Fear the Retriever

April 08, 2003

DID THE basketball playoffs lose their spark after Maryland's Terrapins washed out? Is it time for a break from competition that seems too much about speed and strength and too little about strategy?

If so, then "The Surgeon," "The Frenchman," "The Polish Magician" and "The Invincible" have just the spectator sport for you: championship chess. Become a fan in time to celebrate with the new hometown champs.

Bearing the monikers of professional wrestlers, members of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers won the "Final Four" of intercollegiate chess Sunday with a three-zip match score over defending champs and longtime rivals the University of Texas at Dallas.

It came as no shock in the chess world that the UMBC team should triumph. The Retrievers have repeatedly won honors in other national and international competitions.

But Sunday's victory makes them the undisputed college champions, and represents the sweetest victory in a "revenge of the nerds" campaign that has won global recognition for the once-sleepy Catonsville campus.

In large measure, the victory belongs to UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who took over a suburban commuter college a decade ago and turned it into a top-rank research institution that attracts students from all over the world.

If chess seems geeky to hoops fans from College Park who wouldn't know a rook from a pawn, that's the image Mr. Hrabowski was going for: At UMBC, it's cool to be smart, and the smartest students - even with names like "The Exterminator" and "The "Maryland Mauler" - are the heroes.

Championship chess is not for wimps, even on the spectator side. One game can last up to six hours - with no screaming, no cheers, no noise at all that might break the players' concentration.

Nor does the Retrievers' victory bring lucrative rewards - no professional contracts or endorsement deals. Just a small, silver-plated loving cup - and bragging rights.

But there's plenty to brag about.


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