At UMBC, chess is king

With queens and bishops, they rule the Final Four

April 05, 2008|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

As the Down and Dirty Dawg pep band blared Michael Jackson's Thriller and the theme to Hawaii Five-O, scores of University of Maryland, Baltimore County students marveled at the scene unfolding in the student commons, complete with cheerleaders, the school mascot, the school dance team and a chess set with pieces 6 feet tall.

"Are we allowed to play with those?" asked UMBC sophomore Rupa Patel of Annapolis, as classmates posed for cell-phone photos with the oversized pieces and hoisted them from square to square as if staging an impromptu game.

"Only at UMBC, I guess," said freshman Kat Patterson of Silver Spring.

Her words were echoed by many who attended the chess pep rally earlier this week, arranged to stoke enthusiasm as the school prepared to host the President's Cup today and tomorrow - the Final Four of college chess.

Last month, the school got swept up in its first-ever run to the NCAA men's basketball tournament, but that was an anomaly. At UMBC, chess has long been king. It has won four President's Cups since the event began in 2001. The game is woven into the identity of the Catonsville school, part of its aim to be viewed as a place where development of the mind takes priority over other pursuits.

To that end, UMBC has taken uncanny measures to raise the chess club's profile, such as becoming one of the first universities in the nation to offer chess scholarships - up to full tuition plus a $15,000 annual housing stipend. The scholarships, said junior Elizabeth Kurdirka of Ellicott City, "make me wish I knew how to play."

"UMBC is a vibrant place for smart people who value activities of the mind, and chess is an exciting spectator sport," said UMBC chess director Alan T. Sherman. In the late 1980s, he and other school officials sought to bolster the school's academic reputation by making chess its staple.

The institution took criticism several years ago for enrolling much older students who appeared to have come primarily to play chess, echoing recruitment issues that have troubled other schools for their big-ticket basketball and football programs.

The U.S. Chess Federation requires that all college chess players take a minimum of two courses each semester and maintain a 2.0 average. Also, undergraduate players must be younger than 26 years old and graduate-student players must be younger than 30 by Sept. 1 of the academic year. UMBC players must maintain a 3.0 grade-point average and conduct 100 hours of community service per year, which includes teaching chess at nearby schools.

"The age limit and the tightening of eligibility requirements never affected us," Sherman said. "All of our players are full-time students in degree programs, and they're all solid students."

The President's Cup draws the top four American teams from the sport's other major collegiate competition, the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship in December. This weekend's match features UMBC, Miami Dade College, New York University and the University of Texas at Dallas, this year's Pan-Am champion. Two years ago, UMBC hosted the Pan-Am event in Washington.

Sam Palatnik, UMBC chess associate director and an international grand master, will provide move-by-move commentary during the tournament. It will be broadcast on Internet Chess Club and Monroi, a wireless technology that enables chess matches to be viewed from the Internet.

UT-Dallas also plans to broadcast the matches to its campus with its own commentary. "[Chess] gets more attention than anything else on our campus," said Jim Stallings, director of the chess program at UT-Dallas.

At the UMBC campus on Wednesday, the oversized pieces were used in a blindfolded chess match between two members of the university's chess club - senior Katerina "The Kiev Killer" Rohonyan of the Ukraine and sophomore Timur "The Uzebekdragon" Gareev of Uzbekistan.

Sherman came up with the idea of giving players outlandish monikers.

"Intimidation is an effective strategy for psychological warfare against an opponent," he said. "Plus, it makes it more fun for the spectators."

About 200 people watched the match, with students and staff members helping to move the giant pieces. On several occasions, one player offered to call the match a draw, prompting students to yell, "No, don't draw!"

"That's why I kept playing," Rohonyan explained. "The public wanted me to keep playing. They wanted more emotions and more fight."

Rohonyan and Gareev also attended the campus pep rally Thursday with teammates Sergey "The Stealth" Erenburg, a freshman from Israel, and Pawel "The Polish Magician" Blehm, a master's degree student from Poland.

"We're really quirky, and we take a lot of pride in our chess team," said sophomore Josh Michael of Ellicott City, director of community governmental affairs. "This year, we've had a lot of success in basketball, but we've also had success in chess."

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