still students. They had to adjust and change because of circumstance, but they’ve moved past it. They’re pursuing an education as a means for their future, all the while taking home championships and sustaining SPICE’s status as America’s top collegiate chess team.

Story by Aaron Tomey

Photos by Julia Peschel

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