UMBC chess champion considers his next move

He's won fellowship for top U.S. youth

January 18, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Eugene Perelshteyn's itinerary these days is one most college students would covet: the French Riviera, Bavaria, Seattle, Bermuda -- all of it on someone else's dime.

The envy might fade, though, upon learning that most of Perelshteyn's time on his travels is spent within arm's length of a chessboard.

Perelshteyn, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is this year's recipient of the Samford Fellowship, awarded annually by the American Chess Foundation to the top young chess player in the country. The fellowship provides $32,000 a year for two years to cover the cost of top-tier chess-coaching and travel to world-class tournaments.

Most students seek scholarships so they can attend college. For Perelshteyn, the great thing about the fellowship is that it lets him get away from school and focus solely on his game. One requirement of the fellowship is that its recipient not attend college for the duration.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for an aspiring chess player to devote his life to chess during the crucial years," said Alan T. Sherman, faculty adviser of the UMBC chess team, which last month won its fourth consecutive U.S. collegiate championship. "It's a chance for someone to see how high a mark they can make for themselves in the world of professional chess."

Not long ago, Perelshteyn was living the life of a typical college student, taking computer science classes and hanging out with his teammates at the Catonsville campus.

Now, his schedule resembles that of a tennis pro or rock star -- except he travels with a chessboard and clock instead of a racket or guitar. Last year, he spent time at a tournament in Germany, and in France to study with legendary coach Iossif Dorfman -- among other places.

"I went to see him, and he showed me my mistakes," Perelshteyn said this week from his parents' home in Massachusetts, where he stays between tournaments and studies the latest matches from around the world. "I've learned a lot," he adds. "Before, I never really knew what I had to study, how I could improve, because I hadn't studied serious chess for a while. Now I know what I have to do."

Path to grandmaster status

This month, he was in Seattle for the U.S. Chess Championship, where he finished in the second quartile in a field of 56 -- most of them older professionals. This weekend, he's off to a tournament in Bermuda, where he hopes to earn the first of the three points he needs to qualify as a grandmaster.

For Perelshteyn, the freedom to roam the world playing chess is a dream come true, but it also calls for a level of self-discipline that the more structured world of college doesn't require.

"It's not like there's some kind of strict schedule that says where I have to be or play, where there's someone checking on me. Here, they're just saying, `Here's the money, go!'" said Perelshteyn. "You have to struggle on your own. If you have a good tournament, it can be bad for you, because it means when you have to study chess, you say, `Oh, I'm good, I don't have to study.' It's not easy."

Not that Perelshteyn is completely glued to the chessboard on his travels. Unlike many players, he makes sure to take some breaks. "Your game could last six hours, and afterward you analyze it with other players," he said. "But I consider that if I study too much before games, it's only bad, because you need a fresh head. I relax at the beach, though I'm careful not to get too much sun."

`A difficult crossroads'

The son of a professional chess coach, Perelshteyn started playing at age 8 in the town outside Kursk, Russia, where his family lived before moving to the United States eight years ago. He won a chess scholarship to UMBC and was the U.S. Junior Chess Champion in 2000. He is captain of the team at UMBC, where chess players enjoy sports-hero status for their repeated national championships.

Perelshteyn is the first UMBC player to win the Samford while at school (two UMBC players won it after they graduated). Luckily for the team, the fellowship has not kept him from playing on the team: He was granted permission from Samford officials to take one online course last semester so he could play at the college tourney.

Chances are, Perelshteyn will be back at UMBC in two years to complete his computer science degree. Making a living from chess is extremely difficult -- especially in the United States, which lacks the professional chess clubs common in Europe -- and Perelshteyn knows (as his parents have been warning him) that he might have to get a regular job down the line.

"Players like him are at a difficult crossroads, because there are a limited number of years where you can be at your prime," Sherman said. "He still has a long way to go to make it at the world level. But I understand his desire to see how far he can go."

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