Comeuppance for the Ivies

The Pan Am National collegiate chess tournament being held this year at the Renaissance Hotel in DC. The tourney will draw Harvard, Yale, Chicago, etc but favored to win, as usual, is UMBC which has risen to dominance. Anna Levina from Duke University concentrates on the game.
The Pan Am National collegiate chess tournament being held this year at the Renaissance Hotel in DC. The tourney will draw Harvard, Yale, Chicago, etc but favored to win, as usual, is UMBC which has risen to dominance. Anna Levina from Duke University concentrates on the game. (Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2006

It was still early in this week's competition at the downtown Washington hotel, and already the pecking order was taking shape.

The squads from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County thumped Yale and Northwestern in the first round and Harvard in the second. The University of Texas at Dallas trounced Emory. Miami Dade College clobbered New York University.

This is the arcane and cutthroat world of collegiate chess, which shakes up the newsmagazines' annual ranking of colleges. Over the past decade, a growing number of public colleges have developed major chess programs with paid coaches and scholarships worth more than $100,000 for star recruits, many from abroad, to burnish their academic reputations.

The result is an unlikely inversion of privilege and prestige. The Harvard and Yale teams scrape by on tiny budgets, with some players arriving in Washington in the discount Chinatown bus and staying in hostels or on friends' couches. Players from UMBC and other well-funded teams stay in the comfortable tournament hotel, wear sleek team jackets and blazers and, with only a hint of a smirk, take pleasure in laying low the Ivies.

"It's nice to tell your friends, 'We beat Harvard,' " said Chris Bechis, a UMBC player from Pennsylvania.

This little-seen world is on display -- and practically begging for spectators -- in the District until tomorrow, as UMBC hosts this year's Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship at the Renaissance Hotel on Mount Vernon Square. The competition is being held in the District for the first time in 60 years. Twenty-four teams of four players each, including teams from Canada and Peru, are vying for cash prizes, bragging rights and the chance to compete in the other annual collegiate event, in Dallas in March.

As collegiate competitions go, it's a long way from the raucous football bowl games played this weekend.

The 96 players, mostly men, are gathered in a windowless hotel meeting room called Congressional Hall, squaring off with their best poker faces across a dozen tables.

Cheerios and brownies are stacked beside them for sustenance in matches that run as long as four hours. Some listen to iPods. The top schools' coaches look on and exchange whispered asides in Eastern European accents. The cockier players get up to stroll about when it's not their turn, as if they don't need to focus on their own game. The only sound is the whir of the air conditioner and the clicks of players punching their time clocks after each move.

The room is thick with tension and intrigue, born partly of the controversy that has surrounded some of the more excessive recruiting practices. As recently as three years ago, several teams, particularly UMBC and UT Dallas, were paying full scholarships, plus cash stipends, to grandmasters as old as 40. Players had nominal course loads and took as long as eight years to graduate.

The overlords of collegiate chess introduced reforms, including a rule against grandmasters over age 25, a six-year limit on competing and a requirement that players maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.0 and at least a half-time course schedule. But UMBC and UT Dallas have stayed dominant by recruiting players from countries including Russia, Poland and India. UMBC's top two players are over 25, grandfathered in under the old rules.

Some players still think the game is rigged. "It's just buying players and championships, and that's not appropriate," said Johnny Sadoff, a Harvard student from Silver Spring.


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