Without 3 stars, winning streak ends for UMBC chess team

Top players' eligibility has been questioned

December 31, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County chess team went to Miami without three over-aged stars - and left without the trophy.

After shedding the three players, whose eligibility was under scrutiny, UMBC's elite chess team lost the top collegiate tournament yesterday for the first time in seven years. UMBC finished second at the Pan American collegiate chess championship to its arch rival, the University of Texas at Dallas.

UMBC, which has gained widespread recognition for its chess exploits, had won the four-day tournament six years in a row, including two ties for first with UT-Dallas. A win this year would have given UMBC the most Pan-Am wins ever by a college team.

The team's adviser, Alan Sherman, said the loss was the result of superior playing by UT-Dallas and was unrelated to the absence of the three standouts from last year's team whose eligibility had been questioned.

"We were favored to win, and Dallas beat us, and congratulations to them for a well-deserved victory," said Sherman, who followed the tournament from Washington so that he could be with his newborn child.

"They just happened to play better," Sherman said.

This week's tournament was the first since a controversy over player eligibility shook the usually placid world of collegiate chess.

When Alex Sherzer, a 32-year-old UMBC player, made headlines in May with his arrest on sex charges in Alabama, it drew national attention to the growing dominance of over-aged ringers in college chess. What was a 32-year-old former medical student - who also happened to be a chess grandmaster - doing playing as a UMBC undergraduate?

In addition to Sherzer, UMBC's team included 40-year-old grandmaster Alex Wojtkiewicz, who has won the U.S. chess "Grand Prix" four years running, and Willie Morrison, a 43-year-old former chess hustler in New York's Washington Square Park who had played at UMBC for eight years. None of the three is on the team now.

UT-Dallas, which like UMBC offers full scholarships to chess grandmasters, has also recruited players who don't fit the mold of traditional college students. UT-Dallas lost its best player, 28-year-old Yury Schulman, to graduation this year but has not cut any players for eligibility violations.

Attention to chess ringers, publicized in articles in The Sun and other newspapers, accelerated reforms that had been under discussion for several years.

Under new rules approved by the U.S. Chess Federation, players are permitted to compete for no more than six years, must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average and must take at least two classes in the semester when a tournament is held.

Most notably, starting next year, an age limit of 26 will apply to players who have achieved the status of grandmaster or the next step down, international master. That provision, which won't apply to current players, was designed to address the objection that age limits exclude true amateurs who attend college or graduate school at older ages.

The new rules made their presence felt at this week's event. Morrison, UMBC's eight-year veteran, had been on the team too long to continue to compete.

The team was also without its two grandmasters, both older than 30, from last year's championship team.

Over the summer, UMBC stripped Wojtkiewicz of his full scholarship and $15,000 housing stipend because his grades had dipped below 3.0, a requirement of his scholarship. He has left UMBC.

Sherzer was acquitted in September of charges of trying to meet a 15-year-old girl for sex after communicating with her on the Internet. He, too, has left UMBC without graduating and is working for a chess organization in Washington.

As a result, the 12-person team UMBC took to Miami was younger than last year's championship crew.

Battsetseg Tsagaan, the former women's chess champion in Mongolia, is 31 and will soon finish studies for a computer science and math degree. The team's top player, grandmaster Alex Onischuk, is 28, but most other players are in their late teens or early 20s.

Sherman said the departure of the team's older players and its embrace of the new rules shows UMBC is committed to fair competition and the importance of academics. He dismissed any suggestion that the loss of the older players had led to the loss, saying the team might be better now.

The UT-Dallas adviser, Timothy P. Redman, agreed with Sherman's assessment, saying UMBC lost largely because of its decision not to bring alternates to Miami. Some of UMBC's top players appeared to be worn out by the time the two schools played each other in the decisive fifth round Monday night, he said.

In that round, the only one UMBC lost, UT-Dallas grandmaster Marcin Kaminski managed to draw UMBC's Onischuk, even though Onischuk, ranked the second-best player in the nation, is rated 225 points higher. Meanwhile, a UT-Dallas player from Zambia, Amon Simutowe, beat one of UMBC's rising young stars, Canadian Pascal Charbonneau.

Yuri Ashuev, a former player for the University of Chicago, said last night that it was hard to believe that the absence of UMBC's older standouts had not affected the team. "If you lose two grandmasters, there's no question the team is weakened," he said.

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