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Comeuppance for the Ivies
In D.C., College Chess's Genteel Assassins Duel

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.

"They should be legitimate students."

The heads of the well-funded programs defend their efforts, arguing that the scholarships reward intellectual achievement and that the recruits help to build interest in chess on and off campus. "I would like to encourage more schools to have more chess programs and not reduce what we have," said UT Dallas's program director, James Stallings.

That said, the directors openly relish their victories. UT Dallas's Yugoslav-born coach, Rade Milovanovic, had been in the United States only a year when the team won some of its first big matches in 1999. "The director told me, 'The [college] president is extremely satisfied we beat Harvard and Yale.' I don't understand this at the time, but later I understand it when I knew more about college life here," he said.

For all the perks at the flush programs, not all promising players leap at the scholarships, figuring that they are better off getting the most prestigious degrees they can since few can make a living from chess.

This was evident at a second tournament at the hotel this week, for younger players. The winner gets a nearly full-tuition scholarship from UMBC.

As they paced the hallway, the parents of Yang Dai, a 13-year-old from Fairfax County and the fourth-ranked of 24 players competing, said that the prize would be an "honor" but that they doubt their daughter would want to attend UMBC. A few hours later, the ponytailed Yang knocked off a 17-year-old rival.

At the collegiate contest, another clash was looming in the week's final rounds between UT Dallas and UMBC. UMBC's director, Alan Sherman, conceded that UT Dallas looked stronger this time. But come March, he'd have back his best player, a grandmaster who took time off to advise Veselin Topalov, one of the two contestants in the recent world championship match in Russia.

And Sherman will have a new hot prospect on board: Sergey Erenburg, a 23-year-old recently recruited on full scholarship from Israel. "It's new blood," Sherman said.

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