Board of dreams

December 28, 2006

It's a major collegiate tournament complete with colorful play-by-play and an audience of rabid fans watching well-conditioned players use their skills to outwit and outmaneuver their opponents. But this isn't one of the many college football bowl games that so dominate the airwaves at this time of year. The play-by-play is delivered through headphones and the audience can be counted by the dozens rather than the thousands. This is the Pan-American chess tournament, one of the most prestigious collegiate championships, and the reigning champion, University of Maryland Baltimore County, which has won the tournament a record seven times, has been an admirable leader in recognizing and rewarding a different kind of scholar-athlete.

The four-day Pan-Am tournament is an inter-American contest that is often called the World Series of college chess. It consists of two main competitions - the intercollegiate team championship and the scholastic team championship - each involving four-person teams. After an exhibition match, the competition started yesterday with teams from schools such as Yale, Duke, Catholic University of Peru and the University of Texas at Dallas, another public university that is considered a chess powerhouse. Concern about overage players at UMBC a few years ago brought welcome rules setting a maximum age of 26 and minimum grade point average of 2.0 for tournament competitors.

UMBC offers chess scholarships up to about $70,000 in an effort to attract students who can not only win tournaments but will likely pursue science, technology, engineering or math, areas that are already highly prized on campus. Like athletes, the chess players must have innate ability and be creative enough to respond to the many exceptions and variations that come up in chess. They must have sufficient physical training and conditioning to sit for hours at a time concentrating on the board and contemplating their moves. And, like competitive athletes, they must have a strong will to win.

In 1996, when UMBC won its first Pan-Am competition, the campus celebrated with a pep rally and other festivities. We hope the campus has reason to break out the pom-poms again this weekend, but it has already succeeded in making a mind game an exciting sport.

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