At UMBC, masters of collegiate chess 'Big machine' rolls to national title on strong-minded play

December 30, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

The rise from doormat to dominance is complete.

For the second time in three years, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is the champion of collegiate chess.

"Everyone was fearful of playing the UMBC team," said team faculty adviser Alan Sherman of the four-day Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship. "We were like this big machine rolling through without a hitch. We just wiped everyone out."

Overjoyed UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski said the victory gave him "goose pimples."

"I've got this big smile on my face," Hrabowski said. "We want to make Baltimore the hotbed, the capital of chess."

The team strong-minded its way through its first five opponents so that by the time it reached the final obstacle yesterday -- host University of Texas at Dallas -- UMBC was assured of at least a tie for first place.

The only bump in the road came early, when Catholic University of Peru took one game in its four-game match.

"After that, we were like a runaway locomotive," said Senior Master William Morrison of Baltimore.

For Sherman, the computer science professor who became faculty adviser in 1991, success is sweet.

In 1990, the school placed 26th out of 27 teams at the Pan-Ams. Three years later, it rose to third. UMBC took first place in 1996 and third place last year.

Between "the bottom of the barrel" and the top, Sherman said, was a recruiting drive that would make a Division I football or basketball team proud.

Sherman sent letters to more than 200 prospects after reviewing the U.S. Chess Federation listings for the top 100 finishers in the national high school championships and the chess rankings for every high school senior rated at the "expert" level.

He even placed a classified ad in Chess Life magazine: "Chess Players/Scholars Wanted."

The personal touch worked. UMBC began recruiting students such as Sri Lankan chess champion Ishan Weerakoon, International Grand Master Ilya Smirin and Morrison.

In 1994, Igor Epshteyn, the former coach of the Olympic Reserve Team and the Junior Belarussian Team, agreed to take a similar job at UMBC.

The standards for a full UMBC scholarship player are high: graduate in the top 10 percent of your class; score more than 1,400 on the SATs; attain expert level.

Players gather on Saturday mornings for three hours of team practice and individual study. And they jog.

"Champion-level chess requires good preparation, good nerves and good physical condition. Sitting through a grueling six-hour match takes good aerobic conditioning," Sherman said.

This year's team includes three International Grand Masters: Tal Shaked, who is the world junior champion; Florin Felecan Jr.; and Eugene Perelshteyn, as well as Senior Master Erez Klein.

UMBC brings home "a huge trophy" and a $1,000 prize, said Sherman, who was honored as the tournament's top faculty adviser.

But it also is bringing home something that Hrabowski believes will help the school recruit and keep great students.

Beating Stanford, New York University and the University of Chicago, as UMBC did, "allows us to make a statement about what is important to us -- thinking and problem solving," Hrabowski said.

"Our success in chess reflects our success in academics," he said. "On the UMBC campus, it's great to be smart."

Hrabowski said after the 1996 championship he received e-mail from around the world inquiring about UMBC's chess scholarships and entrance requirements.

Morrison, nicknamed "The Exterminator" for his take-no-prisoners style, was happy for what the second championship means for UMBC, but he also hoped it would lead to a chess teaching and coaching job in Baltimore.

The New York City chess legend, who made money as a teen-ager hustling chess matches in Washington Square, said he is working to keep UMBC chess a powerhouse through his 3-year-old son, Jonathan, and 8-year-old daughter, Destiny.

"Jonathan already knows all the pieces on the board," Morrison said. "He's going to be Exterminator II, the next generation."

Pub Date: 12/30/98

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