Now, other schools are one-upping the king of college chess, raising the specter of the sort of arms race that plagues other college sports. Last year, Webster University in St. Louis recruited Texas Tech’s diva coach, whose team of grandmasters followed along. This weekend in Rockville, at the Final Four of college chess, UMBC will be competing, but its longtime chess director suspects that his team will lose — dominant no more in a world it created.
“Anything can happen, because it’s a competition,” said Alan Sherman, UMBC’s chess director. “But I’m predicting Webster will be the clear winner.”
His statement is striking not only because coaches rarely forecast an opponent’s victory, but also because of the man behind the prediction. Sherman, a UMBC professor and cryptology expert, single-handedly built the school’s program from scratch in the early 1990s, a product, he once wrote, of “serendipity, determination, organization, recruiting, coaching, coordination, vision, perseverance, teamwork, and good fortune.”
Molding the team in his spare time, Sherman’s dominance unfolded over several years. From 1996 to 2002, UMBC finished first or tied for first in six Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships, the tournament that produces the top Final Four U.S. college teams.
Its chess prowess helped raise the profile of the 13,000-student university, located on a 500-acre campus just outside of Baltimore. Ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the country’s top “up-and-coming” university, UMBC is now a math and science powerhouse whose president was profiled on “60 Minutes” in 2011.
But its chess team became, in Sherman’s words, “a declared fixed target, the team to beat.” Others offered more scholarships, hired full-time staffs and spent money on worldwide recruiting.
The University of Texas at Dallas, also playing this weekend, was the first imitator, then the University of Texas at Brownsville, then Texas Tech and now Webster. Tiny Lindenwood University, in St. Charles, Mo., issued a breathless news release last year saying the school was “putting out a call for some of the finest young chess players in America and abroad. And the university is willing to provide scholarship money to build the nation’s top collegiate chess program.”
After winning four straight Final Fours in the mid-2000s, UMBC has won just two since 2007. “If it continues this way, more and more universities will get stronger and stronger,” said Giorgi Margvelashvili, a grandmaster from Georgia and UMBC’s top player. “For now, I think other universities are doing a better job than UMBC.”