UMBC chess takes its place as a dynasty

December 31, 2005|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

In basketball it's UCLA. In hockey it's Michigan. In baseball it's Southern Cal.

And now in chess, the dynasty, the champion of champions, is the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The Retrievers earned a place in history yesterday by winning the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship in Miami - the "World Series" of college chess - for a record-breaking seventh time.

It's no small feat in a tournament that dates to 1946 and includes the likes of Harvard, Yale and Stanford.

"It would be very difficult to have this same kind of run by a sports team at any level," said Jerry Nash of the U.S. Chess Federation, the tournament organizer. "And especially when the competition is as fierce. This is the premier event - not just for the U.S., but for Canada and the Americas."

The championship was the first for UMBC since the school was part of a controversy over player eligibility that helped accelerate collegiate chess reforms in 2003.

Alex Sherzer, then a 32-year-old UMBC player, made national headlines that May when he was arrested in Alabama on charges of trying to meet a 15-year-old girl for sex. He was acquitted of the charges, but the story brought national attention to overage chess players.

Sherzer's teammates at UMBC included a 40-year-old grandmaster and a 43-year-old former chess hustler from New York.

Under rules that went into effect last year, players must maintain a 2.0 grade point average and take at least two classes in the semester when a tournament is held. They can be no older than 26 and can compete for no more than six years, though there is a loophole that allows the Retrievers to field Alex "the Invincible" Onischuk, a 30-year-old international grandmaster who is ranked No. 65 in the world. The age limit does not apply to him and other players who competed before the new rules were implemented, said Alan T. Sherman, the director of UMBC's chess program.

None of the other UMBC players is older than 26, Sherman said.

The Retrievers were so dominant in the first three days of play that by the final round yesterday they had clinched at least a share of the title. They played to a draw with host Miami Dade College to finish with 5.5 team points, winning the trophy and $1,000 prize.

Among the highlights for the Retrievers were victories over two-time defending champion University of Texas at Dallas and a sweep of Harvard. UMBC had finished second to Texas-Dallas the previous two years at the Pan-Am tournament after winning the previous five tournaments.

"That always sort of feels good, to beat a school like Harvard," said Pascal "the Frenchman" Charbonneau, a senior from Montreal. "For UMBC that's the thing: We don't have a football team, but we have a chess team. It's sort of a pride for the school, and we're very happy to be a part of that."

"It's changed things for the better," said Charbonneau, 22, who is majoring in finance economics. "Chess is not very different from other sports and games. And to have a rule that people should be under 26 years old is only natural. I think we all sort of welcome that change, because otherwise it sort of becomes kind of strange to have older people competing."

The members of the school's formidable "A" team have nicknames as striking as their chess credentials: Pawel "the Polish Magician" Blehm and alternate Katerina "the Kiev Killer" Rohonyan are international grandmasters; Bruci "the Cuban Cyclone" Lopez is a master.

UMBC, which has had a chess team since at least the 1960s, was not a powerhouse until Sherman joined the program in 1991. The Retrievers finished next to last of 27 teams at the tournament that year.

Then, in 1995, UMBC began offering scholarships, and the next year the team won its first title. Beginning in 1998, the school captured five consecutive championships, including a shared title in 2000.

UMBC fields three teams and has players from Ukraine, Poland, Canada and Afghanistan. About eight competitors have scholarships, Sherman said.

The Retrievers topped 29 teams to win this week's tournament, but Sherman said it didn't compare to the team's first triumph in 1996.

"Since then, we have a new set of challenges, the challenge of staying on top," Sherman said. "When you get in second place, which is actually an incredible accomplishment, people think that you've failed. It's a whole different world once you've won."

UMBC will be the host school of next year's Pan-Am tournament in Washington, D.C.

"Between UMBC and UT-Dallas, they're the two powerhouses of collegiate chess in the country," said Nash, of the Chess Federation. "Third place is fairly distant."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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