Putting the pieces together Teamwork: Chess aces from as far away as Kazakstan and Belarus are being recruited with scholarships to a world-class organization -- at UMBC.

December 08, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

When Alan Sherman recruits a blue-chipper for his team, he spares no ammunition.

He touts his university's top-notch facilities, the high level of competition, the great coaching and the opportunity to play alongside such masters of the game as William "The Exterminator" Morrison, a legend from the parks of New York.

If the prospect lives abroad, no problem. Sherman's scholarship players have come from Russia, Sri Lanka and Kazakstan. Arriving soon: identical twins from Belarus.

So perhaps it's not surprising that Sherman has assembled something of a dream team. But maybe it is surprising that the sport is chess, and the school is neither Harvard nor MIT but the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Catonsville.

If all goes according to plan, UMBC not only will win the "World Series" of collegiate chess this month, but will pull off the sport's equivalent of placing two teams in the Final Four. And it will happen in the ballroom of a Baltimore hotel.

But the team's accomplishments go beyond a mere zeal for victory. It's also loaded with top-flight students, pursuing everything from a bachelor's degree in computer science to a doctorate in electrical engineering.

Thus has Sherman, an associate professor of computer science, built for UMBC a unique public relations tool. While chess may not bring the revenue or television exposure of big-time football and basketball, there's no better game for burnishing a scholarly reputation. Beat Harvard at a brain game and your e-mail fairly hums with reverence. Do it with an international lineup featuring a 32-year-old hustler named "The Exterminator" and you may even acquire a certain mystique.

"Chess is, quite frankly, symbolic of a mind-set here which says nobody is more prestigious than people who do really well in intellectual pursuits," said UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III. "It is helping us to attract more and more smart students."

You can chart the rise of UMBC and its chess team along roughly parallel lines. Go back to the year Sherman arrived on campus, 1989, and both were rated in the pawn category. The next year, the team finished next to last of 27 teams in its first trip to the "World Series," the annual Pan-American Championships.

Sherman, who had been chess club president as an undergraduate at Brown University, became the team's faculty adviser, and by 1993, the year the gung-ho Hrabowski arrived on campus as president, the team was ready for another crack at the Pan-Am.

It finished a surprising third. How had the pawn become a knight in only four years?

"I started recruiting players," Sherman said, with just the hint of a grin. "It started in a very low-key way. I was on the graduate admission committee for the department, and I would see folders where some people would mention an interest in chess, and, when this happened, I would take that extra effort to write them a letter and encourage them to come. It worked."

If UMBC could finish third, why not first? he figured. So did Hrabowski, who wanted his school mentioned in the same breath as the Ivy League, and chess seemed like one way to do it.

On came the money for scholarships and team expenses, and Sherman plotted a few goals:

* Beat Harvard head-to-head.

* Win the Pan-Am.

He sent away to the U.S. Chess Federation for mailing labels for the top 100 finishers in the national high school championships. He culled chess rankings for every high school senior rated at 2,000 points or higher (the "expert" level, determined by how well one fares against other rated competitors) and sent letters to more than 200 prospects.

He placed a classified ad in Chess Life magazine: "Chess Players/Scholars Wanted." He got in touch with the coaches of scholastic powers such as Philadelphia's Masterman High School, and junior clubs such as Harlem's Raging Rooks. UMBC became annual host of the Maryland High School chess championships. First prize? A chess scholarship to UMBC.

It hasn't hurt that only a handful of other colleges offer chess scholarships. There's also no National Collegiate Athletic Association looking over Sherman's shoulder, tut-tutting about the contacts with recruits, the eligibility of graduate students, or amateur status.

As the players got better, Sherman realized he needed a coach. He heard that Igor Epshteyn, one-time coach of the junior national team of Belarus, was programming computers in New Carrollton.

"I asked him if he'd be interested in coaching the team," Sherman said. "His face lit up, and he said, 'Of course.' "

The new coach saw right away that Sherman "needed someone to be a teacher, a person who had a system of training," Epshteyn said. "There are some coaches in America, but it is technical training, not a system." Too much emphasis on opening moves, these Americans, too little emphasis on the punch and jab of the middle and endgames.

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