At college chess’s Final Four, once-dominant UMBC is now the underdog

As the NCAA Tournament comes to a close, so does another competition — the Final Four of College Chess. Four university chess teams will travel to Washington to compete in the ultimate chess championship. (iNet - UMBC’s Digital Signage Studio/iNet - UMBC's Digital Signage Studio)

In the cutthroat world of college chess, University of Maryland Baltimore County was once as dominant as Duke in basketball or Alabama in football.

UMBC was the first school to institutionalize scholarships for top players, recruiting grandmasters from Russia, Germany, Israel and beyond. The playbook worked, enabling a school few had heard of outside Maryland to rack up six “Final Four” championships and build a reputation as an intellectual powerhouse on the cheap.

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.”


The UMBC 2012 Pan-Am chess team, front row, from left; Sam Palatnik, associate director of the program; Alan Sherman, director; Igor Epshteyn, coach. Back row: team members Adithya Balasubramanian, Sabina Foisor, Giorgi Margvelashvili, Sasha Kaplan, Nazi Paikidze and Niclas Huschenbeth. (Marlayna Demond/University of Maryland Baltimore County)

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.”

A superstar coach

The ambitions of UMBC imitators made national news last year after an unprecedented event in college — or even professional — competition. After winning two consecutive Final Fours at Texas Tech, coach Susan Polgar, the first woman to earn the men’s grandmaster title, resigned from the school and signed on with Webster. Her players followed — their own decision, she said.

Polgar, recently the subject of a profile in Wired magazine, is an assertive, controversial figure in chess. In 2010, she settled a long-running legal battle with the U.S. Chess Federation, which resulted in her membership being revoked.

Polgar likes to win, and she frequently does, with four world championships on her résumé. So intense is her desire to dominate the chess world that she even instructs her players to exercise at the school gym. Physical strength, she said, gives the mind endurance for long matches.

Asked why she left Texas Tech, Polgar said, “We were hoping to get more support for our program, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.” Asked how people in the chess world view her, Polgar said as someone who “revolutionized college chess in recent years.” Webster is clearly protective of her, too. A public relations official for the school listened in on a phone interview.

Sherman had this to say about his rival: “She’s done a remarkable job in recruiting, but many people have a rather low view of some of her tactics.”

Is she a maligned figure like Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, known as A-Rod to friends and foes? “Well, I don’t know who A-Rod is, so I can’t comment on the analogy,” Sherman said. (To be fair, it’s unlikely A-Rod knows who Sherman is.)

Administrators at Webster said they viewed landing Polgar as a unique opportunity to strengthen the school’s academic reputation and forge a path, as Provost Julian Schuster put it, “to incorporate chess as a didactic tool in the academic mission of the university.” It’s not about winning, he added, so much as celebrating an intellectual activity that brings brilliant, diverse students to campus.

“But we prefer winning to other options,” he said.

‘The Mongolian Terror’

UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III has a similar philosophy when it comes to celebrating an activity of the mind. “We’re sending the message that educated people should be focusing attention on how to think critically,” he said. “That’s what it means to be educated.”

UMBC offers a variety of scholarships for players, including chess fellows funded by the school’s campus soda contract with Pepsi, which includes full tuition and a $15,000-per-year food and housing stipend. Team members often choose goofy nicknames that make them sound like professional wrestlers: “The Mongolian Terror” and “The Polish Magician,” for example.

Four UMBC chess fellows are playing in the tournament this weekend, to be held at the office of corporate sponsor Booz Allen Hamilton at 1 Preserve Pkwy. It is open to the public. Two players are grandmasters: Margvelashvili, a senior majoring in economics, and Niclas “The Dark Knight” Huschenbeth, a freshman psychology major from Germany.

The other two players are women’s grandmasters with less-lofty ratings: Nazi Paikidze, a freshman psychology-economics major from the nation of Georgia, and Sabina “Sunshine” Foisor, a Romanian graduate student. The alternate is Adithya “The Smasher” Balasubramanian, the former Virginia state champion.

Webster’s four players this weekend are all on full scholarships, as are two alternates. All six players are grandmasters. Fielding so many grandmasters is an advantage because Webster can vary its lineup to better dominate opponents in the Final Four. Polgar works full time on the team, spending hours studying old games of opposing players and preparing strategy.

“I think Webster just decided they wanted to win and if they invested more money, they could just outdo the others,” Sherman said. “They have the strongest team in the history of college chess. Unlike the UMBC model, where we ramped up over a period of five years, they bought their team in a year.”

Chess teams should be careful not to get carried away, said Richard Vedder, an Ohio University professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. “This is a low-cost way of getting good PR for a school, and it’s in keeping with the intellectual agenda of universities,” Vedder said. “But the other side of me worries that this might become a chess arms race like an athletic arms race, though the numbers are somewhat smaller.”

Sherman is sensitive to a potential arms race, too: “There’s a danger in each school spending more money and not getting any better.”

Still, he has pushed UMBC for more funding, including another scholarship, and a full-time coach and director. So far, UMBC isn’t budging, even as it displays slick videos of its chess team around campus to pump up students for the Final Four.

“I think it’s great what we have helped generate for chess in America, because we as a nation need to be more serious about teaching students to think more critically,” said Hrabowski, UMBC’s president. “However, our guiding principle will be one of balance. We don’t have to be dominant to be very good.”

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post?s local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.
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