Gaining chess 'bragging rights' Tournament: The University of Maryland Baltimore County team is favored to win the 1996 Pan American Chess Championships, which begin today in downtown Baltimore.

December 27, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

An international tournament opens in downtown Baltimore today with highly trained competitors working feverishly against each other and the clock.

The 1996 Pan American Chess Championships in some ways illustrate the cliches of sports: athletes practicing daily and doing aerobics before the big event, women striving to equal and surpass men in a sport dominated by the latter.

For example, Oxana Tarassova, 21, was practicing her game yesterday in her dormitory room on the all-but-deserted University of Maryland Baltimore County campus in Catonsville.

"We're like swimmers," she said. "We have to practice every day."

But championship chess also features the unusual:

A computer named CRAFTY, which won't leave its home in Birmingham, Ala., will "compete" in the Baltimore tournament.

Undergraduates and graduates can be on the same team.

The winner doesn't go to the Chess Bowl, but it does earn $1,000 and "bragging rights."

UMBC is favored to win the tournament, which will draw 350 players from North, Central and South America to the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel. Stanford, Yale, the University of Texas and the University of Chicago are among U.S. teams in Baltimore for the championships.

"For college teams, this is it," said Alan Sherman, adviser to the UMBC team. "Most tournaments are individual championships. This is for the collegiate bragging rights."

The tournament also includes a high school competition and an "open" tournament in which anyone in the world can play. It's in the latter category that Robert Hyatt, one of the world's experts computer chess, has entered the computer program he's written at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Sherman recruited Tarassova with a chess scholarship and the prospect of competing at world-class levels. She's ranked as an "expert," but Sherman said Tarassova and teammate Bella Belegradek, a doctoral student in computer science, are "near master strength" and rank in the low 20s among U.S. women players.

That's an accomplishment in a game that claims only six women worldwide among 450 grandmasters -- the highest level achievable in chess -- and not a single woman in the top 50 U.S. players.

Tarassova, a freshman at UMBC, said she started playing chess in her native Kazakstan when she was 6, and went on to claim the championships of her city and republic. Chess is "a popular affair in Russia," she said. "It's more popular than basketball."

She speaks seven languages. "They thought I could survive here," she said of her UMBC sponsors. This fall, she studied English, along with computer science and mathematics, and she traveled (with a little assistance from the Abell Foundation) to teach chess twice a week at a city elementary school.

"They pick up very quickly," she said of inner-city chess learners. "Now when I go there they gather around in excitement."

Preparing for this tournament is like preparing for any championship, said Sherman. The games are grueling. Four-member teams compete in matches that can last up to six hours.

"It requires psychological preparation, tactical preparation and aerobic preparation," he said. "Sitting in one place for up to six hours can be a physical and mental ordeal."

To practice for the Pan Ams, the UMBC team engaged a grandmaster this month. He competed simultaneously against six UMBC players. Only one -- William "The Exterminator" Morrison, a self-taught legend and one-time chess hustler in New York City -- beat the master, but "it was a good experience," said Tarassova.

Tarassova said she has become accustomed to the stress of high-level chess. She was the first UMBC player to win a game against Harvard in a match won decisively by the Marylanders in the fall.

"I like to compete," she said.

A victory would be a good Christmas present, she added. Although friends entertained her Wednesday, the Russian Orthodox Christmas is Jan. 6.

The Pan Am Championships are open to the public. Senior master Craig Jones will comment on each of the top collegiate matches as the moves are telecast to a room adjacent to the hotel ballroom.

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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