Winning chess, mastering America In less than 3 years, Ukrainian brothers have made mark in Md.

March 25, 1996|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

When the Tsibulevskiy family emigrated to Anne Arundel County from Ukraine at the end of 1993, the boys wanted to know right away where they could play chess.

After many phone calls in still-broken English, their parents discovered the Annapolis Chess Club. And as luck would have it, the club was having a tournament that very weekend. Maybe the brothers would even like to play?

They would. They did. And Misha and Edward Tsibulevskiy walked away with the tournament's top two places.

That victory during their first week on American soil was just the beginning.

Even as they have mastered English and compiled excellent school records, they have traveled to chess tournaments from Boston to North Carolina and become Maryland's strongest young chess players.

Last year, when the University of Maryland at Baltimore County first decided to offer a four-year scholarship to the winner of the Maryland Scholastic Chess Championship, Edward was the winner. Misha came in third.

This year, Misha won the championship and Edward came in third. (Edward says that was only because he had the flu last week, when the playoffs were held at UMBC.)

So Misha, 15, and Edward, 13, both have free rides awaiting at UMBC when they get around to graduating from high school -- in 1999 and 2000, respectively. Their scholarships to UMBC, one of a handful of universities nationally that offer chess scholarships, would be worth more than $14,000 apiece at current in-state tuition rates.

"It's a wonderful relief for us, because we don't have much money," says their mother, Rita, 37. A computer programmer and bookkeeper in Kherson, a small Ukrainian city near Odessa, she now works as a teller at a NationsBank branch in Annapolis. Their father, Igor, 43, who spent most of his career as a Soviet army officer teaching history to soldiers, is a pressman at an Annapolis printing company.

The boys are casual about their achievement. Will they go to UMBC?

"Not necessarily," says Edward.

"If we don't get a better offer," says Misha, "we'll go."

They say this with disarming smiles that make it sound more earnest than cocky. They are slightly chubby teen-agers lounging in the living room of their rented duplex in Arnold, a chessboard on the table and "Fundamentals of English Grammar" on a chair nearby. They make it clear they'd much rather be outside on this beautiful day shooting baskets or riding their bikes than inside answering a barrage of questions about themselves.

When asked what they might like to do someday, apart from playing chess, each answers for the other. Misha says Edward wants to be a computer programmer. Edward says Misha wants to be a lawyer.

Starting with virtually no English two years ago, they have become standouts at Severn River Junior High. Edward got straight As on his last report card; Misha got A's in everything but English, and says he's already brought that grade up from "B" to "A."

American schools, they say, are easy but interesting. Ukrainian schools were boring but far more rigorous. "Here, we do in eighth-grade geometry what we did there in fifth grade," Edward says.

The contrast even extends to gym class, Misha adds: "There we ran miles, did push-ups and pull-ups. Here we just play games."

The brothers have been feisty partners since they played their first chess game when Edward was 5 and Misha 6. Misha, a head taller, prefers to hang on to the informal Russian version of his name. "There are too many Michaels," he says. Edward has recently traded in "Edic" for its American equivalent.

He's still Edic, however, to the U.S. Chess Federation, which recently named both brothers to its All America Chess Team. That honor was based on their ratings: 2020 for Misha, 2064 for his brother. Those ratings made them 35th and 29th nationally last year among all players under 16, according to the federation yearbook.

Their ratings are the combination of hard work -- at least a couple of hours of chess a day -- and the Soviet system of chess clubs. They still miss their neighborhood chess club in Kherson, they say, where they stopped in after school each day to hone their game, do their homework and just hang out.

Coaching at the club was free, they say. Here, it costs $25 an hour and up. There, they could find worthy opponents other than one another. Here, they sometimes play classmates at lunch, but find none capable of giving them a challenge.

For Igor Epshteyn, UMBC's chess coach and a former top coach in the Soviet Union, the Tsibulevskiy brothers are an example of why the gospel of chess should be preached more widely to American kids.

"Chess is the cheapest sport, and it's a wonderful educational tool," says Mr. Epshteyn, who has permitted the brothers to sit in on his UMBC coaching sessions. "It teaches you to think before you act. It gives you self-confidence. It creates a culture of thinking."

For all their togetherness, the brothers have developed very different playing styles, says Alan T. Sherman, a UMBC computer scientist and faculty adviser to the chess team. Misha is more of a "fighter," he says, intense and tough; Edward is more easygoing, a "thoughtful" player.

Their achievement, he says, is a matter more of steady discipline than of one-in-a-million gifts.

"I don't think they're extreme chess geniuses," Dr. Sherman says. "They have talent and they've worked at it. In that sense, they're good role models for younger players."

And perhaps for older players, too. "When I play them," he says, "I usually lose."

Pub Date: 3/25/96

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