Computer makes chess spectator sport Players' moves projected on big screen through link between board, machine

June 22, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Tim Hoffman sat praying for rain yesterday, moments before his favorite sporting event began.

"Can you believe all this sun after all the rain we've had for the past week," Hoffman said, a tone of disappointment in his voice. "It would have to go and do this today."

The trouble was Hoffman's favorite sport is chess, and the sun was an excuse that kept his friends from joining him at the University of Maryland Baltimore County for the start of an unusual four-game exhibition match between Ilya J. Smirin, international grandmaster, and William "The Exterminator" Morrison, Maryland chess champion and senior master.

Hoffman's two friends went in-line skating instead, he said.

"They are both just learning chess, and I thought it would be really good for them to watch Ilya," Hoffman said of the UMBC student who is ranked 28th in the world. "It's not often you get to watch a grandmaster play."

But nearly two dozen chess enthusiasts did turn out to watch the two games played yesterday -- and how that was done was the unusual aspect of the match.

The moves of Smirin and fellow student Morrison were made on a touch-sensitive chessboard linked to a computer, which conveyed images of the board and pieces on a large screen in one of the school's lecture halls.

The excitement of the match was heightened by a "move-by-move" commentary provided by national masters Craig Jones and Igor Epshteyn, which the audience could listen to on audio devices.

Computer science major John Armstrong listened through his headset while he and friend John Taylor plotted the players' moves on a miniature chess board. "We're just sitting here following the match and discussing the moves," Armstrong said. "We're trying to see if we can anticipate their strategy."

Alan T. Sherman, faculty adviser to the UMBC chess team, which sponsored the match, said he believes chess will catch on as a spectator sport.

"Thousands of years ago, physical skills were more important than mental skills," Sherman said. "Now mental skills are becoming more important and with that, chess will become relatively more important."

At UMBC, the game has already caught on. The school offers chess scholarships and sponsors programs such as a chess camp, open to students from 6th through 12th grades, that runs Monday through Friday next week.

Ten-year-old Otha Holloway Jr. is too young to attend the camp, but he came with his father from the city's Cherry Hill neighborhood to watch yesterday.

Otha kept careful track of the moves on his score card. He is a student of Smirin's and came to root for his teacher -- who proved to be the winner of the first game. Round two was being played last night.

Two games are scheduled for 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. today in the Chemistry/Physics Building, Lecture Hall II, with the winner of the match to receive $800, and the loser $200.

For chess camp information, call 455-2336

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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