UMBC student puts on her game face

Chess player ready to compete in Miami

December 27, 2003|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Nine days ago, Battsetseg Tsagaan was sitting in a cafe studying for her last exam. It was easy compared to the cramming she still faced for today's Pan American collegiate chess championship in Miami. Her jobs as a mom, student, teacher and wife leave little time for her talent as one of the top college chess players in the United States. Once, she had the luxury of preparing for a tournament for a month. Now she's happy to have had at least these last few days to get back into the swing of things.

Beginning this morning and for the next two days, Tsagaan, 31, and chess teammates at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County will defend their No. 1 status in the Pan Am. The UMBC team has won for six years, and if it takes the title again, the team achieves the vaunted status of winningest chess team in history.

Tsagaan's husband is minding the kids.

There was a time when her whole life was chess. Then she married, started a family, and began a university degree in a new language. Some days, interrupted by phone calls or by her children, she can study variations of chess moves with a computer for only an hour or so.

So, as soon as exams ended, she rushed to get back in shape. For starters, she promised herself she would spend part of every day in the gym, the very gym she paid good money for at the beginning of the semester but stopped using after two weeks. She runs and works out on machines, all to prepare for today's first match, which could last as long as eight hours.

"If you sit for a long time, you have to be in really good physical strength," she says. Running around for Christmas gifts for her sons, 8 and 10, doesn't count, but she fit that in anyway. Last week, she also found time to wrestle with her boys. "I owe them a lot - big time," she said, laughing. In her native Mongolia, steak is a popular food. Last week, Tsagaan turned to that diet to shore up energy. She also made sure to get eight hours' sleep. Most of her day, she worked on her opening repertoire.

Despite scant time to practice, she is ranked No. 11 among U.S. women by the U.S. Chess Federation, and her scores make her a national master. Her goal is to win the U.S. Chess Championship nine months from now. Last year, "I came so close," she says, and come summer, she will begin a preparation process that will last three months.

Competition is Tsagaan's middle name. At chess meets, they call her "the Mongolian Terror."

It's a name Tsagaan won in 1998 from her UMBC professor and chess program director, Alan Sherman, after he saw her play for the first time. She was uncomfortable with the moniker at first, she says, because it sounded so scary. An expressive, soft-spoken woman whose beauty is often noted in male-authored reports from chess tournaments, she, nonetheless, admits she is an aggressive player.

Some chess players make small moves and wait passively for their opponent to make a mistake. Not Tsagaan. She takes the initiative, and she goes into the game with a strategy. This is who she is in life, too.

Once she gets an idea, like introducing chess to young children in Howard County public schools, she wants to take it all the way. Her goal is to popularize chess in elementary schools, begin tournaments and mentor kids to become the best players in the country.

When driving on the highway, she will speed up to close any spaces between her car and the one in front of her. So far, she's avoided accidents, she said, knocking on the car steering wheel for good luck on a recent trip to campus.

In her family, she plays the bad cop, forcing the kids to turn off the TV and PlayStation in favor of homework.

Her dad was strict, too.

In Mongolia where Tsagaan was born in 1972, chess is as popular as baseball or basketball is here. Every day between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., the men in her small town gathered on benches outside their apartments to play the game. Her father took her along, and on his lap, she learned the game. At age 5, she began playing. Her dad cut her play time until she played a game with her coach every day. Quickly she became a local celebrity, with families putting up their best players against her, and then, a national phenomenon. By sixth grade, she had won the equivalent of the country's Olympics in chess. For seven years until she arrived in the United States, she was the undisputed women's chess champion of Mongolia and a household name there.

In a school for the gifted in the capital, she learned of a college in Orem, Utah, that recruited math students from Mongolia and applied for admission. She studied at Utah Valley State College for one year before she learned on a Web site of chess scholarships available at UMBC. This is her second year playing for UMBC and, until recently, there was no age restriction in the college competition.

She is still learning how to lose. As a child she fled to the bathroom after a loss so she could cry in private. For weeks afterward, she says, she would dream about moves she could have made.

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