ANNAPOLIS – A Maryland college team won a national title a few days ago with aggressive moves, tough defense and a win over Duke.
But these players didn’t shoot baskets – they moved queens.
The chess team at the University of Maryland Baltimore County won its fourth national title in a row this year. The media may have focused on the University of Maryland’s women’s basketball team, which won a national title and an invite to the White House, but the UMBC chess program has been thriving with far less attention for far longer.
“I think it’s a shame that the media does not typically treat (chess) as a major sport,” said Alan Sherman, faculty director of the chess program at UMBC.
“(The media) treats it more as a curiosity…it’s an exciting spectator sport and should be treated as such.”
Tell that to the White House.
On Thursday, the men’s soccer, women’s field hockey and women’s basketball teams from the University of Maryland, College Park met with President Bush in the White House, along with athletic teams that won NCAA titles this and last year.
While UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III said the attention lavished on the College Park champions is “wonderful for all of us in system,” he proudly displays the chess tournament trophies outside his office. UMBC, he said, emphasizes “intellectual sports.”
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich displayed a basketball jersey signed by the women’s team outside of the governor’s reception room this week. UMBC officials say as far as they know, the governor’s office hadn’t extended any congratulations to the chess champions.
The team members are not just champions – they’re chess royalty. The University of Texas at Dallas, which UMBC beat in the final round of this year’s competition in Dallas, won the first two titles President’s Cup tournaments, which began in 2000. UMBC has won the last four President Cup’s in a row.
In collegiate chess, the Texas team’s rivalry with UMBC is as fierce as the one between Maryland and Duke in basketball.
Chess at this level and collegiate sports share more than just heated rivalries. College chess has recruiting wars, impressive scholarships and even a flicker of controversy.
Starting last year, the United States Chess Federation, the NCAA of collegiate chess, instituted player eligibility rules to quell suspicions that colleges were getting older, experienced players to sign up for only a few classes to compete. Jerry Nash, scholastic director for the United States Chess Federation, compared this to a college football team enrolling a NFL player.
Players have to be younger than 26 to play and must be full-time students. Students enrolled before the change were grandfathered in.
To Sherman, there is no doubt chess should be considered a sport. Competitors have to be in “top sport shape,” he said, noting the best players run or swim to build endurance for six-hour games.
Not only is chess physically draining, it’s mentally and emotionally stressful, players say. The two-day President’s Cup tournament had the down-to-the-buzzer drama of the women’s championship thriller – without the post-game student riots.
In the final match Sunday, April 2, against archrival the University of Texas at Dallas, the third match of the series, team member Bruci Lopez’s game, was “really tense,” said Pawel Blehm, a 26-year-old teammate.
Blehm is a UMBC senior from Poland who is an international chess grandmaster – a sort of Most Valuable Player recognition in chess.
“A few minutes before the end of the game, it was unclear whether…he (Lopez) was going to win or lose,” Blehm recalled. He noted that after Lopez won his match, UMBC had enough points from the previous day’s wins over Miami Dade and Duke to secure the national title.
Like college basketball’s March Madness, college chess has its Final Four. The United States Chess Federation invites the top four college teams from the Pan-American Chess Championship to compete in the President’s Cup.
Although UMBC is a decidedly dominate force in college chess, they were a bit of an underdog this year.
“We were going there without our best,” Blehm said. The best for UMBC is Alexander Onischuk, the current national chess champion. He was in Siberia playing in another tournament.
So, Blehm played first in the tournament. Blehm had been recruited by both UMBC and Texas at a tournament in Turkey in 2000, he said. He chose UMBC because they “made an offer that was better”: He is a UMBC Coca-Cola chess fellow, he said, meaning he was awarded full tuition and a $15,000 housing stipend.
College scholarships for chess are typical at top-ranking colleges – and encouraged by the chess federation, said Joan DuBois, director of communications for the United States Chess Federation.
Sherman said when he took over the program in the early 1990s, he had to “aggressively send letters and call people up.”
Now, top players from Canada to China call him, Sherman said. Lopez made one of those calls, he noted. Lopez transferred from Miami Dade.
Hrabowski said he received congratulatory e-mails from chess fans and families from around the globe. But this doesn’t mean the chess team doesn’t have its fair share of admirers in Maryland: During the Board of Regents meeting Friday, Chancellor William E. Kirwan congratulated the team during his opening remarks and Sen. Ulysses Currie, D – Prince George’s, a former educator, is a constant supporter, Hrabowski noted.
UMBC coach Igor Epshteyn said the team does receive a lot of attention in other countries that consider chess a sport and that UMBC is very supportive. Hrabowski said he plans on organizing some sort of event to celebrate the win. Blehm acknowledges that chess team members are “not the center of attention” at UMBC. But, he adds, “it’s not that we are actually looking for it, really.”