Fellowship in hand, UMBC chess champ considers next move

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 focus solely on his game: Recipients are not permitted to attend college while they hold the fellowships.

"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.

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.

"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. ... I hadn't studied serious chess for a while. Now I know what I have to do."

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. ... Here, they're just saying, `Here's the money, go!'" he said. "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."

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