Plotting their move to be a king

More than 200 to compete in four-day tournament billed as World Series of college chess

December 28, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Like a pair of prizefighters, Alexander Onischuk and Lev Milman parried and feinted, moving chess pieces across the checkered board in a flurry of black and white. Gradually, the pace slowed, as the contestants rubbed their brows and pondered while the clock ticked.

Then, on the 15th move, Onischuk surprised his opponent by pushing a black bishop across the board and taking a white knight. Bewildered, Milman played on a few more turns before conceding he'd been tricked by an unorthodox move.

So began the warm-up here for the Pan-American Chess Championships, a four-day tournament among more than 200 aficionados that organizers bill as the World Series of college chess. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County's vaunted chess team is the defending champion, and Onischuk, a 31-year-old senior, is the nation's top individual player.

"It's one of the most important tournaments of the year for the premier intellectual sport," said Alan Sherman, founder and faculty adviser of the university's chess club and an organizer of this year's tournament.

UMBC's team has won the Pan-Am title six times in the past seven years, but retaining it might be a little tougher this year. Onischuk, who is working on a degree in modern languages, is ineligible to compete because he's taking the semester off from his studies - to concentrate on his game.

"Ironically, his success will hurt the team, because he can't play with us this year," said Sherman, who is an associate professor of computer sciences at the Catonsville campus.

Still, Onischuk, who has been playing chess for about 20 years, demonstrated his prowess in exhibition games that preceded yesterday's opening round.

"I've never seen that bishop move before," said Milman, a Duke University student from Long Island, N.Y.

"It's a novelty move," said Onischuk, a native of Ukraine. "But it worked out well. I guess I should have kept it for a match, rather than an exhibition game."

Though Onischuk won't be able to test the move - which he learned from Russian chess legend Anatoly Karpov - in the tournament, his UMBC teammates aren't lacking in skill or in self-confidence. They sport nicknames you'd expect to find on a boxing or wrestling marquee.

Pawel Blehm is "The Polish Magician"; Bruci Lopez, "The Cuban Cyclone." Katerina Rohonyan, the women's champion in Ukraine in 2000, goes by "The Kiev Killer," while her teammate Beenish Bhatia answers to "The Indian Killer."

Fanciful names aside, the key to killer chess is, like in any sport, putting in hours of practice, said 22-year-old Rohonyan.

"Chess is an individual sport, so we have to train ourselves," she said, adding that she devotes at least a few hours each week to her mental conditioning. "Chess is very dynamic. It's an opportunity to create. It's like an art."

Part of the art is learning the strategies to stay one step ahead of an opponent, she said. She tries to keep the pieces she likes throughout the game, she said.

Lopez, whose cyclonic nickname describes his aggressive playing style, said for him it's all about planning and anticipating his opponent's moves.

"I think ahead a lot and predict what I think will happen next, " the 22-year-old said.

Already one of the world's most popular games, chess is expanding its appeal via computers and the Internet. This year's tournament, held in the Renaissance Hotel downtown, is trying new technology to broadcast the play to wider audiences.

During the exhibition games, players hunched over two electronic chessboards, which were hooked up to a computer. Moves were projected onto large screens so spectators could follow the moves. Making its debut at the tournament is a wireless electronic device that can broadcast chess moves over the Internet. Created by MonRoi Inc. of Montreal, the Professional Tournament Manager, as the PDA-like gadget is known, should enable spectators from all over the world to "see" the matches played out.

"This will be the first time a device like this has ever been used at the Pan-Am games," Sherman said. "It's going to be very exciting."

Collegiate teams vie for cash prizes from $250 to $2,000, with the top four teams moving on to the national tournament in March in Dallas. The top prize for the scholastic tournament pitting elementary and secondary students is a $69,416 scholarship to UMBC.

To follow the tournament, visit www.monroi.com or www.chessclub.com.

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